With the advent of consumerism, especially with the technology that puts the world at our fingertips, it is increasingly easier to succumb to temptations. It is effortless to provide our brains with short-term gratification at the expense of a long-term goal. You have 24×7 stores, online shops, fridges, credit cards, social media, TV and streaming services, and countless other ways to lose self-control and satisfy our temptations without extending any significant effort.
It is this conflict between what you should do and what you want to do that often requires self-control. You know you should go to a gym and exercise. It is the right thing to do long-term. But you instead want to get a cake. It is an easy way towards satisfaction at this very moment. People with high self-control prefer long-term benefits. Those who have low self-control choose immediate gratification. They failed at self-control.
Angela L. Duckworth, Katherine L. Milkman, and David Laibson took it upon themselves to summarize the latest research on approaches to reducing failures of self-control.
As is the case of other researchers, there is no question by Duckworth and the team that self-control has a positive impact on health, wealth, and generally on human flourishing. Even though this is recognized and accepted in the wider population, it is still fascinating to see that so many of us constantly struggle with self-control. We overeat, underexercise, procrastinate, overspend, overwork, and generally lose the battle with our impulses and desires more often than we care to admit.
Duckworth, Milkman, and Laibson came up with a set of approaches towards reducing failures of self-control split into four groups. They distinguish between strategies that focus on cognition, objective situation versus mental representation. They also differentiate between self-deployed when people take an active role to improve their decision, and other-deployed, when people may be unaware of actions taken by others on their behalf.
- Self-deployed and cognitive strategies include goal setting, planning, mindfulness, self-monitoring, and cognitive therapy.
- Self-deployed and situational strategies include situation modification, behavior therapy, temptation bundling, and commitment devices.
- Other-deployed and cognitive strategies include social labeling, fresh-start framing, joint evaluation, making the future self-relatable, and descriptive social norms.
- Other-deployed and situational strategies include planned interruptions, choosing in advance, defaults, active choice, microenvironments, and hard paternalism.
Let me briefly talk about some strategies Duckworth and the team propose that I find particularly effective and relatively easy to implement without external help. The goal is to limit the energy required for self-control and, ideally, remove some of the temptations altogether.
1. Commitment devices
We are more likely to make a self-controlled choice when thinking about the future than about the present. We are more conscious of the long-term effect. That is why we are very comfortable telling ourselves that we will go to the gym tomorrow morning, but when the morning comes, we rationalize why not going today. The same applies to food. We may commit to eating healthy during the weekend, but then Saturday comes, and when we open the fridge, there are so many unhealthy choices that we reach out for one of them.
What you can do is eliminate as many future options as possible. If there was nothing else in the fridge, then a salad, then that’s what you would eat. This type of self-imposed constraint is very powerful in keeping our commitments. More choice is rarely a good thing. If you can link the commitment to some additional benefit, you are more likely to keep it. For example, you may bet with a friend that you go to a gym every day this week. Otherwise, you pay for lunch on Sunday.
2. Temptation bundling
This strategy allows enjoying some of the temptations only when working on long-term goals. For example, you may want to watch TV only if you are at the same time exercising on your treadmill. In this case, the temptation to watch television helps you exercise more. It is a strategy that can help to start you on the right path, but since it still includes also harmful activity, you would be well advised to over time move to one of the other strategies.
3. Situation modification
This can be a natural follow-up of the previous strategy. Remove the temptations from your environment. This is the typical approach to self-control by avoidance. If there is no unhealthy snack to eat, or you don’t own a television, then you can hardly spend your evening binge-watching the latest TV series eating chips. I have used this strategy many times in my life. Every now and then, I would do an inventory of what sort of things I have at home that are leading me astray and just get rid of them immediately. Some of them may creep in over time without me realizing it, and this regular show of strength helps me to keep my commitment not to eat too many unhealthy snacks.
4. Goal setting
You can’t get to your destination if you don’t know where you are going. This strategy gives you that destination. Setting up specific and challenging goals is a way to help you focus. It forces you to direct your energy towards something specific that you want. The smart thing to do is to break down the overarching goal into a set of smaller, manageable pieces. When you have a couple of milestones on the way, so you know how you are doing, you will also immediately see that you are not doing as planned. The feeling of losing can give you the kick you need to keep going. Achieving these smaller goals gives you a feeling of self-efficacy and helps to motivate you.
Planning is an integral part of goal-setting. A good plan enables you to fight procrastination. The planning activity helps you clarify the goal and build a stronger commitment.
What is very important in goal setting is that the goal needs to be yours. If your boss sets a goal for you, a goal you are not particularly enthusiastic about, you won’t give it all your attention and energy. If the target comes from you, you are genuinely committed to it, and it will work.
Improved self-control goes hand in hand with consistency over a significant period. Most of the important things in life can be broken down into small daily tasks and behaviors that lead to long-term positive effects only when applied consistently for years. Going for a morning run once a year does nothing for you. Consistently going for a run every day for a year is a very different level of accomplishment. The same goes for saving money, learning new things, and building relationships.
To be able to stay on track, you need to know what your behavior is. You need to self-monitor. Set some metrics to help you judge how well you are doing and if the current self-control strategies are working. If they don’t work, then change them.
6. Psychological distancing
This strategy compares to physical distancing from temptations. As discussed above, a robust strategy for self-control is to avoid temptations in the first place. Psychological distancing works similarly. Focusing on more valuable goals, even though they are often more abstract and distanced in time, can help you to distract your thoughts from the gratification that could be achieved at this moment by breaking self-control and succumbing to temptation.
The same can be achieved by reframing and rewording the temptation. For example, in the self-control experiments, researchers helped children to think of marshmallows as “round and puffy like clouds,” so they resisted eating them longer than kids who thought of their “chewy sweet taste.” You may consider that these are mind games, and you would be right. For them to work, you need to be willing to try new things and have a flexible mindset. They can’t work if you won’t give them the benefit of the doubt.
It is a nonjudgmental awareness of the here and now. It may sound as being in contradiction to the previous point of psychological distancing. It is not. By focusing on what you are experiencing right now, how you feel about it, and what you want to do, you stop yourself and think. You don’t mindlessly start snacking on unhealthy food, but you stop yourself to understand your desire and then go and get an apple. It is mindlessness that is often the biggest enemy of self-control.
8. Descriptive social norms
This strategy is forced by the environment. It’s not up to you. And that’s the point. When you discover that the majority of your peers behave in a certain way, you are more likely to follow suit. You do this for two reasons. First, you believe in the wisdom of the crowd and that others must know more than you do. Second, you don’t want to be ostracized by the group for being different.
It is essential to understand this dynamic since you can do one thing. You can remove yourself from the environment that contradicts your goals. For example, if everyone in the group smokes, it is often an uphill battle for someone who wants to stop smoking. Finding a different group of friends, one that is more health-conscious, might be the best strategy.
9. Social labeling
This strategy touches your identity. “This is who I am,” thinking, together with a social identity, “People like me do this,” is often a powerful driver of self-control. It is based on emotions rather than logic. If, for example, you identify with a group of health-conscious people, you can push yourself to avoid eating junk food by the simple claim that “people like me don’t eat junk food.” I have successfully used the identity strategy when building a habit of regular exercise. I would wake up in the morning, and if I felt like staying in bed instead of going to the gym, I would reason to myself, “I’m not someone who gives up. I exercise every day. That’s who I am.” It was usually enough to get me out of bed.
Status quo, passivity, and procrastination are the enemies of self-control. They make it hard to change habits and create routines aligned with the goals you want to achieve. People often let destiny choose for them instead of making an effort required to overcome the status quo.
However, you can work with others and create the environment so that the default choice, the one without active participation, supports your goal. You then get a massive boost to your self-control. Now you need to actively work for the suboptimal option. An alternative to defaults is to make them non-existent. By having to make an active choice, you are giving yourself a chance to be more deliberate in your decisions. By making an active choice, you also build a bigger internal commitment to the chosen option.
Putting it all together
People with high self-control have a greater chance of achieving their life goals. If you feel you don’t have too much self-control, don’t worry. Self-control is not something you are born with. There are many strategies you can follow to increase your self-control. Some of them require cooperation from others, but many are entirely under your control. The easiest way to start is to design your environment in such a way that you remove as many temptations as possible and make it easy for you to enact the behavior you want. Routinize your life with the right default options. Set the right goals and remove as much short-term decision-making as possible. Remove options and possibilities to deviate from the desired course of action. Figure out who you want to be and remind yourself often what someone like you does or doesn’t do.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe that self-control is a good thing? In what situations is too much self-control harmful? Do you know someone with superior self-control skills and how do they behave? How do you increase self-control?
Photo: Counselling / Pixabay.com
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