Lent began yesterday and for many Christians this means giving up something for 40 days, in part to practice self-discipline. While forgoing meat, chocolate, smoking, or whatever else one chooses, when temptation hits, it might be useful to review some of the findings in social psychology on self-control. According to one theory, self-control is construal dependent. So, when trying to refrain from something, depending on how you see the tempting situation you may come to a different conclusion.
It seems that we have better self-control when something is psychologically distant (for example through time or space). There are many ways to be psychologically distant from a situation. In one study, psychologists found that when people pictured themselves voting from a third person perspective they were more likely to actually go and vote versus people who pictured voting from a first person perspective. So, maybe when you go for that chocolate you vowed to give up you will do a better job refraining if you picture yourself eating it from a third person perspective. Other ways to distance yourself psychologically would be to view your action in the context of time– tell yourself yes you can drink a glass of wine now, but in the long run you won’t be happy with yourself for breaking Lent. Or perhaps the easiest way to distance yourself from your temptation is to literally distance yourself from it. Move the cake into a different room or don’t keep cake in your house in the first place because (no surprises here) physical distance has been shown to make self-control easier as well.
Although, my guess is that if psychological distance can improve self-control, people who are practicing Lent may already have an advantage over people who just choose to forgo something outside the religious context. Lent itself provides a superordinate goal of discipline and willpower in order to become more spiritually fulfilled. Remembering this bigger picture when tempted may provide the psychological distance needed to refrain.