Self discipline. It’s something we all wished we had more of.
Whether it’s having the self discipline to go the distance and stick with your goals or to resist temptation, one thing’s for sure: most people feel like they don’t have enough.
I wanted to find all of the ways that self discipline could be improved. I didn’t want to general tactics like, “stop thinking about eating the cake”. I turned to experiments performed in the past and books written by PhD researchers and have finally got a complete list.
This article is over 6,000+ words. I’ll be adding a menu so you can jump to each section quickly. For the time being, have a read through it.
Where possible, each tip is backed up by science. In a lot of cases, they were tested on real people. Having said this, the only way you’ll know it’ll work for you is if you test it for yourself.
- Minimize the number of distractions to maintain strong self discipline.
Self discipline requires focus. It helps us make conscious decisions to do certain things.
When our minds our elsewhere, we can’t focus. Distractions creep in and slowly leach away our self control. All the effort we might have put into not giving in goes down the drain without us even noticing.
That’s the reason why supermarkets are designed the way they are. You’re standing in line, waiting to buy your milk and bread then – BAM! Your tempted by candy, chocolate and snacks.
Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at the Standford Graduate School of Business, has shown that students trying to remember a telephone number are 50% more likely to choose chocolate cake over fruit later.
Distractions lead to giving in to temptations. Clear your desk, clear your mind and your self discipline will remain strong.
This also means…
- Minimize the number of decisions you have to make to also maintain strong discipline.
People who think they are good multitaskers are found to the have the worst self discipline.
Why? Because multi tasking is all about doing many things at the same time.
In other words, you’re working in a state of constant distraction, switching between tasks to get a bit done in all of them.
Protect your self discipline by focusing on one. Thing. At. A. time. Get it done, then move on.
You’ll not only get more done that way, you won’t be tempted by other bad things.
- Train the self discipline muscle in your brain
There isn’t a literal self discipline muscle in the brain, but science has shown that the brain physically changes when parts of it are used more than others.
The self discipline component of the brain resides in the prefrontal cortex, just behind our forehead.
The more self discipline challenges you beat, the bigger the self discipline challenges that you can beat.
So how do you train it? Set up mini tests to put your self discipline to work. Put bowls of candy, your favourite video game or even your phone at designated places around the house or at work.
Consciously tell yourself you won’t give in. Beat the temptation. Mark it down. See how many you can beat them a day.
If this sounds like too much work you could try…
One study found that just three hours of meditation led to a greater ability to focus and stronger self control.
Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation led to greater self awareness (which leads to better self discipline).
Watch this video to learn how to meditate from someone who literally lives and breathes meditation: a monk.
- Improve heart rate variability
Heart rate variability is how much your heart rate changes. Besides exercise, your heart rate does vary during normal activities.
For example when you breathe, your heart rate picks up slightly when you breathe in and drops back when you breathe out.
Now you’ve heard of fight and flight response. It prepares you to battle or to flee. Your heart rate goes up and usually stays up. Your heart rate variability drops.
It sabotages your self discipline, sometimes making you do stupid things you can’t take back.
- Pause and plan
Pause and plan is the opposite. Your heart rate goes down and your heart rate variability goes up.
In simple terms, it means that when you breathe, your heart rate behaves normally. When you breathe in your heart rate goes up, when you breathe out, it drops again.
This only happens when you calmly assess the situation.
Just to go back to heart rate variability for a moment, there’s some interesting science behind it.
It’s such a good physiological measure of self discipline that it can be used to predict who will buckle under temptation and who won’t.
There’s a study where recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability went up were more likely to stay sober.
Those whose heart rates pick up – and stay up – when they see their favourite beverage have a greater chance of relapsing (pg 39).
At any rate, if you’re in a stressful situation, don’t just react. Stop and think. Even if it’s for a few extra seconds.
It could be the difference between continuing your streak or breaking it.
By the way, if you:
- Eat “cleaner” food, and
- Breathe cleaner air
These have been shown to improve your heart rate variability and as a result, the “amount” of willpower you can store in your body.
It’s actually anything that removes stress on the body, so by extension you could even include
- Getting more sleep at night, and
- Going to a comedy show
On the list. There are a few more easy things you can do as well, such as:
- Consciously breathing slower.
One study found that twenty minutes of deliberate, slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression in adults recovering from drug abuse. (pge 40)
There is also:
- Exercise (pg 42)
There’s a fascinating study out of Macquarie University in Australia. 24 participants, 6 men and 18 women exercised once a week for the first month, then three times a week by the second month.
They were not told to do anything else, but the results were astounding:
- Caffeine intake dropped,
- Cravings for cigarettes decreased,
- They were eating less junk food, and
- Wasting less time and be more productive
There’s another study that showed that 15 minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings (and thereby improves self discipline).
- Switching off the news
The media has a saying they don’t want you to know about: “if it bleeds, it leads”. In other words, the want to find as much doom and gloom as possible to make you watch their programs.
They call it informing you. I call it stressing you out about things happening the world that aren’t as bad as they seem.
This stress makes us worry and might even activate our fight or flight response. It might make us flee to our closest place of security. That could be comfort food or something else bad for us.
Watch less news, focus on the good things in life and watch your self discipline skyrocket.
- Do daily habits in the morning (pg 56)
That’s when your self discipline is the highest. It steadily decreases over the course of the day, which is why by the time you clock off, you feel dead on your feet.
If you want to exercise, go for a morning job. If you want to blog, do it with your morning coffee.
- Being self disciplined reduces your self discipline gauge
Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University has been asking people to test the limits of their willpower for over 15 years, doing things like:
- Ignoring junk food,
- Submerging and keeping arms in ice water, and
- Not exploding in anger.
In every scenario, people had to exercise their willpower and stay disciplined. The findings are telling. These same people would procrastinate more, tend to make more impulse purchases or be otherwise less able to control their urges than before.
If you think this seems like a paradox then yes, you’re right. How can we boost self control while using self control?
Just keep this in mind as we explore our options.
The part of our brain that activates when we exert self control is the prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that the more we use it, the less it “lights up” and fires when we have to use it. It literally gets tired.
Glucose powers the brain. It draws this from our blood supply. Glucose can be found in sugar. What if sugar could refuel your self discipline gauge?
There was a study done where people were asked to perform a range of tasks that exerted their self discipline. Their blood sugar levels recorded before and after.
Group A was than given a sugary lemonade to drink. Group B was given a placebo.
The results were astounding: Group A became their old selves again, persistent and not backing away form a challenge. Group B gave into temptations more.
Sugar helps to refuel your brain’s self discipline gauge!
This leads to another interesting study…
- Avoid diet soda
If you want to get the best of both worlds and not be fat while having high self discipline, you can’t cheat the system and drink diet soda.
There was a study done where Group A was given regular full sugar soda and Group B was given diet.
Group A exhibited high self discipline, as expected. Group B? Despite the sweetness of diet soda, they performed poorly on the self discipline tests. Here’s why.
When you have soda, your body draws more sugar out of your blood than usual to prepare for the intake of sugar. They then have stored sugar and the new sugar from the soda.
When you drink diet soda, your body still draws more sugar out of your blood than usual to prepare for the intake of sugar… that never comes. The body is tricked by the sweet taste but absence of calories.
Because your blood sugar level is even lower than normal now, you’re at a disadvantage for your self discipline challenges.
- Avoid making important decisions when you’re hungry
When blood sugar and energy are low, you’re in a weakened state. Your brain is focused on one thing: making sure you survive.
It will switch on instant gratification mode, making you not only more likely to binge on bad food, but to also do other things that represent a failure of self discipline.
It doesn’t care about the financial implications of to the casino to blow your hard-earned cash or the social implications of behaving inappropriately towards your mate’s partner.
Obviously, this can get you into trouble. Your brain is trying to look after you in a prehistoric age, but in a modern age, you probably won’t die of starvation.
The safe thing to do is make sure you aren’t in a situation where your self discipline is challenged when you’re hungry.
- Stop saying “yeah” and start saying “yes”
Self discipline is just like a muscle and it can be trained. Unlike physical training, training to improve your self discipline is far simpler – it isn’t necessarily easier, though.
In a fascinating study conducted at Northwestern University, 40 adults in romantic relationships were brought in.
They were divided into three groups:
- One group was asked to use their non-dominant hand to brush their teeth,
- The second group was asked to stop saying “yeah” and start saying “yes”
- The third was given no instruction (control group).
After two weeks, the first two groups displayed a lower tendency to be violent or angry towards their partner. There was no change in the third group.
This goes back to strategy #6, “Pause and plan”. By being more conscious of what you’re doing, it forces the brain to pause and decide to do the harder thing instead of the easier thing (reacting to something that might upset you).
Change something that’s an ingrained habit: stop shaking your leg, scratching your head or something else. This can help you improve your self discipline.
- Go a bit longer – you’re not as weak as you think you are
Our brains are always trying to look after us. Whether it’s running away from danger or making us stop exercising when we push too hard, too fast, we can rely on it to keep us safe.
This also goes for self discipline. If we’re pushing ourselves to stick to something that’s really challenging us, we’ll want to quit. We’ve all felt this way before.
However, just like physical limits, the limits of self discipline are often amplified by our brains to try and convince us to stop going so hard.
Ultimately, we make the decisions we want to make. We can think what we think and feel what we feel, but if we will ourselves to go on, we will.
Sometimes, that’s precisely all we need to do.
- Don’t think about when you were good, it’ll make you want to be bad
Self discipline is all about the internal battle raging inside us. We’re looking at that delicious slice of cheesecake in the window and we look to justify to ourselves that we’ve earnt it.
Science (pg 84) has shown that people who were told to recall a time they were charitable donated 60% less money afterward when asked to make a charitable request.
In other words, they felt that they didn’t have to be as charitable because they had been charitable in the past.
This applies for everything, not just cake:
- “I can sneak in a quick smoke since I didn’t smoke all weekend.”
- “I can have some chocolate because I exercised a bit harder today at the gym.”
- “I can game a little bit longer because I just studied for an hour.”
These statements sound familiar, don’t they? It’s the devil on our shoulder that’s talking to us. It makes us slowly release our grip on our self discipline challenges and give in, just this once.
The only problem is that it’s not once, but over and over.
What can you do to stop this? Recognize it when it happens. Remember what you’re actually trying to do. Don’t let the devil persuade you otherwise.
- Don’t reward progress
A study conducted at (pge 89) the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business showed that making progress on a goal motivated people to engage in goal-sabotaging behaviour.
In one study, they recruited dieters and reminded them how much progress they had made towards their goal weight. They then offered them a choice of either an apple or a chocolate bar as a reward.
85% of dieters chose the chocolate bar over the apple, just because they had congratulated themselves.
Don’t fall into this trap. Your progress can be undone with some unwise decisions. Be aware of the stat and keep building on progress, don’t celebrate it just yet.
- Remember the why
A joint study done at the Hong Kong University of Science and the University of Chicago had fascinating discovery. (pg 91)
When students were asked to remember a time when they resisted temptation, 70% took the next opportunity to indulge.
However, then they were asked to remember why they resisted, 69% resisted the temptation. By simply identifying the reason behind why you resisted something, you can boost your self discipline.
- Don’t do it tomorrow
Marketing researchers out of Baruch College, City University of New York found that healthy items on a menu actually made you more likely to order the most unhealthy things on the same menu?
Not only that, if you thought that were the least likely to be affected by this puzzling phenomenon, you were the most likely to order the least healthy option on the menu.
The logic behind this? We think of “future me” as different from “present me”. There’s an option for me to be better tomorrow, but “present me” will still indulge in the Big Mac.
There’s truly no better time than today to commit to self discipline. If you’re finding it especially difficult to commit today, you might want to…
- Change the “tomorrow question”
This is how it works. Right now, when we’re presented with positive options, we justify and say we can choose it tomorrow.
The thought that in the future, we’ll be better than we are today is powerful and alluring.
To prevent it from casting a spell on us, flip the question on its head and remove this possibility. For example, if you want to order a Big Mac, don’t say, “do I want to eat this Big Mac now?” ask yourself, “do I want the consequences of eating a Big Mac once a week for the rest of my life?”
This takes the allure out of the Big Mac and forces you to focus on the present fact: you are eating Big Macs on a weekly basis, this won’t change in the foreseeable future and even 10 years down the track, you’ll still be telling yourself that “tomorrow” you’ll choose the salad.
This has been proven to work by behavioural economist Howar Rachlin (pg 96).
- Find what makes you salivate
You’ve heard of the famous Pavlov conditioning experiment, right? In 1927, Pavlov observed that if he rang a bell before feeding his dogs, they connected the bell to being fed.
After enough conditioning, Pavlov just had to ring the bell and the dogs would salivate, even if there was no food in sight.
In other words, their brain’s desire was being pressed.
Dopamine is the hormone in our brains that makes us salivate – literally and figuratively.
Anything that motivates us is the work of dopamine. The anticipation of reward if caused by this brain chemical being released.
This must not be confused with happiness itself. Dopamine simply makes us want things. Serotonin is the happy hormone that actually makes us smile.
Essentially, dopamine is our brain’s way of finding (what it thinks) is a source of serotonin. However, what it thinks and what we really want in the long run are often two different things.
Understanding the role that dopamine plays in your life is really important. Without dopamine, you wouldn’t be motivated to get straight A’s and shoot for law school. Neither would you want to lose weight in time for summer to show off.
Dopamine is what makes us better people. At the same time, it’s often our downfall too.
The promise of reward is what makes us:
- Get tempted by delicious smelling junk food,
- Keep checking our phones (I’ve checked mine heaps of times while writing this article),
- Watch porn,
- Look for “get rich quick” schemes instead of working hard,
- Want to fight people who piss us off.
Our minds can create powerful imagery that persuade us that we’ll be so much happier after we do those things above. In reality, we know that we should be exercising self discipline.
So what’s the “cure?” Being aware of your dopamine traps is more than half the battle. If there are things that keep distracting you or you look forward to, those often are sources of dopamine.
The next question is whether those things truly make you happy. I know for a fact that I keep playing mobile games, but they frustrate me because I know I could rather be writing.
Just like Pavlov’s dogs, our brains salivate at certain things because of the promise of reward. Find out what yours are, shine a spotlight on them and that takes away a lot of their alluring power.
- Avoiding dopamine overload places
In our modern world where we can get nearly everything immediately, dopamine is accessible literally with the push of a button.
That’s why it’s now harder than ever to actually resist dopamine. We’re virtually wading around in the stuff. Some people are barely able to keep their head above it.
Some places are positioned as places that make you happy but really they just overload your dopamine centers.
Casinos are one of the worst places. Winning money is the ultimate promise of reward. It doesn’t help that there are:
- Flashing lights,
- Scantily clad women, and
- Complementary drinks
All within arm’s reach.
Some places aren’t physical but digital. Online shopping is a great example. Some people are serial eBay junkies. The promise of winning an auction can send people to overbid to win something they don’t have the money for.
The cure for this is simple: make it impossible for yourself to access these places. Cold turkey. It’s hard, but you can’t fight these places. They’re like quicksand, except the deeper you go, the faster they suck.
Before you know it, you’re stuck – and it’s nearly impossible to get out.
- Use dopamine to your advantage
Like I mentioned earlier, dopamine isn’t the devil’s way of screwing your life up. Flooding your brain with the stuff and not realizing it can hurt you in the long run, but once you’re aware of it, you can get some control.
Turn the tables on dopamine and let it work for you. Is there something you have been putting off? Create a reward system so that you do things that you wouldn’t usually do.
In drug rehab, there’s a concept called the fish bowl. It’s essentially a lucky draw. The patients in rehabilitation all put their hand into the fish bowl and draw out a slip.
One has a big prize, say $100. There might be a few $10’s and $1’s. Most might just say, “you’re doing great! Keep up the great work!”
The odds are such that you’re probably going to get a pat on the back from the piece of paper instead of a big prize.
This system actually motivates quite well. In one study, 83% who had access to the fish bowl completed the entire rehab course, as opposed to 20% who didn’t have it. (page 123)
When you think about it, it shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s the reason why people would prefer to buy a lottery ticket than put their money into an interest account.
The possibility of a big reward outweighs the dependability of a small reward. Use this to your advantage.
- Do dopamine inducing activities slowly
Dopamine makes us rush through things in order to search for the happiness that isn’t there. We devour food faster than we can taste it, spend money faster than we can make it and change partners faster than we have time to appreciate them.
Next time, slow it right down. Self awareness is a powerful tool to help you see the illusion that dopamine casts around your object of desire.
It usually isn’t as good as it tastes, worth the money that you thought it was and the last person you dated wasn’t half bad either.
It will give you back your self discipline and empower you to control how you feel about what you desire, how much you really desire it and how happy you think it makes you feel.
- Find serotonin wells
If there are dopamine traps, there are serotonin wells. From these wells you can draw up as much happiness as you want. It will relieve stress, reduce cravings and restore self control.
The following things are the best stress-relief strategies, which can also give you serotonin boosts:
- Exercising/playing sports,
- Praying or attending a religious service,
- Listening to music
- Spending time with friends and family,
- Getting a massage
- Going for a walk
- Spending time on a creative hobby, drawing, dancing, etc
- Avoid terror
There is terror all around us nowadays. It’s on the news, it’s online, it’s in our social networks. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be real terror.
Terror makes us cling to our comfort and support items. It sends us rushing home to hide and wait til bad things go away. It makes us do things that help reaffirm to ourselves that we know who we are.
There was a study where people watched a death scene in the 1979 film The Champ, which made them pay three times more for something that they didn’t need. This was compared to people who watched an unscary documentary.
You can’t cut everything out, but start with things that deliberately use terror to hook you in. News is a must.
- Forgive yourself
This is one of my favorite self discipline tips. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot personally. When I found out, I was amazed. The science backs it up though.
Does the following statement sound familiar to you?
“Oh shit… I’ve just eaten that donut. I’ve failed my diet. Whatever. I’ve already failed. There’s no turning back.”
*proceeds to eat entire box of donuts*
It turns out that the negative self talk of being hard on yourself which is making you feel guilty is precisely the reason why you’re failing your self discipline goals.
Self forgiveness and not being hard on yourself is far more effective in maintaining self discipline.
At the Louisiana State University and Duke University, studies were conducted to test the above hypothesis.
A group of people were bought in to sample some candy. They were separated into two groups.
Group A was given the following statement before commencing: “don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone indulges sometimes.” Group B was the control group.
The candy bowls were weighed before and after the experiment. The results are very interesting.
Group A on average ate 28 grams of candy while Group B ate 70 grams on average.
It’s a crazy thought: if I’m not hard on myself, I’ll never have any self discipline. Self forgiveness actually increases accountability. It doesn’t decrease it.
Next time you catch yourself beating yourself up, remember this. Forgive yourself, tell yourself it’s OK to fail and that you’ll endeavour to not fail next time.
You might find yourself being more successful with your self discipline efforts in the long run.
- Stop starting again
When you do fail, the temptation may be to start again. You consider it breaking a vicious cycle and you feel good about it.
The only problem is that the starting over in of itself starts becoming a cycle.
It’s the damn dopamine again. Your brain, not wanting you to feel too bad about your failures, releases dopamine and pushes you in the direction of thinking about starting again.
You can start again at any time, right? So in a way, you can consider it to be immediate gratification. Can you see where I’m going with this?
That’s right, by starting again, you’re indulging in dopamine, but not truly facing the crux on the problem.
How do you fix this? By identifying what could go wrong before it actually happens. When (not if) bad things happen, have a contingency plan. Brainstorm what could derail your efforts.
This not only gives you confidence, but it removes the potential feelings of guilt and self blame later, since you were prepared for the failure from the beginning.
You’re already ready to forgive yourself and get back on track. You won’t succumb to self hate.
- Put distance between you and the temptation
A study found that putting a candy jar inside a desk drawer instead of in plain sight reduced consumption by one third.
It’s like the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”
- Wait 10 minutes
There is a famous experiment between Harvard university students and chimpanzees. Both were posed with the same choice: you can either take two treats or six treats immediately.
Too easy. The treats were delicious and both parties unanimously chose six treats. The experiment was repeated with a slight twist. This time, it was choose two treats now or six in two minutes.
The results show that while our prefrontal cortices are bigger than our chimp cousins, they have far better self discipline. Chimpanzees chose to wait 72% of the time while humans only 19%.
Humans are good at rationalizing bad behaviour. That’s the problem with our developed brains. We overthink and in the end it robs us of greater reward.
When urges come, force yourself to wait out 10 minutes. If you still crave it, then have it. But by waiting it out, it removes the “immediate” from the immediate gratification.
- Make the future matter
People give in to things because it’s worth more to them now than what they were trying to hold out for.
No matter if you want to save money or eat less, it’s for a greater future reward. People will work harder to protect something from being lost than gain something. It’s just a loophole in human nature.
Instead of weighing up whether you want to eat that delicious glazed donut now or have six pack abs, imagine instead that you had six pack abs and were staring at this donut, i.e. you already have your future prize.
Really visualize how good it feels to have this future prize. Imagine losing it by giving in to the current temptation. Would you still want to have it? Is it worth it?
- No way out
Don’t give yourself any way out. People can’t commit to things because they know they have the option of bailing.
This is the easiest way of breaking a bad habit or committing to a good one. Make it impossible to do otherwise.
Want to quit smoking? Leave your cash and cards at home when you go out. Bring just enough for necessities.
Want to stop wasting time? Uninstall all your time wasting apps.
Want to work out? Join a sports team that commits to playing tournaments. You will be held accountable.
- Imagine your future self
A study has shown that simply by imagining your future self, you can increase your present self’s self discipline.
The study got a group of people who weren’t very active. One group were asked to think positively about their future self as someone who was happy, healthy and active.
Another group were asked to think of their future self as being essentially the same as they were then, but in a worse condition.
A third group was a control had were told to think nothing.
The findings of the study showed that for the first two groups regardless of the findings, both started to exercise more frequently. The third group had no response.
So it’s simple. Regardless of whether you think good or bad of your future self, it will usually give present you more self discipline.
- Giving in is contagious
We all like to think that we are individuals with an ability to make decisions for ourselves. There are several studies that actually prove otherwise.
What they specifically show is that we are most like the people we are closest to and the people that we like.
There is a fascinating study that was conducted over 54 years called the Framingham Heart Study. It tracked the residents of Framingham, Massachusetts. The first generation started in 1948, with subsequent generations being in 1971 and 2002.
It showed that obesity was literally an epidemic, especially in communities. Here are some startling numbers:
- When a friend became obese, your risk of obesity shot up by 171%.
- A woman whose sister became obese had an increased risk of obesity of 67%.
- A man whose brother became obese had an increased risk of obesity of 45%.
While you can’t choose your family, you can certainly choose how much time you spend around them. You should also choose your friends wisely too.
The good thing about this study is that the inverse is true also, that is…
- and self discipline is contagious too!
This is true. There are brain scan studies which show that when someone is asked to think about themselves and then asked to think about their mom, the same part of their brain lit up.
Of course, the proviso was that the person respected and looked up to their mother as a role model. The point though is that our sense of self is greatly impacted by the people we are closest to.
If they have high self discipline, so will we. Again, choose your role models wisely and half the battle will be won.
- The power of pride
Shame and guilt drains heart rate variability, the physiological well of self discipline and will power. What increases it? Pride.
Imagine how proud you will be of yourself or how proud someone else will be of you from doing something has been shown to actually increase heart rate variability.
If what you’re trying to do isn’t something you’re proud of, change your goal or bring more clarity to why you’re doing something. It’s a simple yet powerful emotion that can help you sustain or even boost your self discipline.
- Have an accountability partner
There was a weight loss intervention at the university of Pittsburgh that required participants to bring a friend or family member who also needed to lose weight.
The participants had “support homework” and were told to praise and encourage one another and celebrate self discipline success stories.
66% of participants in the program ended up maintaining their weight loss 10 months after the program was over, compared to only 24% of participants who didn’t bring an accountability partner.
Got a friend who wants to achieve the same goal as you? Hold each other accountable. It can help you (both) go the distance.
- Don’t suppress thoughts
When you’re trying to resist something, something you might try to do is not think about it. Unfortunately what tends to happen is that you can’t think about anything BUT that thing you’re not supposed to think about.
Daniel Wegner a psychology professor at Harvard University first conducted an experiment in 1985 with seven undergraduate students.
The task was simple: think about anything but white bears.
So what happened? The students couldn’t think about anything but white bears! Once the thought had been planted, they couldn’t ignore it.
When we tell ourselves not to eat the cake or watch another episode of that new series on Netflix, a part of our brain unconsciously draws us straight into that thought. It’s a phenomenon called ironic rebound.
So what is the “cure” for ironic rebound? Simple: give up.
You know when someone makes you aware of your own breathing and suddenly you breathe consciously? It seems strange to do it, but you can’t stop doing it, since you have to breathe, but now you can’t go back to how you breathe normally.
Eventually you do, because you forget about your self awareness. Perhaps you were distracted by something else. More likely than not, you gave up thinking about it.
Giving up doesn’t imply that you’re giving in to the temptation. It just means your brain is accepting the thought. Paradoxically, accepting the thought gives you more power over it, not less.
- “Surfing the urge”
What do you do when you have particularly powerful urges to do things you shouldn’t? Suppressing your thoughts won’t cut it. Accepting it might not work as well either.
There’s a technique called “surfing the urge” which is similar to the technique of acceptance, except it’s far more potent.
Sarah Bowen is a research scientist at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. She wanted to see if the “surfing the urge” technique could work amongst smokers.
She instructed her subjects to not smoke for the previous 12 hours so that they were craving nicotine. She then told them to bring their favorite cigarettes.
She then told them to slowly unwrap the packet, pull out a cigarette and smell it. After, they were to pull out their lighter, bring it to the cigarette… but not light it.
It was pure torture.
The smokers were very conscious of their cravings, but they were not caving in since they were following Bowen’s instructions.
This awareness of their cravings is called “Surfing the Urge”. The urge is like a wave that grows in size. Instead of letting it crash into you and wipe you out, you get on top of it and feel the power beneath you.
Your cravings can feel as powerful as a big wave and this awareness of its immensity can help you conquer it.
Bowen eventually released her subjects. She didn’t tell them not to smoke. Instead she told them to track how many cigarettes they did smoke and their mood and level of cravings.
According to the self-reported findings, the group who used the “Surf the Urge” technique had cut back the number of cigarettes to 37% by the end of one week, while the control group had no change.
Not only that, smokers “surfing the urge” didn’t feel the guilt for giving in. It helped them manage the inner experience that came with the cravings and they didn’t feel they had no control over it.