Stop Trying to Use Self Control – There is a Better Way

My husband brought home two big bags of chips. They are calling my name. But I just have to have self control. I’ve got this!

I’ve been cooking more pasta and high-carb food for my family since lockdown. I feel so guilty for eating it but I can’t seem to stop. It’s right there in front of me. I feel awful.

These are sentiments that could evoke nods from anyone with a history of dieting.

How do we deal with this?

How do we resist delicious food that we know is not good for us?

How do we avoid making bad choices in the first place?

The answer typically would be something along the lines of, “suck it up” or “no pain, no gain”.

We are taught that if only we could have more willpower we would succeed. We are chastised that we just need more self-control.

But this is just not true.

Self-control is a useful tool. But there are many more tools we can use.

Woman trying to self control against chocolate

And there are ways to reduce the need for self-control, thereby making your life easier and more pleasant.

And what are these mysterious, magical tools I speak of?

I have my ideas but don’t take my word for it. Someone actually studied this stuff! I would add many other strategies to this list but I think these four will definitely be a good start.

A recent study suggested the following four strategies for reducing the need for self-control. This is called “self-nudging”. I like that name. It takes the pressure off of you to be perfect. Just nudge yourself in the right direction.

  1. Make bad things less accessible and good things more accessible
  2. Set reminders and prompts
  3. Reframe the situation
  4. Use social pressure and accountability

I’ll give you an example how these could work for you.

Let’s say you are in the habit of eating cookies in the middle of the afternoon, whether you are hungry or not. Come 3 or 4 pm you just start craving those cookies. And every day you think, “This is not good for me, but I can always stop this habit when I need to. Besides it’s just a few cookies and I need a break.”

(sound familiar?)

Here’s how you could use the four strategies listed above.

#1 DO NOT BUY THE COOKIES! (aha! why didn’t I think of that?). Okay, that may be easier said than done. To increase your chances of not buying the cookies I suggest going shopping when your willpower is at its highest; when you are feeling full of energy and hope, probably in the morning. Don’t go shopping when you’re tired or stressed.

If you are struggling to not buy the cookies, I suggest buying an alternative food that is less appealing and better for you. Carrots? Nuts? Strawberries? You can even buy both and decide later?

#2 SET REMINDERS AND PROMPTS. Put a sign on the pantry door reminding yourself about why you don’t want to eat those cookies in the first place. If you need to, hang an image that makes you excited about your goals.

#3 REFRAME THE SITUATION. Make the conversation about WHY you don’t want to eat the cookies. Remind yourself that you have goals that relate to your health. This is not about deprivation, this is about improving your health and starting a new habit. This is about empowering yourself to be successful. Believe me, if you don’t eat the cookies you will feel better later!

Another trick that I have used is to say to myself, “I already ate the cookie.” You see, I realized that the pleasure of eating the cookie (well for me it’s chocolate) is so fleeting I figured I can just remind myself of that and pretend I already indulged in the food, even though I didn’t. This has worked surprisingly well for me!!

#4 USE SOCIAL PRESSURE AND ACCOUNTABILITY. Enlist the help of a loved one and ask for support. I know this seems scary but boy does it work! You could have a friend call you at that time every day and remind you that you don’t really want the cookie. Or you could email or text a friend that you did or did not eat the cookie. No judgement from them is allowed!


Using willpower or self-control to resist temptation is just not a sustainable model.

It’s also exhausting.

Rather, work on creating an environment that is low in temptation and high in accountability toward your goals.

Over time bad habits will fall away and good habits will appear. It will seem ALMOST effortless.

Once you have developed some good habits the need for willpower is even lower.

Now you will have an environment that supports your success AND you will actually CRAVE doing the good habits. Woohoo!

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