Understanding Self Control

Counseling-Petworth-DC

New Year’s Eve is a time to set goals: to eat better, to save more money, to work harder, to drink less. It’s Day 1 on the road to a “new you.” But this road, as we all know, is difficult to follow. Humans are notoriously bad at resisting temptation, especially (as research confirms) if we’re busy, tired or stressed. By Jan. 8, some 25 percent of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by the time the year ends, fewer than 10 percent have been fully kept.

Unfortunately, the problem of New Year’s resolutions is, in a way, the problem of life itself. Our tendency to be shortsighted — to value the pleasures of the present more than the satisfactions of the future — comes at a considerable cost. Surely by now you’ve heard of the psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiments, in which children who could resist the temptation to immediately eat one sweet would be rewarded with a second sweet about 15 minutes later. Professor Mischel found that those who could wait — those who had self-control — were also the ones who had better academic and professional success years later.

Since then, study after study has linked self-control to achievement in a wide range of areas, including personal finance, healthful eating and exercise, and job performance. Put simply, those who can persevere toward their long-term goals in the face of temptation to do otherwise — those who have “grit” — are best positioned for success.

If what I’ve said so far sounds familiar, that’s because over the past 30 years, in response to these findings, something of a cottage industry has sprung up to tell us how to increase our self-control. If you peruse the books on the best-seller lists, you’ll find variations on a theme: The best way to increase self-control is to use our willpower (and related mental capacities like executive function — that part of the mind that directs planning and reasoning) to ignore or suppress our craving for immediate pleasure. To read more from DAVID DeSTENO, click here.

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