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The Willpower Myth: Why Self-Control Is Not Enough


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.

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.

Comments

  1. While I’m sure everybody has their weaknesses, I’ve never had a hard time not spending money…being frugal is just who I am. Is that willpower? Maybe not, but I don’t think I need to lock up my money from myself.

  2. I actually fear making a significant amount of money as I have too many interests, hobbies, and wants that seek to destroy my budget. If I ever am in a position of making a decent paycheck, I have it in my mind that I will have whatever I don’t NEED directly deposited into a savings account that requires a significant effort for withdrawal. Otherwise, I’ll continue my habit of buying new gizmos and gadgets in place of increasing my emergency funds.

  3. I think you bring up some interesting points. As humans we are not perfect and given the right set of circumstances even the “strongest” willed will find themselves susceptible to temptation. I think taking the active approach of changing your environment is the best solution, it’s what I always do when I want to control an action. I wonder though isn’t that in and of itself a form of self-control – making the conscious choice to change your environment? If I want to lose weight then I will intentionally not go to my favorite restaurants or cook my favorite dishes for a big fancy meal. I prevent myself from having to make the difficult decision of not having more food that I want or ordering what I really want and instead having to settle and being unhappy. In the end though I view these decisions as another form proactive self control, it’s a decision I made myself.

  4. I am incredibly weak-willed, so I tend to mitigate that by using some of the above techniques:

    -I spread my money into multiple banks and multiple accounts so it is extremely difficult to siphon savings and the funds will get used for their intended purpose.
    -I make food in bulk and save the leftovers so I’m not as tempted to stop for a “quick bite” on my way home from work.
    -I have been known to shut off and hide my phone, unplug my internet, and otherwise bar myself from distractions if I really need to get things done.

    It definitely works to make these things less convenient.

  5. Melissa Lawrence says:

    Dear God! It is possible that you just might save the human race! I have seriously sucky will power except when the true nature of the Scorpio comes out in me, then I can move a mountain in a day! Or piss me off and I can climb any mountain that would otherwise kick my ass! I never have understood this!

  6. Everyone has there limits, and I have had to learn mine the hard way. I would spend on needless things or convince myself “its only $30 more per month for the added feature”. So I created self control by putting the control in the hands of someone else: Mr. Direct Deposit. I put money into a spending account that will last me two weeks and everything else goes into my other accounts. When the money runs out, I am less tempted to move money over.

    Its all explained in this article CNN Money wrote about me and others. http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2010/pf/1010/gallery.debt_busters/4.html

    • Sounds remarkably similar to Dave Ramsey’s envelope system, adjusted for those of us that use the debit card. What an effective model you developed! You deserve serious kudos and I hope folks follow your example!

      • Thanks! I based it off of the envelope system & some others i read about but adjusted it to my own tendencies. When I have cash I spend it, so I knew the actual envelopes wouldn’t work for me. I had to find a way to gain access to my funds but limit the funds I could get at easily.

  7. I always have read that willpower is a muscle in the sense that it can get tired if you do not give it a break once in a while (which is likely a contributing factor as to why people gain weight when they quit smoking) and also that the more you get into a good routine and build up that “muscle” the easier it easy. I do believe the easier it is to get into a good habit the better. What I’ll never understand is why almost everything that is bad for you is so darn tempting. Wouldn’t life be so much better if drinking with your buddies, overspending, and eating greasy food were good rather than detrimental to you? Since we don’t live in that world and we are humans, all we can do is try to build up our willpower the best we can, I guess.

  8. Great review! And so true about changing your environment. If I don’t want to eat junk food, I don’t bring it home from the grocery store. If I don’t want to impulsively drop a hundred bucks, I stay out of Costco.

    Thank you so much for being on the tour!!

  9. “If your hand makes you sin, cut it off and throw it away from you”

    I think its a smart idea to eliminate the things that will cause you to stumble, but I don’t think its the complete fix. Once you have removed the object, you need to work on the true issue that causes you lack of self control. Otherwise your going to slip when you happen to stumble a slippery area.

  10. The Oil Barron In Training says:

    I believe that no one is born with out the power of self control, just as we are all born with the base desires that cause our wreckless spending tendecies. I have to conscious work to keep my self in control. However, I don’t do by avoiding the situation. Like a doctor, I don’t treat the symptoms, I treat the cause. It comes down to financial values. I don’t like to be in debit if I can avoid it; obviously a house is a good investment. I take pride in staying financially smart. I think if you can instill this value in yourself then you can take control.

    Don’t get wrong, I’m not cheap, just smart with my money. I tend to shy away from make small purchases. I tend to save for and spend on big ticket items. I always ask my self “do I really need this? Will I actually use it? Will I regret this tomorrow?” before I buy things. I really try to only buy things that will last and I will really use. For instance I don’t spend a lot of money on alcohol since it is a one time use item, however I will spend the big $ on things like a guitar that I will have and use for the forseeable future.

    Another good tip is to use the “sleep on rule”. We tend to make dumb purchases based on emotion. If you take a night to “sleep on it”, you can take an objective view without the emotion. If you still want it in the morning, then you are probably good to buy it, I warn you, you will find yourself saying “man, that was a dumb idea”.

    Another good strategy I use is goal setting. If I find something I really want that is not a need, I will set a financial goal to get it. For instance, I wanted to put an exhaust system on my sorts car. To make that happen I decided to set aside $200 from every paycheck until I had enough. That way I did not drain my bank account. When I finally reached my goal, I went out and bought it. It’s amazing how much better and more confident you feel when you actually make the purchase. It is stress-free and you actually end up enjoying it more since you put in all the hard work to earn it.

    To wrap up this tlingit post I give you these quick tips:
    – treat purchases like an investment.
    – ask yourself if you really need it
    – use the “sleep on it” rule, it will still be there tomorrow
    – set goals to set aside money for large purchases
    – avoid small purchases on credit/debit cards, use cash since it is harder to part with
    – Just be smart, the feeling of a smart purchase far outweighs to short rush of a compulsive buy.

  11. Tonight I was out working my ‘side hustle’ (snow shoveling) I stopped and bought hamburger fixings at the grocery store. Telling myself it was ok cause I just made money, Right as I finished eating a pound of juicy lucy burgers I read this.

    I feel as though self-control runs out, I was good on my spending and eating plan all week, but if I do not schedule controlled cheats or blow money on a normal interval, I will mess up like tonight.

    It is about your environment, but to a point one can access whatever they deem slippery; alcoholics can eventually go to a bar, even if they change their route home. It is self-control to a point, but one needs to limit reliance on solely self-control or failure is likely.

  12. This sounds like a terrible premise. The whole concept is to avoid the problem. Which to me sounds like the opposite of self-discipline. Obviously it depends on your situation and in some cases any “tools” or tricks to help is very important (ie alcoholism, bad example though since this is disease).

    Also, how does this help when you want to start something new (like the exercise example). How can you avoid not going to the gym, living there?

  13. I have great self-control when it involves dieting and exercising. My self-control sometimes fails when it comes to indulging in time-wasting activities (ehem…facebook). But overall, my self-control is pretty strong. Well, I’d like to believe that.

  14. David Weliver says:

    Thanks for all the replies so far. I love this topic because it’s charged and there’s still so much to learn and explore.

    Congrats to Trent who is the winner of the book giveaway. (I’ll email you to get your details).

    Also, sorry to those of you whose comments got caught in spam for a little bit…I just noticed!

  15. I definitely agree with the sleep on it rule. If you really want something, you can usually find a way to save and pay for it. The delayed gratification helps you avoid any regrets.

  16. Andrew Hartley says:

    The previous posters have put forward quite a few good ideas. I just want to add that I think there’s a religious component to self-control.

    John Piper writes, in “Dangerous Duty of Delight,” which you can google, that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” God wants us to meet our needs by seeking Him & His will in every area of our lives. When we do so, we glorify Him by admitting our need for Him.

    A side benefit of being satisfied in Him is that we will not feel we must meet our needs in unhealthy ways. This empowers us to shun short-term pleasures that we know will hurt us & others longer-term. When we seek healthy social relationships with Him & those He places in our paths, we won’t be so susceptible to unhealthy relationships. When we find pleasure in worshipping Him, we won’t feel as much temptation to find pleasure in drugs, overeating, & so on.

    Of course, all this is a work in progress, that will not reach fulfillment until the next life. However, I think it has already made a big difference for me.