My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Your Happiness Project: Abandon Your Self-Control.

SelfcontrolI’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One challenge about keeping my happiness-project resolutions is that it takes a lot of self-control. “No nagging,” “No fake food,” “Exercise better,” “Sing in the morning”…so many of my resolutions require me to control myself.

Relying on will power is very hard – so whenever possible, I abandon it. Instead of resisting temptation, I avoid it entirely.

Studies indicate that we have a limited amount of self-control, and it can be depleted. If you use a lot of self-control at work to resist the urge to yell at a co-worker, it might be harder to push yourself to go for a run when you get home.

So, because self-control is a precious resource, try to use it as little as possible. Look for ways to engineer situations so they don’t test your will power at all.

If you don’t want to get into the ice cream, don’t buy ice cream. If your family insists on having dessert, buy a dessert you don’t like much. If you have to buy ice cream, tie it up in a bag so it’s a pain to open and so you don’t see the enticing tub when you open the freezer. Maybe you’ll even forget it’s in there.

If you don’t want to spend money, don’t go into stores. If you don’t want to add to your credit card debt, leave your credit card in your sock drawer. If you have to shop, take a list and go by yourself. If you don’t want to get drunk, don’t meet your friends in a bar. If you don’t want to spend your Sunday morning sleeping, put your alarm clock across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off.

Sometimes the easiest way to abandon self-control is to give something up altogether. Like Samuel Johnson, who said, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult,” I find it much easier to abstain rather than to indulge moderately. When you NEVER do something, it doesn’t take self-control; when you do something SOMETIMES, it takes huge self-control.

Examine the occasions for your self-control. Maybe you need to re-think them entirely. For example, my weight-training instructor told me about a client who was trying to lose weight, who said, “Can’t I have a single-serving bag of potato chips each day? After all, what am I going to eat when my kids are having their potato chips after school?” Her answer: “Your kids should be eating something else, too!” Instead of trying to resist ordering fries with your burger, maybe you should stop eating at McDonald’s.

Another reason to abandon self-control is that – at least in my case – just thinking about self-control tends to weaken it. If I think, “Congratulations, Gretchen, what good self-control with not buying Tasti D-Lite!” the next thing I know, I’m buying three mini Tootsie-Rolls. This happens to a lot of people when they try to economize: they’re so pleased with themselves for looking for the best buy on tuna fish that they splurge by buying a DVD. Not an efficient outcome!

Try to avoid situations that test your self-control. Instead of exercising will-power, forget about it.

Have you found any good strategies for maximizing your self-control? Self-discipline, I think, is one of the KEYS to happiness; it shows up in many different ways, and not always in the way that you’d expect.

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Several thoughtful readers sent me the link to the interesting New York Times article, What Happy People Don’t Do. In a nutshell: happy people don’t watch as much TV as unhappy people. However, as the article points out, the study doesn’t show that correlation is causation (especially given the fact that TV-watching depends a lot on whether a person has a job, and unemployment is a major happiness challenge). I think the relationship between TV and happiness is a bit more complicated than most people say…

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Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.