How to master self-control

Hugh Wilson
Friday, February 10, 2012
Image: Getty
Experts have discovered that the ability to exercise self-control is one of the keys to the good life — and that even impulsive men can get more of it.

A few decades ago a psychologist called Walter Mischel left a succession of four-year-olds in a room with a marshmallow and a bell.

If a child rang the bell the psychologist would come back and the kid could eat the marshmallow. If they didn't ring the bell the man would eventually come back on his own, and the child would get two marshmallows.

The experiment was simplicity itself, but the results have been startling. By following those children through the next decades of their lives, Mischel and his associates have been able to show just how profound an effect self-control has on our lives.

Here's what those effects are, along with some tips on mastering self-control when you're a long time out of short trousers.

What the marshmallows show
When the researchers looked back on the lives of those pre-schoolers a few decades later, a fascinating pattern emerged. The kids that had shown most self-control, by not ringing the bell, were on average healthier and wealthier adults, and less likely to have committed crime or developed an addiction, than the kids who couldn't wait for their marshmallow.

Another more recent study that followed 1,000 children in New Zealand for three decades found much the same thing.

One interesting statistic the new study uncovered was that only 10 percent of the children who showed good self-control grew up to have jobs with low incomes. Over 30 percent of those with poor self-control did.

Another study that measured the effects of good control came to this unambiguous conclusion: "Higher scores on self-control correlated with...higher self-esteem, less binge-eating and alcohol abuse, better relationships and interpersonal skills, secure attachment, and more optimal emotional responses."

Why is self-control so important?
Psychologists pretty much agree that self-control is essential to health, wealth and happiness, but why is it so vital?

Quite simply, having self-control makes it easier to accomplish your goals. You'll sit through a boring class to make sure you get a good degree. You'll be prepared to work your way up slowly from intern to boss without getting bored half-way through and quitting.

On, and you'll avoid getting hooked on booze or drugs in the meantime.

And there's more. You'll have the willpower to avoid the fast food joint, at least most of the time. You'll have the strength of mind not to quit your exercise regime just because the nights are drawing in and the last thing you want to do is go out and pound pavements in the rain.

You'll have the foresight to put a little of your salary away for a rainy day, rather than blowing it all on instant gratification.

When you think of it in those terms, it's easy to see why self-control is so important to satisfaction in life.

How do you get more self-control?
It's fair to say that some proportion of your allotted slice of self-control is down to genetics or early upbringing. For example, experts believe that some children who were moved around a lot during early childhood — from one house to another and one school to the next — tend to lack self-discipline, because they've been programmed to think in a short-term way.

And that's the thing about self-control. It's easier to exercise it if you look beyond the short term and focus on more distant and abstract rewards.

If you can train yourself to do that, it's possible to acquire more self-control, even as an adult, and to get a better share of the rewards self-control brings.

Dr Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist at Ohio State University in the US, has conducted many experiments into self-control and concludes that the best way to gain self-control is to use abstract reasoning.

That's not as complicated as it sounds. People who lack self-control often focus too much on their instinctive desires (I want this marshmallow now, or that pay rise, or to stop running). But if we focus more on higher, more rational thinking, we can see that giving in to instant gratification isn't always the best thing for us.

See the wood not the trees
It takes a bit of practice, but here's how it works. If you want to lose weight, every time you're passing the burger joint let an image of the healthier, fitter you pop into your head. Do it even when you know you won't be tempted by a burger, so it becomes second nature.

The same is true every time you're tempted to stop jogging because you're getting tired or cold. Think of the rewards of being fit, not the pain of the process.

It works in all sorts of situations. Self-controlled people — by definition — don't storm out of the office after being bawled at by the boss, or give up on a class because an essay is especially hard.

They weigh up the instant gratification of calling the boss rude names with the delayed gratification of taking it on the chin, working their way up the corporate ladder and eventually getting to a position where they can bawl back at the boss.

They know that revenge is a dish best served cold, and more importantly, that the larger goal should always trump the temptations of instant gratification.

It's a principle anyone can adopt. In any situation, train yourself to think in abstract terms about your goal, and if you do it enough you'll be less tempted by destructive impulses. If it helps, write your goals out and refer to them again or again, or take the same 10 minutes every evening to forget about everyday hassles and focus on your ultimate ambitions.

Be an apple person
All this sounds simplistic, but it works. If you start thinking abstractedly - about the fit, toned you of the future, say - you're more likely to make the right choices.

Kentaro Fujita proved as much in an experiment in which two groups were asked to think in either abstract or more concrete terms and then had to choose between an apple and a chocolate bar. While half the concrete, in-the-moment thinkers chose the apple, 76 percent of the abstract thinkers did.

The abstract thinkers were seeing the bigger picture — a healthier them in the future — while more of the concrete thinkers were bowing to instinctive desires.

According to Fujita, thinking only in the moment, "tends to lead people to miss the proverbial forest-beyond-the-trees, causing them to become distracted with irrelevant things and miss the big picture. This enhances the likelihood of making decisions one will later regret."

More abstract reasoning, on the other hand, "allows people to keep their eyes on the prize...and increases the likelihood of successful self-control."

Self-control can be learned
What all this shows is that self-control can be learned. All it needs is a conscious effort to focus on the final goal in anything you're doing, rather than the difficult, sometimes messy details of getting there.

It sounds easy, but it leads to better self-control. And once you've acquired it, self-control is one of the best allies you can ever get on your side

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