Do you have good self-control?
(Seriously, do you? Please share in a comment. Think you have willpower of steel? Brag and beat your chest—but please give examples of how you’re strong-willed. Know you can’t be trusted alone in a room with a bag of cupcakes? Let me know that, too.)
I, for one, know my self-control sucks:
- If there’s a cheeseburger in front of me, damn right I’ll eat it. Om nom nom.
- If I set my alarm for 5:00 a.m. to exercise, four times out of five, I’ll hit snooze.
- If I sit down to write a blog post, I’ll quite possibly surf the internet aimlessly for a couple hours before finishing my work.
So the question is: Am I a weak-willed person, or am I simply human?
A new book by journalist Daniel Akst, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, tackles this and other such riddles of resolve.
(Disclaimer: I agreed to review this book and, in exchange, got a free copy. You can also win a copy of the book…read below to learn how.)
IT’S TOO EASY TO INDULGE
Akst explains how modern prosperity makes it difficult for Americans NOT to become fat. Food is cheaper than ever before, making it easy—and affordable—to overeat. Meanwhile, our suburban lifestyles have us driving from our beds to our office chairs and then back to our couches where we unwind with a few hours of TV—at the expense of things like exercise and alternative (often more social) activities.
To paraphrase studies in the book, we are at the mercy of our environments. People are, for example, more likely to commit suicide when they have easy access to a loaded gun. (Studies suggest the simple need to go get bullets and load a gun is often enough to make the despondent reconsider taking their own lives.)
Technology, too, is a conduit for excess. The Internet provides immediate access not just to time-wasting YouTube videos, but to myriad more sinister indulgences. If you have a weakness for shopping, gambling, porn, or even an extramarital affair, your pleasure is only a Google search away.
SO, WE NEED TO MAKE IT MORE DIFFICULT
Akst goes on to give extensive examples of pre-commitment, humans’ attempts to anticipate future instances of weakened resolve and implement barriers to making poor decisions. Poet Samuel Coleridge, for example, hired strongmen to follow him around and keep him out of opium dens when the cravings struck. Today, IRAs are a form of pre-commitment because there is a stiff penalty for withdrawing money set aside for retirement too early. Even Social Security is an example of a system designed to save us from own propensity for instant gratification.
Akst’s book is not a primer on improving your self-control, nor does it provide a definitive answer to how you can, once-and-for-all, get into that exercise regimen. But it is an intellectually stimulating and, at times wildly funny book, that will interest anybody who has ever wondered why “more willpower” is so elusive.
By the way, the secret to “more willpower” is not necessarily to exercise more self-control but to:
- Change your environment.
- Put things out of your control.
CHANGING YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Alcoholics have an expression: “If you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery.”
That speaks to your environment. If you have a hard time controlling what you’re eating, avoid buffets. If you overspend, don’t spend Saturday at the mall. If you have trouble focusing, take your laptop to a library basement and unplug the internet.
PUTTING THINGS OUT OF YOUR CONTROL
When it comes to important things, the most effective way to change your behavior is to eliminate the need for self-control altogether. For example, few addicts get clean by their own resolve. They get treatment. They cede control.
When it comes to money, you can force saving by paying yourself first and use IRAs to limit your access to your retirement money. You can cut up or cancel credit cards to avoid new debt. Ramit Sethi, who produces excellent materials on the psychology of personal finance and earning more money, writes frequently about how personal finance is NOT about willpower (on his blog here and in a piece he did for the NY Times here).
I tend to agree with him. Self-control is possible, but it’s not perfect…for anybody. We’re human and susceptible to failure. As a result, if you want to encourage good behavior, change your environment and make the good behavior either automatic or, at least, an easier decision than the bad behavior. If you want to guarantee the good behavior, take yourself out of the decision-making process altogether.
What about you? Are you a master of self-control or admittedly weak-willed? Share your thoughts in a comment and one reader who comments before Saturday at midnight EST will win a copy of Daniel’s book courtesy of The Penguin Press.