Take 5: Tips for Maintaining Your Self-Control During the Holidays
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Marketing Dec 2, 2016

Take 5: Tips for Main­tain­ing Your Self-Con­trol Dur­ing the Holidays

There’s a ten­den­cy to over­do it, but Kel­logg researchers offer ways to stay disciplined.

A couple maintains self-control while eating.

Lisa Röper

Ah, the plea­sures of the hol­i­day sea­son: cakes and cook­ies, wine and spir­its, splurg­ing on gifts for friends and fam­i­ly (and per­haps our­selves while we’re at it). Indul­gences are front and cen­ter this time of year, entic­ing us at par­ties, in restau­rants, and through store windows.

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Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some of those treats expand our waist­lines and erode our bank accounts. But this need not be inevitable. Research from Kel­logg School fac­ul­ty offers some ways to main­tain your moti­va­tion and self-con­trol dur­ing the holidays. 

1. Stay Moti­vat­ed, Even in the Mid­dle of a Hol­i­day Task

When you begin a task, you start off strong. Say it’s your hol­i­day shop­ping. You make a list, check it twice, and hit the stores (or Inter­net). About mid­way through, your ener­gy wanes. You begin to won­der how the hol­i­days became so com­mer­cial­ized in the first place, feel over­whelmed, and take a break.

This is total­ly nor­mal, says Miguel Brendl, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Management. 

When we embark on a task, we feel accom­plished as we make progress. But about halfway through, our per­spec­tive shifts and we begin to focus on the end result. Sud­den­ly, we are far from both the begin­ning and the end. We feel stuck in the mid­dle and lose our momentum. 

What we nor­mal­ly think of in moti­va­tion is how much willpow­er do I have to force myself to move on?” Brendl says. But it’s not about willpow­er; it’s just per­cep­tion.” And in the mid­dle of the process, steps for­ward seem less valuable.

To main­tain our moti­va­tion, we should give our­selves small­er tasks and rewards for work­ing toward our goal. Binge watch some Net­flix after buy­ing your husband’s gift, perhaps?

2. Self-Con­trol and the Pre­car­i­ous Middle

When our ener­gy flags in the mid­dle of a task, our self-worth takes a hit. But we feel even worse about our­selves if we give up ear­ly in the process, or with the end in sight, accord­ing to research by Mafer­i­ma Touré-Tillery, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kellogg.

We judge our­selves more harsh­ly if we fail at those points because we nat­u­ral­ly pay more atten­tion to these tran­si­tions or break points, in the same way that we are more like­ly to remem­ber items at the begin­ning or end of a list. 

This is the case even if the tran­si­tions are total­ly arbi­trary. For exam­ple, Touré-Tillery found that peo­ple were more like­ly to choose raisins over a can­dy bar for a noon­time snack if it was framed as a snack for the end of your morn­ing” ver­sus a snack to keep your day going.”

So think of that hol­i­day lun­cheon as hap­pen­ing at the begin­ning of your after­noon not the mid­dle of your day, and you might more eas­i­ly lay off the eggnog.

3. The Key to Self-Con­trol: Avoid Temptation

Think you can main­tain your self-con­trol in front of the dessert buf­fet? After all, you’re feel­ing very com­posed right now. 

Well, it turns out we have less con­trol over our temp­ta­tions than we think we do, espe­cial­ly when we are not feel­ing over­ly impulsive. 

When we’re in a cold state,” mean­ing we are not hun­gry or angry, for exam­ple, we are more like­ly to expose our­selves to temp­ta­tion and thus indulge in impul­sive or addic­tive behav­ior. This is because we are con­fi­dent we can resist more than we actu­al­ly can.

When we’re already feel­ing impul­sive, says Loran Nord­gren, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kel­logg, we have a more real­is­tic view of how well we can con­trol ourselves. 

One way we could keep our­selves from giv­ing in to our desires is to sim­ply avoid them. Says Nord­gren: We expose our­selves to more temp­ta­tion than is wise.”

So just slow­ly back away from the meringue. 

4. Guilt Can Be Your Friend, Sometimes

If you find your­self sheep­ish­ly head­ing back to the dessert table for anoth­er piece of pep­per­mint bark, the guilt you feel might make the expe­ri­ence more satisfying. 

Guilt ampli­fies the plea­sure of indulging, accord­ing to research by Kel­ly Gold­smith, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kel­logg. In Goldsmith’s stud­ies, she primed some par­tic­i­pants to think about guilt by read­ing words like remorse, sin, and error, or by look­ing at health mag­a­zines. Those par­tic­i­pants went on to enjoy choco­late and sweets more than peo­ple who had been giv­en more neu­tral words or mag­a­zines to peruse. 

Even a touch of remorse can moti­vate us to treat our­selves, so we should be wary of its effects. Mak­ing kids feel bad about drink­ing or drug use, for exam­ple, could actu­al­ly make those behav­iors seem more desir­able, Gold­smith cau­tions. But for behav­iors that are not so bad, guilt can both be a vehi­cle to make safe indul­gences more fun and more enjoy­able for all of us.” 

So go ahead and feel bad. It’ll make the pep­per­mint bark that much more delicious

5. We’re going to exer­cise our self-con­trol and leave it at that.

About the Writer

Susan Cosier is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois.

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