Quit or Grit?

Original photo

Original photo


We know that people vary in their ability to handle things well when they are faced with conflicting desires or impulses. We also know that the road to success often requires self-discipline: choosing long-term gain over short-term pleasure. This might mean resisting a decadent piece of cheesecake in the service of losing weight, enduring the hardship of homework in order to achieve good grades, or passing up the unplanned purchases to stick to the household budget.

Research has shown that self-discipline is a crucial factor in predicting people’s future success. It forecasts who will achieve important goals versus who will wander down the path of impulsivity.

One version of self-discipline is called “grit” by researcher Angela Duckworth and her colleagues. According to Duckworth, if a person is “gritty,” he or she is not thrown off course by disappointment, failure, adversity, boredom, or plateaus in progress. While an impulsive person might use these elements as an excuse to give up, the gritty individual chooses to keep working strenuously toward challenges.

Sometimes people are quick to dismiss the idea of grit, believing that they simply do not possess self-control or self-discipline. However, it turns out that self-control is not a quality that you either “have” or “don’t have.” It is a life skill that almost everyone can strengthen with practice. As an added bonus, when you build up self-discipline in one area of your life, it makes it easier for you to extend self-discipline to other areas.

What is one small step you can take to practice increased self-discipline?

Building Good Habits Through Honesty

Photo by Micky Aldridge; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Micky Aldridge; Wikimedia Commons

I recently led a “change group” for individuals who were attempting to modify a habit of their choosing. When we reached the last meeting, group members reflected on their experiences, identifying what was most helpful to their change efforts.

Several group members found it was most helpful to take the time to be truly honest with themselves. They felt that their “default” setting was to fool themselves into overlooking or minimizing their problem areas, when what they really needed was to expose the problem areas to the light of day.

If you wish to be more honest with yourself when it comes to your habits, here are three questions you may ask yourself:

(1) What is it that I’ve been gaining by NOT making the change I know I should make? In other words, what needs have been served, or what reward has been achieved by staying stuck in my present pattern? How can I meet these needs AND still build better habits?

(2) What is the price I am paying by NOT changing my behavior? If I consider the negative effects that my behavior has already created, and then I imagine these effects multiplying over time, what scenario am I creating for myself five, ten, or twenty years down the road?

(3) What are the most exciting things I will gain by making this change? When I picture myself living out this change into the future, what will be new, fun, and different about my life? What will I gain when I exercise good habits on a consistent basis?

What other questions do you need to ask yourself in order to be more honest about your need for change?

Moments of Clarity in Habit Change

Man pondering habit change

Man pondering habit change; original photo

Sometimes when people tell me the story of how they changed a habit, they recall a “moment of clarity” that prompted the shift. At a particular moment, it became clear to them that their old habits weren’t working anymore. The only remaining option was to move forward with a new way of life.

Although it may often seem that there is a single event that kicks your habit change efforts into gear, the reality is that many different change processes were brewing beneath the surface for a long time, and they finally came together to create a tipping point for change.

When other change processes begin to coalesce (gathering information, weighing alternatives, shifting your attitude, and so forth), a moment of clarity can provide a sudden burst of energy.

How can you harness the energy of a moment of clarity? Try these ideas:

  1. Capture the moment. Grab a piece of paper and write a promise to yourself of what you plan to do. Or create a picture of the future positive situation that you are trying to build. Then put that note or picture where you will see it on a daily basis.
  2. Develop the identity of a changer. Research shows that if you make your change effort a larger part of your identity, you will be more likely to make the kinds of decisions that will support your end goal. At the same time, any change effort that violates your identity will be doomed to failure.
  3. Get specific. Researchers have long known that you are more likely to change a habit when you define a specific goal (like “eat four fruits and vegetables per day”) rather than a vague direction (“eat healthier”).
  4. Make your change goal public. Tell trusted friends and family members what you intend to do, and then give them the specifics of what they can do to support you.
  5. Think of change as an upward spiral. Know that setbacks are normal. You may feel yourself going around and around the circle of change, but know that for every circle you make, you end up one level higher on the change spiral.
  6. Expect great things. Remember that moment of clarity that you had? If you interpret the situation in such a way that it generates positive expectations of the future, you actually help to create good things in the future (self-fulfilling prophecy).

Have you had a moment of clarity when it comes to your health habits? How did you use it in your favor?

Giving the Green Light to Bad Habits

Photo by Emmanuel Schaffner; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Emmanuel Schaffner; Wikimedia Commons

When you are trying to change a habit, the obvious question you ask is “What is getting in the way of doing the right thing?” This helps you identify barriers and design ways to get around them.

What we often forget, though, is an equally important question: “What is allowing the wrong behavior to continue?” This question forces you to identify the excuses or “permission-giving thoughts” that make your bad habits seem harmless and reasonable. These excuses set you up for failure, because they allow the bad habit to continue unchecked.

For example, consider a person who is tempted to stray outside her meal plan for the day. Here is a list of potential permission-giving thoughts:

It’s not really a violation of my meal plan because it is a holiday/work celebration/party.

I’ve had a busy day at work and I’m entitled to an extra treat.

I’ll do it just this one time, and then I’ll get back on track.

If I do it just this one time, I won’t need to do it again in the future.

I’ll stray just a little outside my meal plan, and that won’t hurt anything.

Everyone else can eat whatever they want, so I can, too.

I deserve to treat myself.

It can be helpful to make a list of your permission-giving thoughts. Then, for each thought you identify, challenge yourself to develop a more reasonable response. For example:

Facilitating thought: I deserve to treat myself.

Reasonable response: I do deserve to treat myself, but I have a problem sticking to my meal plan and managing my weight over time. So it is healthier for me to treat myself with rewards that do not involve extra calories. If I get myself engaged in a fun activity, I won’t be thinking about my temptation to eat something that I should not eat.

Consider the list of permission-giving thoughts (above). Have you heard any others that you could add to the list?

Financial Literacy Award


Last month, I was honored to be the recipient of an Excellence in Financial Literacy Education (EIFLE) award from the Institute for Financial Literacy. My book, Pocket Change: Using the Science of Personal Change to Improve Financial Habits, was named the 2014 Book of the Year in the “Adult, General” category.

Many thanks to the Institute for Financial Literacy for hosting this program and to the sponsors of the conference. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting other people who share a passion for promoting financial literacy in innovative ways.

Gratitude and Impulse Control

Photo by Albian19; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Albian19; Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever noticed how the human brain favors the pleasure of instant gratification over the benefits of long-term health and well-being?

Resisting temptation is difficult, and the inability to resist temptation underlies a wide range of problems including overeating, overspending, and addictions.

A recent study at the Northeastern University College of Science (Science Daily, March 2014) demonstrated an interesting way to strengthen patience and impulse control in the financial domain. Participants in the study were assigned to one of three conditions and then were asked to write about an event from their past. Individuals in condition one were instructed to write about an event that made them feel grateful; individuals in condition two wrote about an event that made them feel happy; and individuals in condition three wrote about an event that was emotionally neutral.

Next, participants were asked to make a decision between receiving a lesser sum of money now or a larger sum of money on a future date. It turned out that participants who wrote about a neutral or happy event showed a strong preference for the immediate payouts, but the individuals who wrote about their grateful feelings were much better able to resist temptation, exhibit patience, and wait for the future reward.

Interestingly, “the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt.” So it appears that being thankful and heightening your sense of fulfillment help to reduce impatience and strengthen self-control. This could certainly come in handy to confront problems such as overeating and impulse buying.

When you are feeling grateful and content, what impact does this have on your decision-making?

Tips for Strengthening Self-Control


Photo by Martin Hirtreiter; Wikimedia Commons


Over the last three blog posts, you’ve learned about the limits to self-control, and you’ve learned how your impulses can sometimes take over your behavior.

Now take a look at the strategies for strengthening self-control. Here are the top ten tips:

  1. Gain knowledge about the “high risk situations” that may disrupt your progress toward your goal, and then create a plan for dealing with each potential obstacle.
  2. Make simple changes in your environment that will allow you to avoid temptation.
  3. Design prompts, triggers, or systems that will allow you to make a goal-consistent decision without having to agonize over it each time it comes up.
  4. Formulate subgoals or intermediate goals that will allow you to take steps toward your larger objective, and set clear expectations and a time frame for each one.
  5. Practice, practice, practice! Repeat healthy behaviors until they eventually become more automatic and replace their unhealthy counterparts.
  6. Train your working memory to strengthen your ability to focus on a goal despite multiple distractions. You can do this through simple mindfulness or present-focus exercises.
  7. Strengthen your ability to shift your attention to the less tempting aspects of the situation you are in.
  8. Reduce the stress (both emotional strain and cognitive overload) in your life. Stress makes you more vulnerable to acting impulsively.
  9. Get enough sleep in order to make certain that your frontal lobes are in good working order. This will allow you to exercise good judgment and to inhibit your impulses when needed.
  10. Plan breaks throughout the day that allow you to monitor your level of self-control and prevent regulatory depletion.

Which of these strategies have you tried? What are the strategies with which you are willing to experiment?

Why Self-Control Sometimes Fails

Photo by Johannes Otto Foerst; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Johannes Otto Foerst; Wikimedia Commons

Over the past couple of blog posts, you’ve learned about the “unthinking side” of yourself, which includes the gut reactions and snap decisions that happen underneath the radar of your consciousness. You’ve also learned about the “thinking side,” which is the systematic, logical planning system that makes sure the impulsive self does not always get its way when you are making important decisions about your health.

Now, think for a moment about the reasons why the unthinking/automatic system can overwhelm your thinking/controlled system. In other words: Why do your impulses take over your behavior, even when you have the best intentions to stick to a health-related goal?

Here are five reasons:

  1. Ego depletion. This is also known as regulatory depletion. Think about all of the situations you encounter in a day which require you to regulate your behavior, hold back distressing emotions, suppress certain things you want to say or do, or choose from an overabundance of options. Scientists have discovered that all of these tasks drain your supply of self-control and make it more difficult for you to persist in the face of obstacles. Regulatory depletion means that if you’ve used up much of your supply of self-control on one task, you have limited self-control available to use on the next task, even if it is a completely different task.
  2. Cognitive overload. Basically, the more you have on your mind, the easier it is to give in to temptation.
  3. Emotional overload. The more stressed you become, the more difficult it is to maintain self-control.
  4. Lack of awareness. If you aren’t aware that a given situation is one that could cause you to lose sight of your health-related goals, your self-control can be obstructed.
  5. Overpowering urges. Sometimes, an urge is so powerful that it saps every bit of energy required to maintain self-control. For those who have good inhibitory control and who have cultivated discipline in their lives, this happens less frequently. But no one is completely immune to overpowering urges.

In the next blog post, you’ll learn about strategies for strengthening self-control.

Until then, ponder this: Which one of the five conditions listed above do you think is most problematic, either for yourself or for other people?

The Thinking Side of Self-Control

cupcakes challenge self control

Photo by Joy; Wikimedia Commons

This post marks the second in a four-part series aimed at understanding impulse control and why it’s important when it comes to maintaining our health.

Last week, we looked at the “unthinking side” of impulse control: the impulsive self that operates underneath the radar of our conscious mind and makes quick decisions that can get us into trouble. (Think, “Exactly how did that pack of cupcakes jump into my grocery cart without my awareness?”)

Now let’s consider the “thinking side”: the other system, called the controlled system, that makes sure the impulsive self does not always get its way. This is the systematic, logical, planful side of ourselves that makes a list long before we get to the grocery store to make sure those cupcakes don’t jump into the cart!

It’s the side of ourselves that can think through things using language and reflection and can identify what is going to be best for our overall health and well-being down the road. This side is interested in choosing nutritious foods rather than junk food. It is interested in getting consistent exercise rather than succumbing to the long-term effects of a sedentary job.

What are the components of this controlled system? There are probably many, but science has uncovered at least three components so far: (1) learning history, (2) working memory, and (3) inhibitory control.

First, we know that there are certain learning activities that may help children build skills in self-discipline that will come in handy later in life. For example, activities such as music lessons and organized sports may help children learn to follow directions and control impulses. There is even some evidence that self-discipline can be strengthened in children through games such as “Touch Your Toes!”, which requires children to touch their heads when the leader says “Touch your toes,” and to touch their toes when the leader says “Touch your head.”

Second, our controlled system works better when we have better working memory. Working memory is the capacity to hold several pieces of information in our head, to manipulate that information, and to use it in a constructive way. If someone reads seven digits aloud to you and asks you to repeat the digits back in reverse order, you would be using your working memory. It seems that if we have good working memory, we have the ability to focus our attention on some end goal without getting sidetracked by temptations.

A third component of the controlled system is inhibitory control, which is our ability to put the brakes on our behavior when we need to. This task is usually handled by the frontal lobes of the brain, which serve to stop us from acting against our better judgment. Another term for this is “executive functioning.” This system seems to be trainable to some extent, but it may also be subject to the limits of our physiology.

Next week, we’ll take a look at why our impulses sometimes overwhelm our controlled system and take over our behavior.

Until then, think about this: What are the areas of life where marketers and advertisers are expecting us to go with our impulses instead of using our reflective thought?

The Quest for Better Self-Control

Photo by Dave Dugdale; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Dave Dugdale; Wikimedia Commons

“Control” is a word that gets a bad rap. No one wants to be accused of being a control freak or engaging in controlling behavior.

At the same time, self-control is one type of control that we probably wish to have in abundant supply, because the lack thereof could be devastating to our lives and to our health.

This post begins a four-part series aimed at understanding impulse control: (1) the unthinking side, (2) the thinking side,      (3) why impulses take over our behavior, and (4) strategies for strengthening self-control.

Let’s start with the unthinking side of things. Science has uncovered the fact that there are two processing systems at work in the mind as we move through the day: controlled processes and automatic processes. Controlled processes are the things that we think about consciously using language—we’ll get to that in part two. Automatic processes happen without the need for conscious attention or control. In other words, they are the “unthinking” things that happen underneath the radar of our consciousness, such as our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions.

The automatic system runs the side of ourselves that you might call the “impulsive self.” Consider what would happen if you faced a tempting situation and weren’t allowed to think it through. Imagine a giant piece of chocolate cake staring you in the face, the impulse purchase you might make at your favorite store, or the gutsy move you might make with your investment funds. If your thinking system is disabled, all you have left is your impulsive self to make quick judgments and then set habitual actions in motion.

Where do these habitual actions come from? Probably a complex composite of several different sources, including your personality (how you are wired), your current needs (what it would take in this situation to pursue pleasure and avoid pain), and your learning history (which of your responses have been reinforced in the past).

Thankfully, we have the controlled system to ensure that our impulsive self does not dominate all of our daily transactions. You will read more about that system in the next post.

For now, though, think about this: When are you most likely to see your impulsive self emerge? Can you think of any famous examples of individuals who got in trouble because their impulsive self was able to act unchecked?