A Recipe for Self-Control
Do you like this picture? I wouldn’t be surprised if you do. People from all over the world say that this type of picture is one of their favorites - a scenic view of water down below, in amongst fantastical scenery and perhaps some roaming animals. Maybe it’s an evolutionary predisposition.
Now, try to not look at it for the rest of the article.
That way you will be re-creating the tug of war that happens every time distraction and focus clash. This friction occurs in your brain when it starts to wander away from the task it’s supposed to be doing, while you try to reel it back in.
Not to look at the picture is a choice to master one’s attention and bring it back when it inevitably tries to slip away. Managing to choose where to direct one’s focus and what to ignore lies at the core of willpower. Improving this is the key to self-management and the way to a better life.
Notice how you do in this exercise. How hard is it for you to focus your attention on the text below and ignore the picture above? Why is it like that?
I’d venture to make a bet that something like this would be much easier for you to do early in the day. This is because willpower is like any muscle in your body. Just like the chance of a cramp increases the more one runs, so will one's willpower get tired the more it’s used. Hence, it’s harder to exercise willpower as the day moves on and as it’s being used up for other things.
Luckily, this also means that willpower, like a muscle, can grow stronger. It just needs some training.
The visible muscles on your body may or may not be a priority, but willpower needs to be one. Mastering it means directing your focus and controlling your attention. Not only can this help your keep your waistline in check when you notice those sweets at the checkout counter, but it can also help you ignore distractions and inhibit impulses that are best left unexamined.
Multiple experiments show willpower to be the most important factor in determining one’s quality of life.
One of these more famous experiments was the Marshmallow Test of psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1970s. Kids were brought into a room with a bunch of sweets and asked to pick one. Once they’d done that, they were told that they could either wait for the researcher to go finish some of his work or they could grab one right now. If they waited the’d get two instead.
About a third grabbed the marshmallow right away, another third waited for the researcher, while the final third, decided to wait, but failed to do so.
Through his experiment Mischel found what he considers to be the key to willpower - “the strategic allocation of attention”. In the many hundreds of hours of watching little kids struggle with his experiment, he discovered that the ones who succeeded did so by managing to distract themselves with pretend play, singing songs, or covering their eyes. They diverted their attention. The ones who couldn’t do that, and just stared at the marshmallow for the entire time he was gone - they always ended up eating it.
The conclusion? By learning to control our attention, we improve our willpower and shape our destiny.
In one of the biggest ever projects, over 1000 children - all born in the same twelve month period - were studied extensively. They were tested for their tolerance for frustration, restlessness and powers of concentration. Then, all but 4% of the kids were tracked down several decades later by the team of scientists. They were assessed for multitude of different factors related to health, wealth and crime.
What was found was that the better a kids’ self-control in childhood, the better they were doing in their thirties. Better health, more savings, better finances, and less crime. The worse their self-control was, the worse their health, the worse their savings and the more likely they were to have a criminal record.
But that wasn’t the thing that most stood out in this experiment - what shocked the scientists was their realization that a children’s willpower plays as big of a role in financial success, health and crime record, as social class, wealth of family, or IQ. In fact, for financial success alone, willpower stood out as a better predictor than any of the others.
This stands to show that if we don’t learn to delay our gratification it doesn’t matter how many summer camps we went to as little kids, how prosperous our families were or how smart our brains. All of these advantages will be for naught, if we can’t learn to keep our promises and play the guitar, do our homework, or prepare for the work meeting tomorrow, especially when we’d rather be watching TV or playing a video game. Don’t underestimate the value of self-control.
That’s all well and good, but the ability to delay instant gratification and exercise self-restraint doesn’t come easy. At least three different aspects of our attention are at play when we attempt to do that. The first is the ability to disengage our focus from whatever it is that captures our attention. The second part is to resist the temptation, by maintaining our focus somewhere else. The third is to then direct our attention onto a future goal that we’d enjoy much more than the instant gratification. All of these three parts make up our willpower. To master them all, is to gain self-control.
What practical tips would Mischel himself, the famous scientist behind the Marshmallow experiment, give us about how to implement this system? Luckily we don’t have to guess, because he was brought on as a consultant for an episode of Sesame Street, the educational TV show for kids. The plot for that episode was that Cookie Monster, arguably the most famous muppet on the show, wanted to join a cookie sampling club. In order to be accepted into the club however, Cookie had to resist his impulses to gobble down all the cookies and instead learn to savor the experience.
The first tip Mischel gave Cookie Monster was to imagine the cookies as being something else. So when Cookie saw the round delicious cookies come out of the oven he first imagined them as yo-yos. This however, was not enough to stop his impulses. The triumph of self-control came when he was further asked to consider what was more important to him - the cookie now, or getting into the club and having the chance to taste all kinds of cookies later on.
All three aspects of attention are showcased in this episode of Sesame Street. First, Cookie Monster disengages his focus from the cookies and imagines them as something else. He then maintains his focus on thinking of them as yo-yos. Finally, he pays ultimate attention to his future goal - to get accepted into the cookie club.
Self-control is only made harder by the fact that the greater the demand on our attention the greater the chance to fail at resisting temptations. The recent obesity epidemic in developed countries is just one symptom of this problem. Research suggests that it is due in large part to our tendency to go into automatic mode while distracted and seek out those tastier, sugary foods.
The best way to deal with the ever-growing distractions of everyday life is by controlling our focus. Don’t concentrate on what is tempting about the distraction or the emotionally charged parts of it. Rather, reappraise it in a new light. For example, “Yes, that cookie is very tasty, but it makes me fat”. Attention can regulate emotion, because choosing on what to focus, can turn an emotionally heated desire into a cool and calculated circumstance that you can easily neglect.
Monks in fifth-century India practiced this strategy to master some of their most emotionally charged vices, like lust. They were encouraged to focus their mind on the most unappealing parts of human biology. Things like dung, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, fat, and snot were at the top of their list.
A tale from that time has it that a very beautiful woman was once running down the street right past one of these monks. She had had a heated argument with her husband that day. Some time later, the husband ran up searching for her, and asked the monk, “Venerable sir, did you by any chance see a woman go by?”
To which the monk responded, “Man or woman, I cannot say. But a bag of bones passed this way.”
I was inspired in writing this from the book Focus, by Daniel Goleman. Do take a look at it, if this grabbed your interest. I only managed to explore a very small subset here.