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Why You Don’t Need Self-Control For Healthy (Exercise) Habits: A Dog’s Tale

A personal twist on the science of self-control and maintaining healthy habits

I have two confessions to make.

Confession #1: I hate going to the gym in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind it at all once I’m there. It’s the going part that gets me. More specifically, it’s the getting out of bed at such an early hour that’s the real killer.

I recognize, though, that my gym routine is important to me, as it should be for everyone. Being physically active makes me a better, more healthy and well-rounded person. We evolved as a species to move our bodies, not sit at a desk for hours on end. 

The physical and psychological benefits of exercise are numerous. The science has confirmed time and again it greatly improves our cognitive functioning. So as a psychologist studying this stuff, you’d think that this would be enough of a motivator to stir me from my early-morning slumber.

But it isn’t.

No matter how many times I remind myself of all the reason why exercise is good for me, when the morning rolls around, my bleary brain has forgotten all about them. Then there’s the trickery my mind plays, saying “oh, I’ll just rest my eyes for another minute and then get up.” Yea, right. We all know how that plays out.

Confession # 2: You guessed it, I am not a morning person.

I am the opposite of a morning person. My self-control is utterly lacking at this time of the day. The temptation to sleep is simply too powerful to override.

So how do I do it? How do I maintain that all important workout habit? The “decision” starts 12 hours the night before when I feed my dog her dinner.

That’s right. Maintaining my healthy workout habit is the result of my choosing to feed my dog her dinner at 5PM the night before I go the gym. It’s a system I’ve developed; a personal life hack that has proven to work for me. Let me explain more about my “little” furry family member.

Hadley the Dane and my self-control hack

My dog, Hadley, is a gargantuan beast. She’s a two year-old Great Dane, standing 36 inches should height and weighing in at around 70kg. The appetite on this dog is unrivaled. I’ve never seen anything like it. 

I’ve chosen to use this to my advantage: My dog’s insatiable eating is the reason I am able to get out of bed to go to the gym.

Hadley’s eating is like clockwork. She eats in exact 12 hour intervals. By feeding her at 5PM, she is ready, and I mean ready, to eat breakfast the next morning right at 5AM. She becomes my alarm clock to get me out of bed and off to the gym.

But unlike an alarm clock that you can hit snooze on, her insistent whining and barking doesn’t turn off. I use this to my advantage because as long she’s hungry and wanting breakfast, I’m not sleeping.

And once I’m up with her, and she’s fed and taken outside, I resemble enough of a real human being that I’m able to go off to the gym and do my thing. It works like a charm. But, here’s the thing: If I feed her at 7 or 8PM the night before, forget it. I’m not going to the gym because she’s not getting up until 7 or 8AM that next morning. I’ve lost the small window of time I have to squeeze a workout into my busy schedule.

Self-control and temptation avoidance

As it turns out, my struggle with getting out of bed, and the little tactic to deal with it, has some scientific backing. Work by Michael Inzlicht, Marina Milyavskaya, and colleagues has shown that achieving our goals has very little to do with engaging self-control resources. In their paper titled “What’s So Great About Self-Control?” Inzlicht and team found compelling evidence that brute force self-control doesn’t matter so much.

“There’s a strong assumption still that exerting self-control is beneficial. And we’re showing in the long term, it’s not.”

You can’t willpower your way to a goal. It’s an illusion of self-control, something we’ve been falsely led to believe is critical for making healthy decisions. Translated to my situation, this means that no amount of directed, effortful self-control is going to get my butt out of bed in the morning. I can’t willfully summon self-discipline and make the “right” decision at that moment to go to the gym.

Instead, what works best, according to the science, is building systems in your life to avoid temptation. The best “self-controllers”, arguably the people who are most successful in life, aren’t the disciplined drill sergeants we believe them to be.

They’re smarter than that. What they do instead is limit the likelihood that a temptation or urge (like sleeping) will influence their higher goal-related decision, or indecision (like the choice to stay in bed and not go to the gym).

My choice to feed by giant horse dog at 5PM the night before is a system that I have to help me avoid temptation, thus leading me to make the right decision at that moment. Though in a way the decision is already made 12 hours before.

Final thoughts

As I finish writing this post, I don’t feel so bad about my initial confessions. My struggle to maintain the healthy gym habit isn’t a sign of my failing willpower but rather a sign that I’m human. 

The trick, as I’ve now learned, is finding simple yet clever ways to get my healthy habits (exercise or otherwise) to stick, without relying on any type of effortful self-control. Because, as it turns out, this illusory phenomenon of controlled “willpower” doesn’t have much power to begin with.

But I have to stop here. My watch says it’s 4:58PM, which means I got a hungry dog to feed and
workout habit to keep up. 

Mini-fridge or giant-dog? 

Nick is a behavioral and brain scientist whose research on habit formation helps people improve their peak psychological functioning. Come say hello to him here, and get the newest action-packed insights from leading science research.

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