The Easiest Way to Boost Willpower

Keep Calm and Eat Healthy

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Pinterest lovers, rejoice! Those “Keep Calm and Carry On” pins may do more than keep your blood pressure in check. They may also prevent you from raiding the vending machine. Inactive words like still or calm can help increase your self-control, even though they have nothing to do with your diet, finds a new study from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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For the study, researchers had 20 men and women sit at a computer screen on which a different letter appeared, one after another, 600 times. Before each letter appeared, the screen flashed with a single action-related word (like go, run, hit, move, or start) or inaction-related word (like sit, still, calm, or stop). The words appeared on the screen for such a brief amount of time that none of the participants were aware they had even seen them.

By examining the participants’ brain waves through electroencephalography (EEG) recording equipment, researchers found that when the subjects were exposed to active words, their brain activity relating to self-control decreased. When they were exposed to inactive words, that self-control activity increased.

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“Our brains have been programmed to associate action messages with performing a behavior and inaction messages with not performing that behavior,” says study co-author Justin Hepler, a social personality psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “So when we see or hear an inaction word, no matter the context, our brains work to prevent us from taking action.”

That means that while inaction words can keep you out of the kitchen, they can also keep you out of the gym, warns Hepler. Meanwhile, action words can encourage any behavior—be it good or bad. The trick is using the right words in the right situations, he says. Our suggestion? Tape inactive words on your fridge and active words right above where you keep your sneakers.

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*This story was originally published on WomensHealth.com.

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