The problem of self-control goes back to Adam and Eve, says Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: We would all like to be in the Garden of Eden, but eating an apple right this moment may be too tempting to avoid.
Next time you’re trying to accomplish a long-term goal, consider these two strategies for “tricking” yourself into sticking with your plan:
1. Find reward substitutions. For example, some people may care about losing weight, but they may also find themselves craving a muffin. That’s why alternative rewards or treats—such as a specially purchased low-fat goodie—are so helpful.
Consider this workplace scenario: You aspire to be a leader at work, but in the short term, you really want to storm into someone’s office and vent. Reward substitution: Leave the building for a mind-clearing walk, or call a close friend who can make you laugh.
2. Create self-control contracts. The classic example is Ulysses and the Sirens: He tied himself to a mast of his ship because he knew he’d be tempted by the seductresses on the rocks.
A modern application of the self-control contract is this example: When patients are scheduled for a colonoscopy, they’re asked if they’d write a check for $500. If they show up on time, they’ll get their money back. More than 50% are willing to do it. Why? Because they know that the potential penalty is enough to inspire them to follow through with a dreaded appointment.
Say you have a long-term goal to constantly expand your knowledge. Here’s one way to strike a self-control contract: Make a bet with someone in your office that requires you to buy him lunch if you don’t learn one new skill every year (or quarter, etc.).