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May 13, 2016       
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Will-power or Strategy?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Smart goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-based Often when people are tempted by something contrary to their goals they are told to resist by using their will-power. When they have to forgo pleasure to accomplish something difficult, they are told “Just do it!” Self-control is frequently seen as some mystical internal force that is either present or not. Many people feel helpless to control behavior even when they have a goal they desire.

However, self-control to achieve goals isn't just a matter of will-power. Instead, self-control involves the use of strategies. People who are able to use the strategies more effectively are more successful at achieving their desired goals even in the face of tempting alternatives.

What strategies do people use?

The following strategies are listed according to effectiveness. However, some strategies may not be possible depending upon the temptation and the situation. For instance, a person may not always be able to change a situation so it may be necessary to use a cognitive strategy.

1) Choosing the situation. Changing a situation or the people involved can help with self-control. For instance, it is well-known that alcoholics shouldn't associate with other alcoholics. However, you may not always have the option to choose people or situations that will support your goals. Dieting example: staying in office at lunch time where there is no snack food available. Studying example: closing self in room without distractions until studying is done.

2) Modifying the situation. Changing aspects of the situation can help reduce temptation. Dieting example: putting treats out of sight. Young children literally cover their eyes so they can't see a plate of cookies when told they can have two cookies if they wait vs. one right away. Studying example: turning phone notifications off until studying is done.

3) Changing focus of attention. Using a cognitive strategy of reducing focus on tempting alternatives and increasing focus on behaviors that will increase success towards goal can help with self-control. Dieting example: distracting self with other activities. Studying example: thinking of consequences and try to ignore distractions to studying.

4) Cognitive change strategies. Another cognitive strategy is to think about the situation differently. Dieting example: the Creating Awareness of Overeating Consequences audio is intended to change how a person thinks about overeating by focusing on the aftereffects of that indulgence: feeling discomfort from bloating, decreased energy, decreased focus, etc. Studying example: setting small goals with a reward such as study for an hour and then play video-games for half an hour.

5) Suppress urge. Finally, the cognitive strategy of “just do it” or using will-power is the least effective of the strategies. Dieting example: telling self to not eat from the dessert table at a buffet. Studying example: telling self to just focus on studying.

A study of high school and college students by researcher Angela Duckworth and her colleagues (2016) found that students recognize the value of changing the situation but weren't likely to think about it when needed for self-control. However, when they were provided with instructions on how to change a situation it was found to be much more beneficial than suppressing an urge.

Using self-control strategies

Similar to the students in the study, most of the time people don't think about their self-control strategies. Instead, they just expect themselves to do it. However, deliberately considering how to have self-control is much more effective. So, the advice to give others when they are having trouble meeting goals due to self-control problems is:

1) Determine a specific goal. Choose a goal that is clear and defined. For instance: “I want to lose weight” is not a well-defined goal whereas “I want to decrease snacking in front of the TV” is specific.

2) Write a list of strategies. Consider your specific goal and ways you can change the situation or your thinking that can help you with self-control.

3) Employ the list. Plan ahead and use the strategies you have listed to help you meet your goal.

Duckworth, A.L., White., R.E., Matteucci, A.J., Shearer, A. and Gross, J.J. (2016). A Stitch in Time: Strategic Self-Control in High School and College Students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 329–341. DOI: 10.1037/edu0000062


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Dr. Monica Frank



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