Most of us know not to give in to all of our impulses. In fact, we spend much of our average day managing our wants and needs, a recent study on self-regulation (Hofmann et al., 2012) showed.
The study had 200 people report on whether they felt any desire, how strongly, whether they tried to resist it, and how successful they were. In the course of a week, a total of 7,000 desires was reported, with participants claiming to resist two out of every five of their impulses.
Willpower, a limited resource
While the reasons why people succumbed to some of their desires aren’t entirely clear, willpower depletion probably played a major role.
Say you’re on a restrictive diet and have to employ self-regulation throughout the day to keep yourself from eating anything that’s not protein. If you have to use self-regulation again later in the evening—for refraining from yelling at your flatmate for not doing the dishes, for example—you’re far less likely to succeed. Why? You’ve used up all your willpower trying not to eat carbs!
Studies show that people become more aggressive when their willpower is depleted. Couples who are usually harmonious treat each other worse (Finkel et al., 2009), blaming each other (Vohs & Baumeister, 2008) and paying more attention to attractive people of the opposite sex (Vohs & Baumeister, 2008).
Research also suggests that self-regulation is like a muscle. The more frequently you use it, the stronger it gets.
When we think of self-regulation, we usually think of resisting impulse. But we also regulate our emotions. You already have strategies for doing that, but here are others you can add to your repertoire:
Breathing deeply. Taking slow, deep breaths helps keep emotions in check, calms the body down, and prevents you from turning into the Hulk. Watch this video to learn how to breathe correctly.
Taking your mind off it. Distracting yourself from your problems, just for a while, helps you re-approach them with more clarity and perspective. But only if you pick the “right” distraction. If you’re angry, reading or going for a walk can calm you down; venting, shopping, or eating can make you feel worse.
Challenging your thoughts. Buddha, Epictetus, Shakespeare, and most psychologists agree: it’s not objective events that make you sad and angry, it’s the thoughts you have about them. Because not all your thoughts are rational, disputing them is good for you. Here’s a form that helps you do that.
Getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep recharges your brain, and when you miss out on getting some shuteye, you’re less likely to be in control of your emotions. Get tips for getting a good night’s rest.
Practicing self-compassion. We don’t always succeed at regulating all our impulses, thoughts, moods, and emotions. And that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it! Be kind to yourself and do better next time.
And remember, the more you practice self-regulation, the more willpower you will have for resisting temptations and impulses in the future. Oh, and don’t resist the temptation to check out tomorrow’s episode, Motivation.
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