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Self-control is like a muscle: the more regularly you use it, the stronger it gets — in every area of life.

In one study, psychologists Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng had participants start and stick to a regular exercise plan. Two months later, the exercising participants were performing better on other self-control tests in the lab. More impressive still, they experienced higher levels of self-control outside the lab, reporting success toward quitting smoking and limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, better maintenance of household chores, and improved spending and study habits. Participants also reported less emotional distress and less perceived stress after practicing self-control. The Australian research team noted that exercising self-control in one area “produced significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviors.”

Another study, led by researcher Mark Muraven, PhD, at the University of Albany in New York, asked a group of participants to give up sweets for two weeks. At the end of that time, the sweets-deprived participants performed better on concentration tests, which takes self-control.

So if you want to start and stick to an exercise routine (or any goal that’s proved challenging), you may be able to improve your chances of success by developing self-control in another area first: Stick to a budget, do the dishes every night before bed, or cut your TV viewing in half.

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