How to Set Limits and Stick to Them

Do you use your research’s results in your day-to-day actions? Did it change something significant in your life? originally appeared on Quora – the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, on Quora.

I try to use research routinely in my daily life, there are many examples, but I will give you just one of them. One of the things we know about dieting is that it is very hard because it’s always about one more forkful or one more spoonful. It’s very hard to count calories and know how much we’ve eaten so we often just eat too much. We also know that when we have rules it is easier to know where we are, to remember to count and to hold ourselves accountable. Think about something like Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a very strict rule that says no drinking whatsoever. Why do we have this rule instead of half a glass a day? It’s because we would stretch the rule, find very big glasses or say, two today but nothing next week and we would come up with all kinds of mental gymnastics to do something that is good for us in the short term that’s not good for us in the long term so having strict rules is very important.

Another thing we know is that having someone that we can be accountable to that is not ourselves is important. If you take all of those together what did I do?

About three years ago I signed a contract with my cousin and the contract was very specific, we defined rules for eating and rules for exercise. The rules for eating were that we could not have dessert during the week, only on the weekend. The rules for exercising included that we had to exercise three times during the week either vigorously for thirty minutes or not as vigorously for 1 hour and that we would hold each other accountable and that we would punish each other if we broke the rules. If you look at the photos and TED Talks of me online you can see that there has been some improvement since signing this contract. By the way, I did not manage to succeed all weeks and sometimes she did punish me, through this punishment I learned about the seven minute exercise and another time that I learned that drinking a green vegetable drink every day is not something that makes me very happy. Regardless, having clear rules about eating and exercise and having someone hold me accountable has been very successful.

Even today, being in a different city and with some jet lag, I didn’t really want to work out but knowing that if I didn’t I wouldn’t get myself to my three times a week I had agreed to I got myself out of bed and exercises and now I’m very happy I did.

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