A Simple Ritual That Can Enhance Self-Control

Lack of self-control is one of the main reasons that stop us to meet our lofty goals. From overeating to not saving enough for retirement, self-control gives us the capacity to say no to choices that are immediately gratifying but can be costly in the long run. Psychologist and behavioural scientists have been puzzled over the issue of self-control for decades. Research has found that people continue for longer on tasks that require self-control when they know they will be paid for their efforts or even if they are told their work will benefit others.

Many diet and exercise apps and gadgets on the market are brought in by entrepreneurs who have become interested in self-control. For example, on the commitment contract website stickK.com, users put down some money and state a goal that they want to achieve. And they need to state where this money will go if they fail to achieve the task. If they achieve the goal, they can earn the money back but if they fail, they lose the money. This can increase our self-control but only to some extent. Tools like stickK.com are often difficult to implement since someone will be needed to monitor your efforts.

However, new research suggests a different solution that may be easier to implement, using rituals. A ritual is a list of steps that are taken while attaching some kind of symbolic meaning. Rituals are a part of our daily life and though this may seem a waste of time, research has found that rituals are powerful. Rituals have shown to reduce anxiety and improve performance before stressful tasks. They allow us to enjoy family holidays more and gives us a greater sense of control after experiencing a loss, whether it is a loved one or in a lottery.

In a study, the power of rituals was tested to help with a common self-control problem, eating less. From a university gym, researchers recruited undergraduate females who already had a target of losing weight. Half of them were told to be mindful about their food consumption for the next five days. The other half was taught a three-step pre-eating ritual and they were told to complete it every time they ate something. This ritual which was created did not require participants to eat less food. The ritual was –

First, cut your food into pieces before you eat it. Second, rearrange the pieces so that they are perfectly symmetric on your plate. That is, get the right half of your plate to look exactly the same as the left half of your plate. Finally, press your eating utensil against the top of your food three times. In order to be in the study, you must do the three steps of this ritual each time you eat.

Participants were asked to download the “MyFitnessPal” food-tracking app onto their phones to track daily food and beverage intake. The app allows users to list exactly the type and amount of food or beverage they consume, including brands of grocery products and meals from chain restaurants. Experimenters had access to these online food diaries in which the phone would remind the participants to log their food intake three times a day.

The results were as expected. Participants who went through the pre-eating ritual consumed fewer calories of about 1,424 calories per day on average. But those who simply were mindful about their eating consumed more calories of about 1,648 calories per day. Also, those who performed the rituals ate less fat and sugar. We can see that the ritual helped them exercise the self-control needed to achieve their weight loss goals. The result suggests that a set of steps before eating may be a better weight loss strategy than following a strict diet.

However, these rituals can be taken too far. The set of actions can restrict food consumption and can turn to become a habit which can lead to problematic behaviours such as eating disorders, according to research. But careful undertaking of such practices can also promote well-being. Following a series of steps over and over again requires some good self-discipline. Therefore when we engage our self in a ritual, we code that behaviour as a sign that we are people with self-control. And because of this self-control, we are able to reduce our caloric intake. Simple rituals can help us build personal discipline and self-control. The ritual, which was thought to be a waste of time, has proved to be quite powerful.






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