Scientists Have a Trick For Accomplishing Your Goals

There's a formula for reinforcing self-control.

Want to lose weight or stick to your gym schedule? Remember a couple times you were able to in the past.

Research (paywall) published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows that in order to maintain your self-control, one of the best things you can do is to remember just a few instances where you were able to succeed. Remembering too many successes or times you’ve failed may make you more likely to give up on your goals in the future.

It’s a combination of mood and confidence that affects your ability to complete a task. “When people try to recall many successes…they experience difficulty in coming up with so many examples of being successful at self-control,” lead author Hristina Nikolova, a marketing expert at Boston College, told Quartz in an email. Conversely, when people only had to recall a few instances of success, “the ease of recall boosts people’s confidence in their self-control ability.” When people know they’re capable of self-control, they exercise it more.

To test this theory, researchers conducted several experiments in which they asked participants to complete various tasks that required some form of discipline: continuing to work on an impossible problem, managing money, or managing time effectively.

In these scenarios, researchers asked participants to think of times they had to complete a similar task. They asked some to remember two instances in which they were successful, others to remember 10, and another group to remember times they failed. Participants saved money rather than going into debt, when they recalled only two successful instances from the past.

As for thinking about failures? Nikolova thinks that when we remind ourselves of times we failed, we are disheartened in a way that makes us feel like we can’t do it—we lose confidence in ourselves. When we’re put in a negative mood, we’re more likely to engage in indulgent behavior, even if we know we shouldn’t.

Nikolova is confident that these same principles could be applied to long term goals with diet and exercise. “Training for a competition or losing weight would also involve a series of self-control decisions that we make every day on the road to achieving these goals,” she said.

(Image via patpitchaya/