If self-control is more than an innate trait, but rather a set of skills and habit of character, then we should be able to grow in self-control. But how do we do this? Surely there is more to increasing self-control and changing habits than merely "trying harder." It turns out that there are a lot of empirically supported practical skills and strategies that we can all learn to strengthen our ability to resist temptation, increase self-control, break old habits, and form new habits. This article features the first of several such skills and strategies we will cover: anticipation.
Humans have a tendency to choose behaviors with smaller, sooner rewards over ones with larger, vague, and future delayed rewards(1). This is the mechanism behind our choices when we continue to pick junk food over healthy food - choosing the small rewards of enjoyment from sugary, fatty cookies (sugar rush and sense of pleasure) over the long term benefits of eating broccoli (trimmer waist line, less chronic illness, more energy). One way we can bridge this gap between short term and long-term rewards is through anticipatory behaviors(1). The more we think about in detail the long term payoff of our more "self-controlled" behavior, the more likely we are to choose them over something more immediate, but less rewarding (and possibly even detrimental in the long haul) alternatives.
Say you're trying to eat a more healthy diet and lose some weight but you're having trouble. Yes, we all know we need to eat more veggies, less junk food, and exercise more, but that's let's be honest, it's hard to stick with. Start envisioning exactly what you want to accomplish in the end. Don't just say "Lose weight" or "Be healthier." Make it as specific as possible. Try to envision it in your mind. Be sure to make it as vivid as possible as you visualize it, the more detail the better(2). Imagine yourself stepping on the scale and seeing it stop on your target number. Imagine yourself exactly as you would like to look, fitting into the clothes you want to wear, doing the things you want to do. Rehearse this imagery frequently, making it as real as possible. Then, when faced with a tempting situation to go back on your plan and eat something unhealthy, remind yourself of the goal, rehearse the visualization, and see yourself reaching the goal. This often will help you make the self-controlled choice. It increases commitment and confidence. Try it out and post your results here. You can use this in all sorts of situations for all sorts of goals.
(1) Rachlin, H. (2000). The Science of Self-Control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(2) Watson, D. L. & Tharp, R. G. (2007). Self-Directed Behavior. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.