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More PsychNotes: Performance, Success and Goal Attainment

September 19, 2016       
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An Easier Way to Achieve Goals that Require Self-control
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

table of food
I've often stated that I can either diet or I can do everything else I do in life. For a long time I chose to do everything else. Research shows that when we overload our working memory, we find it harder to maintain self-control in problem areas of our lives whether those involve food choices, use of drugs and alcohol, or impulsive and risky decisions. When I was busy with stressful activities such as building a business I couldn't focus on dieting. However, once my business was stable I could focus my attention on healthy behaviors.

In other words, attempts to multitask often cause personal health goals to go by the wayside. Our memories just can't handle multiple stressful tasks. The working memory has limited resources, becomes overloaded, and is most likely to forget behaviors that deviate from our routine. So if you are trying to make a change, you are less likely to focus on and remember the new behavior when your attention is required elsewhere. How many times have you ignored a personal goal by saying something like, “I don't care. This is more important right now!”

Good news, however, comes from a series of 18 studies by researcher Mirjam Tuk and colleagues (2015). This research shows that when we try to control behavior in one area, we have a greater ability to control behavior in another area.

What does this mean for you?

Thinking back on how I did lose a great deal of weight, I realize now that the reason was because I chose a simpler area in which to develop control—a goal that did not require a great deal of focus throughout the day. I chose to increase the fiber in my diet. By choosing such a goal I could plan some changes such as eating whole grain cereal or bringing an apple to work instead of trying to make decisions throughout the day about food. Surprisingly, though, focusing on that simpler goal made it easier to make healthier food choices overall.

When we are stressed or focused on other important activities and we try to make self-control decisions that require a change, we are more likely to indulge in the same old behaviors. What this means, then, is if you are trying to change a behavior that requires self-control, choose a simpler behavior to change. Choose something you can achieve without having to make spur-of-the-moment decisions or thinking too much about it.

By doing so and achieving self-control in one area, you are more likely to develop self-control in other areas. By focusing on an easily achievable goal or a series of simple goals, your success can transfer to the more difficult goals and make it easier to achieve those.

Tuk, M.J., Zhang, K. and Sweldens, S. (2015). The Propagation of Self-Control: Self-Control in One Domain Simultaneously Improves Self-Control in Other Domains. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 639–654. DOI: 10.1037/xge0000065


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Dr. Monica Frank



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