in control

There is a piece of your personality that impacts your weight, dental health, safety, retirement savings, propensity to drug addiction... your credit score, income, criminal record, even your incidence of STDs and more. What if you could easily improve this vital piece of your self? Or help your family members do the same? What I'm talking about is self-control.

Current literature describes self-control as a finite resource.  For instance, if you are working really hard on a project at work it can be more difficult than usual to resist the candy jar in the cube down the hall.  You have used up your willpower focusing on your project and there is little left to resist the sugar.  So goes much of the research.


That’s depressing. And hard for me to accept. I think I have a nearly limitless reservoir.  That might be overly optimistic.  How about I have all I've needed so far.  Better.  Well good news: research has identified strategies to increase self-control.  This suggests the reservoir view is not the end-all-be-all.

Differences in self-control levels start early. In a famous experiment, young children are given a marshmallow but told not to eat it.  If they succeed, they will receive more marshmallows but most fail.  It's hard.  So scientists looked at the children who were successful; how did they do it?  Many of them employed strategies of distraction.  They might sit on hands or sing or just look away. In similar experiments the children were given distractions. With that help, control improved.

Those children were followed into adulthood and those early differences in self-control followed them into adulthood.  The teenagers who as kids showed more control ended up committing less crime, experienced less teenage pregnancy, etc.  And in adulthood the same pattern continued.  The more controlled individuals had better credit scores, more stable relationships and higher incomes.  I bet you didn't know marshmallows were so bad for you!

Interestingly, the scale was graduated.  A little bit better control resulted in a little bit better life.  All the way up the curve.

There are some situations where self-control is needed but the temptation is not right in front of you.  Think about starting or continuing a long-term project.  Such as improving a skill, working out, or project 365.  Research can help here too.  It has been found that abstract thinking and psychological distance are particularly important in this kind of self-control.

Consider these two questions that were asked to research participants.  (1) Why do you stay fit? and (2) How do you stay fit?

The first question is about the big picture.  What benefits do you get out of it?  How does it fit into your philosophy and self-image?  The second is merely about the temporal details.  What workout are you doing today?  What time will you go to the gym?

It's the first kind of question which is helpful.  The abstract view helps you to avoid the procrastination and laziness which can creep into a view of just today.  Think of it this way.  If I ask, what are you going to eat tomorrow, it's easy to think of something healthy.  A nice homemade stir-fry or something.  But if I ask about tonight it's easier to think about how busy and tired you are.  You lose the mental distance which helps you make wiser choices.  Pizza it is!

How do you implement this?  Become a planner.  Write down your big picture and how to get there.  Have specific steps and milestones.  Then, in the day-to-day it's easier to see how your actions fit into that bigger strategy.

Remember.  For temptations, find a way to distract yourself. And for goals, keep the big picture in mind. This is something I've always done well with and still want to improve. With a little bit of practice, you can reach your goals too.

Want some more tips?  Here's another overview of self-control.