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How to build self-control like a muscle

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Self-control is beneficial...but challenging

Research shows that good self-control correlates with a reduced risk of obesity and better muscular and aerobic fitness. It even reduces your likelihood of engaging in risky or criminal behaviors and might have a positive impact on your occupational and career achievement in terms of income and job satisfaction.

All in all, having good self-control plays a big part in your journey towards being the best version of yourself. But how can you get there?

You can achieve almost anything if you stick to it. You probably know this very well already.

But you probably also know that sticking to something is often the hardest part. What happens to your routines when life gets busy and obstacles start popping up one after another?

Don’t worry – science clearly shows that discipline, like any muscle – can be trained. Read on to find out what current research says and how you can make use of it in your own health and fitness journey!

Defining self-control

So what exactly is self-control, though? Everyone has some vague concept of what self-control is supposed to be. But to really know what it’s all about we have to clearly define it.
Here’s a widely accepted definition: “Self-control is the capacity for altering one’s own responses, especially to bring them into line with standards such as ideals, values, morals, and social expectations, and to support the pursuit of long-term goals”. Or, put differently, “[Self-control is about] voluntary self-governance in the service of personally valued goals and standards.”

Okay, that was a little technical and science-y. Let’s think about what it could look like with your own health and fitness goals:
This might mean suppressing some hunger pangs to continue eating a healthy diet. It might mean starting your workout even though you absolutely don’t feel like it. Because your goals (should) have value to you. And if a subjective value is not enough for you, consider the following:

How to set your intentions the right way

Our willpower is limited. So, like with any resource, we must be mindful about how we spend it. Every time we must consciously make the right choice, our willpower gets weaker. It follows then, that we should try to avoid having to make too many conscious choices over the course of our day.

We can do this by formulating our intentions (clearly committing to a decision well in advance) and safeguarding them with concrete “if-then” conditions.

Deciding your actions in advance - a simple example:

First, you need to be clear about a goal that you have set for yourself, and clearly state what you’re working towards. It might mean setting your workouts before a stressful workday or during certain days during your week. Ask yourself the following questions (and check out what you might tell yourself if that was the case):

  • What do you want? → “I want to get more muscular.”
  • How can you get what you want? → “In order to become muscular, I need to work out regularly, ideally more than once per week.”
  • What usually needs your self-control? → “During my week I have to pick a time to work out when I’m free but I also have multiple events or requests to do that pop up unexpectedly during the week. This can make me feel tired and unwilling to work out.”

Then get into some actual concrete details that you can act on to get you to your goal:

  • What is a reasonable number of times to work out during the week? → “A good frequency for me is three workouts per week...good time slots to work out for me are on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning (and I also have a day in between each session to recover!)”.
  • What can you do to commit to working out? → “I can set three fixed sessions into my weekly routine.”

As mentioned above, in this example, you might know that sometimes work or a sleepless night can get in the way of your plans.

  • To help get over this challenge, you set a condition: “If I can’t do one of my workouts during the workweek, then I will work out on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.” 

Finally, it’s also helpful to plan ahead to verbally encourage yourself and reinforce the habit in your mind when you’re actually doing what you’ve committed to. So in this example you could tell yourself the following:

  • “When I start my workout, I will give it my best effort until it’s over.”
  • “When I finish my workout, I will tell myself something like, ‘Great job! You picked a time to do this hard thing and you did it and feel great...all because you planned well. Keep it up.’”

Predetermining your actions in advance makes it a lot more likely that you will do what you know is necessary, and you can expect to eventually get the result you want.

Cultivate self-awareness: What can you really control?

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” -- Theodore Roosevelt

Oftentimes you will find yourself in a situation you just cannot control: An important meeting gets pushed into your free time, a big birthday dinner completely crushes your calorie limit, or you catch a cold and can’t work out.

The most important thing here is to not focus on trying to change a situation you might not be able to do anything about. Instead, focus on how you react to it. Because this is what you can control.

Accept that not everything in life will go as you want it to. However, there will always be a (maybe smaller, maybe bigger) way to deal with it.

Stressed out? Take a breath before reorganizing yourself. Had too big of a meal today? Get back on track the next day.

Don’t have time to do your usual one-hour workout? Go for a shorter high-intensity session. Don’t fall into the trap of making outside factors responsible for your own success!

Break down your big goals into manageable ones

If you want to climb a mountain, you better start by planning your way up from the bottom.

Otherwise, getting up there might just be too intimidating. Getting to the peak is only possible after making it through the other 80%.

It is the same with reaching a big fitness goal. Want to get fit and look more like a model? Don’t try to instantly change your whole life from one week to another: Do it one step at a time. The smaller the steps you begin with, the better you’ll be able to manage them. One at a time.

As you get better, you should increase your stride length by shooting for slightly bigger and bigger goals.
Also, try to connect your achievements along the way with a small reward. Squatted your own bodyweight for the first time? Got your first Pullup in? Finally, got down that one jeans-size? Fantastic! Make sure to reward yourself in a sensible way – maybe dress up in that new style you liked? Or treat yourself to a nice healthy meal?

By breaking down your big goals into sensible steps and connecting them with rewards, you’ll make sure you get to the top of that mountain. And all without running out of willpower!

Remember your “Why”

Many people define themselves by what they do. Some define themselves by how they do things. But not many manage to really know why they do what they do. However, from a motivational standpoint, there’s nothing more important than knowing just that.

Why do you work out? Why do you make a conscious effort in your nutrition? Maybe you believe in your right to have the body you like. Maybe you believe in that feeling of strength that a good athletic base can give you. Or you believe in the sense of belonging you have when working out in a group. Any “why” is legitimate and specific to yourself.

When you sometimes struggle to stay on your path, try to remember why you chose it in the first place – and continue chasing your goals.

Now it’s your turn

It takes time to make working out and eating well a part of yourself. Until then, you’ll need a little willpower to stay true to that new lifestyle.

Use these tips to help yourself stay on point if you ever find yourself struggling. And remember, if you ever feel you need some structure and support that you can rely on as you’re building your routine, remember that the Freeletics Coach is there to help you!
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