Strategies for Self Control

- 7 Apr, 2021

How strong is your self control?

Mine wavers a lot. On the one hand, I’m pretty good at imposing all-or-nothing solutions on myself (go off Instagram for three weeks in order to get uni assignments done) but I’m not so good at moderation (a 5 minute Instagram break can easily turn into 20).

I’ve been thinking about this because I read a couple of papers last week that pointed out how important self control is, and how we can strengthen it.

One paper was a longitudinal study of over 1000 people in a single city, which found a correlation between children’s measures of self control and their health, wealth and criminality as adults. More intriguingly – although they couldn’t claim causation – children whose self control improved, showed improved adult measures. 

This might seem obvious – self control is presumably linked to avoiding harmful life choices such as smoking, overspending and engaging in crime. But studies also show that self control predicts course grades at all levels of schooling. This paper about self control and academic achievement had some really interesting insights, which got me thinking about how any of this can be applied to our lives as adults: most of us aren’t in school any more, but could self control be a stumbling block that’s stopping us achieving life goals? 

The definition of self control boils down to this: the ability to choose an action that pays off later (such as working on a personal project or exercising to lose weight) instead of choosing an action that pays off right now (e.g. watching Netflix or going on social media). Which basically means that modern life’s focus on instant gratification is a big problem if we’re trying to work towards long-term goals. 

The decision-making process behind self-control

The paper discusses what’s called the ‘process model of self control’, which suggests that there are typically four stages in our decision making process. 

Let’s say you have a personal project that might one day become a side business or even a new career. The four stages would look like this: 

  1. Situation: the context. For example, you’ve finished a long day’s work and you have a choice between working on your project (long term gain) and watching TV (immediate gain).
  2. Attention: your attention can be captured by different things. Do you turn to look at the TV, or at the laptop or your project notebook? The authors liken this to a ‘spotlight illuminating only a tiny portion of our external and internal landscapes’ which I thought was a great line. What did you choose to shine the spotlight on?
  3. Appraisal: at this stage, you interpret what you’ve brought your attention to. If you looked at the laptop, you might think, ‘working on my project can help me change my work in the future.’ If you chose the TV you might think, ‘I want to watch that show everyone’s been talking about.’ This appraisal leads to…
  4. Response: you take an action, such as turning on the TV, or turning on the laptop. The situation has now changed because you are one step closer to the TV or the laptop, and you would need to take an active step away in order to change your mind. 

Understanding these stages can help us to improve our self control. The authors explain that we can use strategies that target each of the stages, or else that increase our chances of choosing the response that aligns with our long term goals. Here’s how this might work:

Situational Strategies

This one is about not putting yourself in the tempting situation to begin with. 

For example, the study mentions that those students with higher self-control reported fewer distractions (such as TVs and phones) in their line of sight. Going back to our example above, let’s say you’re working from home: once you log off from work, you might stay in your office space rather than going into a room with a TV. 

You can also change the situation by associating it with rewards. If you turn the TV into the reward rather than the alternative, then you actually get to do both things. Sure, you might only get to watch one episode instead of three, but you’ll also get the benefit of having worked on your project, the feeling that you’ve worked towards your distant goal, and, as a bonus, none of the guilt!

Attentional Strategies

Although it’s not always possible to change the situation, we can choose how we direct our attention. Choosing to turn your attention away from a distraction – for example by not turning on the TV, or keeping your phone out of sight – can be really powerful. 

Essentially, this is a form of mindfulness and self-awareness. The consciousness of the decision can bring your goals front of mind and help you to choose those actions that benefit you more in the longer term.

Another good way of doing this one – especially if your work space is limited and distractors are everywhere – is to keep images or reminders of what you’re working towards, nearby. I suspect this is why some people find mood boards and inspiration boards so powerful. If you look at images or quotes that remind you of your longer-term goals, then keeping your attention there instead of on the TV might help you to avoid the distraction.

Appraisal Strategies

This is more commonly referred to as ‘framing’: how you frame something can change your behaviour towards it. 

For example, you might think about working on your project as an act of self-development rather than something you need to get done. On the other hand, you might try to frame watching TV as distracting you from your life goals. 

As the authors mention, this is a cognitive therapy technique which is used for all sorts of situations. It feels a little less accessible than the other strategies but if it resonates with you, it might be worth trying.

A personal note with this one: I think we should be careful in demonising the ‘distractions’. Thinking of TV as a waste of time might well make you feel guilty every time you do it, which isn’t healthy either. In fact, the ability to rest and indulge in things that make you happy is really important, and something I talk about more below. My takeaway from this one is that it’s better to frame the project positively rather than framing the distraction as something to be entirely avoided.

Shortcut Strategies

Rather than addressing a specific phase, these strategies attempt to bypass the appraisal stage altogether by creating habits, plans and shortcuts that make the desired action an automatic one.

Planning in advance reduces the brainload of having to make a decision in the moment and frees up mental capacity to actually work on your project. Take your cue from Barack Obama:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

(This article on how President Obama approached productivity also has some great ideas.)

Planning your productive time the night before makes it less likely that you’ll be tempted away, because the decision is already made. Similarly, making a habit of working on your long-term goal – for example by spending 30 minutes on it after finishing work, or having a set time at the weekend that is non-negotiable – can help to imprint in your mind that ‘at this time, I do x.’ 

Alternatively, you might link this to a personal rule that makes some allowances for your workload – for example ‘if I finish work by 18.30, I always spend 30 minutes on my personal project’. Note, though, that this will only work if you usually finish by then. If you often finish work later than that, you’ll end up never working on your personal project, with the added excuse that you didn’t break the rule!

The Pressure of Productivity

A final note of caution. Modern life is relentless. We tend to spend a lot of time on social media, where we encounter people who are supposedly doing ALL THE THINGS, which in turn makes us feel bad for not achieving more. Constantly feeling like we should be doing productive things can place a lot of pressure on us and lead to burnout. 

My intention with this post is not to point out all the ways in which you and I are getting things wrong, or to explain why we’re not achieving all the things we ‘should’ be achieving. If anything, I believe that we should be doing less and resting more. But I can also see the downside of all the distractions we have at our disposal, and how they can derail us if we do have goals that we want to work towards. And those goals might not be a personal project like the one I’ve used as an example above: they could be things related to your wellbeing, such as exercising more or taking quality rest instead of doom-scrolling (how much more would we benefit from 10 minutes of meditation than 10 minutes of Instagram?). 

What I wanted to share were some ideas about how we make decisions and strategies we might use when we do feel like we’d benefit more from other ways of spending our time. I really think that a lot of this comes down to mindfulness and self-awareness. There is no need for social media or TV to be demonised if we are using them in ways that benefit us. But at the point at which you don’t think it’s doing you any good, then having some strategies to manage your self control might help you to take ownership of your decisions and to redirect yourself to things that you think will benefit you more. 

At the end of the day, it’s about what you feel is worthwhile and what will make you happy in both the long- and short-term. Choosing your actions mindfully can help you to balance the short term pleasure with longer term goals that will leave you happier and more fulfilled in the long run.

Photo by Minh Pham on Unsplash

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