Strengthening Self-Control

Image of hand held up to decline a potato chip

The WSJ had an article once on "How to Keep a Resolution." One of the suggestions was to strengthen your self-control. Here's the relevant section:

"It may be possible to strengthen your self-control before starting your resolution by exercising it on small tasks.... In a study, college students who practiced self-control for two weeks by consciously improving their posture or keeping a food diary, performed better afterward on tests of will, such as squeezing a hand grip for an extended time...."

This idea has been around for a long time. Alan Lakein suggested a similar approach to strengthening self-control in his 1974 book: when you watch TV, get up to turn down the volume whenever there is a commercial. Then turn it back up when the show comes back on. (That's correct, you youngsters, there were no TV remotes in 1974.)

I believe that these techniques work because they give you practice setting a standing order and reinforcing it through monitoring and acting consistently on every signal you get. As soon as you notice bad posture, you stand up straight. As soon as you notice you're eating, you reach for the food diary. As soon as you notice that there's a commercial, you turn down the volume.

The actions are simple, painless, but they do show you that you can act on your intentions. And in this regard, they give you a reaffirmation of your own efficacy.

This is not the explanation the article gives. Here's what the article said in the next paragraph:

"Any technique that requires you to suppress a normal impulse should work, such as cutting back on swearing or using your non-dominant hand for routine tasks. 'By doing small things that take a certain amount of self-control, you can build up your "muscle" for tackling larger changes'...."

I completely disagree with this explanation and this advice. First, you are not suppressing a normal impulse in the three cases that I mentioned above. Rather, you are setting a standing order so that you notice an opportunity to initiate a new specific action. You are creating a new impulse, and reinforcing it with action.

Furthermore, that action is tied to larger values. If you keep a food diary, you are more likely to notice poor eating habits and want to change them. If you use Lakein's approach to commercials, you are more likely to notice the time spent on TV, and reduce it.

Second, cutting back on swearing and using your non-dominant hand bring up different issues.

If you want to cut back on swearing, just trying to suppress the impulse will not do the trick. What you actually need to do is to pause when you would have sworn, and use that impulse to do something else — say take a deep breath and relax, or check-in to see if the situation is as bad as it seems. If all you do is suppress, you will find that you get more tense — and that will aggravate whatever negative feelings you have, and do nothing to change your automatized reaction.

Stopping swearing is more difficult than the three earlier cases — because you are likely to fail a lot in the early stages. At first, you may only notice you are swearing after the words are out of your mouth. You need to commit to taking the action (the breath, or the check-in) even if you catch it late. Over time, you'll notice it sooner.

So far, all of the suggestions have their own payoff.

Is there any payoff to switching to use your non-dominant hand? Do you really gain some willpower advantage when you do an exercise like this for the sake of an experiment? Perhaps you build a little confidence. Perhaps some of those college students learned how to monitor. For those who don't already monitor their actions, that could surely make a difference which improves their lives.

But why practice with an action that has no value in itself? Why waste all of that effort on something that makes absolutely no difference? An action needs to have some clear benefit if you are to truly commit to doing it regularly. Otherwise it's just a game.

And for readers of this article, my bet is that the WSJ technique is too remedial for you. It wouldn't make any difference in your self-control per se. It would only help improve the particular issue you were working on.

So, is there something you can do to improve your self-control? Self-awareness of all kinds can help. Institute a daily planning or review session. Set up a standing order to check in whenever you catch that your shoulders have tensed. Learn how to introspect your emotions. All of these will help you notice impulses to act — and hold the full context of whether that impulse is really in your rational self-interest.

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