There’s an ancient proverb that tells us “like a city whose walls are broken through, is a person who lacks self-control”. The picture is of the fortified city, which protects its inhabitants from all kinds of trouble. The walls keep the people safe by ensuring both dangerous animals and enemy peoples are kept at bay. The city with broken walls offered no such security. Raiders and wild animals were free to roam, steal, kill and do damage.
It’s a strong image when paired with the idea of self control, suggesting if we lack self control we are opening ourselves to all kinds of problems and difficulties. Self controlled people clearly have an advantage in many spheres of life over those who lack it. It’s always seemed impressive to me to see the levels of self control that elite athletes demonstrate. They are able to be disciplined in many areas of their lives in order to attain the peak of performance and ability. Self controlled individuals are also evident in many avenues of successful organisations. There are clearly many benefits available if you and I can develop good self control in our lives. So what might help us do that? Here are my thoughts on three aspects of self control that we can work at on a daily basis.
Our understanding and management of desire is absolutely crucial to becoming self controlled. It’s also worth highlighting that it’s negative desire that matters here. If it is a positive desire, then self control is far less of an issue. Take an obvious example; if I love eating carrots and don’t like cake, there isn’t really too much need for self control. (BTW, there’s always the exception, if all I eat is carrot, then I would argue this is in fact a negative desire and so needs dealing with). The problem arises when I love cake but still want to lose my midriff! Now I really need to exercise self control at the pastry counter.
Desire is connected to a number of things. It’s often emotional, a feeling – if you like it’s full on chimp mode to use Steve Peters analogy. It also has to do with attractiveness, something that looks attractive to us is clearly more desirable. But with all of this it’s also down to how well I am able to delay gratification. Look up Stanfords Marshmallow experiment; do you take one thing now, or get two later.
In short the stronger or more powerful the level of desire, the more I will need to manage the next two elements ‘discipline and distraction’.
Discipline is one of those areas that has a compound effect. It has to do with our past behaviours. What habits have we formed, how ingrained are those behaviours? Clearly the longer a particular practice has been adopted, the harder it is to establish a new discipline.
But it also has to do with future commitment. How strong is my commitment to make a change? Not this is not about motivation, that will always go up and down, when commitment will push on through varying levels of motivation.
In self controlled people there is a compound effect of ‘letting go’ (or changing) old unhelpful behaviours and establishing commitment to new ways of working.
Distraction is our other friend when self control is challenged. Assuming we cannot avoid the tempting cake scenario (which is always better) we need to develop good strategies to divert our attention to more helpful things. There are 4 ways we can introduce distraction:
Renewed mind (thinking)
We need to train our minds to think differently about the desired behaviour. A kind of mind distraction. Thinking differently about an area helps us to modify our desires and behaviours much more easily. Part of that renewed mind could include this…
Understand and articulate the consequences of your negative desires. Use your internal dialogue to outline why this behaviour is unhelpful in the short or long term. Give yourself good reason to exercise self control over the issue.
The simplest form of distraction is alternative. What can I put in my way that acts as a good, attractive, viable alternative. Then we can use the desire as a prompt to trigger the alternative behaviour.
Facts and data
Finally use the logical mind to deal with the emotional desires. Deal with facts and data, logic not feeling. Help convince yourself that self control is the logical outcome in the situation you face.
So there you have it, work at managing desires, adding discipline and fostering distractions in those areas you want to propagate self control. Be practical about it by working at one area of self control at a time. Remember success tends to be compound. If I start wining in one area, I quickly become able to transfer that win to other areas of self control.
As ever the Squeeze podcast linked here explored the topic further. Do have a listen if you’ve bothered to read this far into the blog post.