I know this is a rather strange suggestion, but I have recently finished an excellent book on willpower: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It. Towards the end of that book there was a chapter called “Don’t Read This Chapter: The Limits of ‘I Won’t’ Power”. The key idea was that trying to put things out of your mind makes those things more likely to stay in your mind and thus more likely that you will act upon them. It’s called ironic rebound. Instead you should actually think about whatever it is you don’t want to think about or do and you will be less likely to think about or do it.
This is incredibly counter-intuitive. If you crave something, pondering it should intensify the craving right? Actually some research is showing that it does just the opposite. The author describes experiments on chocolate, smoking, and dieting that show people who try to suppress their thoughts about a craving actually end up indulging to a much greater extent. In one experiment women who were encouraged to avoid thinking about chocolate subsequently ended up eating twice as much of it as women who were encouraged to think about and express any thoughts they had about chocolate.
I’ve been trying this out myself and strangely enough it seems to work. Whenever I have the urge to snack on something I know I shouldn’t be snacking on, I just imagine how it would taste and how it would make me feel. Then I choose not to act on it and move on. Instead of averting my eyes I look right at the tasty treat. Amazingly this seems to dispel the urge and allows my mind release the thought. Strange but true.
“When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you. Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, that thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness. Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking it.
This solution turns out to be useful for a surprisingly wide range of unwanted inner experiences. The willingness to think what you think and feel what you feel – without necessarily believing that it is true, and without feeling compelled to act on it – is an effective strategy for treating anxiety, depression, food cravings, and addiction.”
— Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct
The key is to think and feel whatever you want, but don’t act upon those thoughts and feelings. This is just one of many ideas in this excellent book and I thought it was worth sharing with you. It certainly seems to work for me.
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