Reflections On Self-Control And Wellness

For many of us, we have experienced moments where we could have been better but chose to be a bit lazy. Consider how many times you have hit snooze on days when you didn’t want to get out of bed, or, the good intention of carrying a workout bag into the office but instead of the gym you went with colleagues for a drink after work.

This article I hope provides some useful thoughts to add to your toolkit for when these situations arise in the future. Your wellness journey as in life will face many obstacles and no bigger than procrastination or plain laziness. If you want some simple techniques to improve your chance of overcoming these obstacles, then read on. 


Learn Phase

My inspiration for this article is from the book “The Marshmallow Test, why self-control is the engine of success” by Walter Mischel, Ph.D., who many consider to be the founder of this field of psychology (the science of self-control). Basically, if many young children can devise strategies to deny real temptation to reach a goal, then surely I can too.

I also draw from many related researchers who were cited by Dr. Mischel, such as Dr. Carol Dweck, PhD, author of “Mindset, the new psychology of success”, Dr. Martin Seligman, PhD, author of “Learned Optimism”, and many other psychologists who I recall as “researchers” in paraphrased citations.

The key takeaway from modern-day research is that self-control is a cognitive ability that can be learned, practiced and improved. There was a time when personality traits were thought to be predetermined by genetics and preset at birth. But through the work of researchers like Dr. Mischel, psychologists have come to know that nurture and our own self-guided experiences play a major role in our development.

Self-awareness, executive function, and self-control are complex and concepts that are almost synonyms for one another. They all speak to our understanding of the human condition and our life journey. The more than you are aware of your response to the situation that you are in, then the more you can work towards your desired outcome.

Dr. Mischel’s research was focused primarily on child education. He would not accept the hypothesis that ethnicity or socioeconomic status or “background” pre-determined a child’s future and life success. His research was undeniable proof that the ability to improve oneself is inside all of us and he documented many insights.

His initial experiment was conducted on 4-year old kids. Many repeats have confirmed his findings and built upon his pioneering work. The premise of the marshmallow test was to study when, how and why a young child would give up the temptation of one marshmallow, in the present, for the uncertain promise of two marshmallows in the future (not too distant, but still excruciatingly long for a child). The researchers used different circumstances to tease out the coping mechanisms that led to success. Subsequently, they applied these learning to the new intake of kids who were able to perform even better. 

Following the original cohort, there was a high correlation between those who were able to successfully avoid temptation and personal success later in life. Some observers jumped to the conclusion that the marshmallow test was a predictor for health, lifestyle and wealth. But the real takeaway, according to Dr. Mischel, is the blueprint that the research provides us to improve incrementally one’s cognitive ability to be more self-aware, more able to slow things down to apply executive function and ultimately to demonstrate more self-control. It goes without saying that this undoubtedly lead to great personal success.

 

Action Phase

It is inspiring to know that anyone can improve. Now we need to determine concrete action plans to reach those goals.

To do so, there are two important points to keep in mind: 

  1. There are several effective strategies and what works for one person might not work for all.
  2. When one strategy does not work for you, continue to believe that there is one that will. 

So, the lesson here is that to “take action” depends on knowing where to start, and continuing until you find the strategy for you.

 

Strategies

The Marshmallow test experiments gave Dr. Mischel a powerful perspective on where to start. In his book, he labels this “if … then” strategies. That is to say, the best approach is to plan what action to take in response to a trigger.

As a concrete example, if you realize that drinking water first thing in the morning is a high impact healthy habit, then why not place a glass of water at your bedside. If there is a glass of water on your bedside table when you wake up, then you are more likely to drink it in the morning. If you set an alarm for before bedtime, then you will be reminded to put the water beside your bed so it's ready for you in the morning. 

Simple concepts.

In exploring this topic Dr. Mischel notes that the important triggers for “if … then” plans are those that charge you emotionally. For example, in his own life, he found that visualizing a vivid self-image of his own sick body whenever he felt an urge to smoke helped him to avoid smoking long enough to forget the temptation. That visualization was easy for him because he had witnessed very ill patients with lung cancer. For someone else, another strategy might be required.

The more intense a trigger the more important it is to have a plan. Self-reflection on moments of intense emotion or internal conflict can help you to identify your triggers. Recall moments of intense feeling, and visualize a replay of the context, as if you are reliving that time of your life. Especially important are the high emotion episodes that repeat frequently. If you can visualize yourself at that moment, then what would you like to say to yourself? What do you think is the underlying issue? What can you be working on to improve? What is at the core of your emotions?

With wellness goals, often the self-control issue is complicated by the fact that the goal itself seems so far away. The emotional trigger is a sense of helplessness. There is a lack of self-esteem when faced with “so much to do”. One effective approach to this trigger is to focus on your next incremental step rather than trying to do dozens of major life-changing steps at once.

A contemporary clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson, in his book “12 Rules for Life", explains this strategy as one of his rules for life. Dr. Peterson posits: “if you get overwhelmed with what to do, then, focus on doing just one more extra thing today (other than your current responsibilities) that will make your current-self incrementally better”. Just one thing extra each day, through the course of weeks, months, years, will lead to monumental change. 

Some personal trainers refer to this as "short term goals”. In other words, characterize results in terms of smaller units or micro activities. Maybe the initial one extra thing per day is “use the stairs instead of the elevator” or “take a 10-minute walk outside when feeling lethargic at work”. To make these micro-activities impactful, it is important to notice the way you feel when completing them. The ultimate goal might be to lose 25 lbs or run a marathon, but in the moment of a micro-activity, take notice of the joy of simply taking positive action now, notice how your body feels and recalibrate what doing more might look like tomorrow. Maybe use the stairs instead of the elevators more than once in the day or take a 20-minute walk outside at lunch. As Dr. Peterson points out the best benchmark for a personal goal is your own self today, because you know you better than anyone else.

The key to implementing “If .... then” strategy is to apply it to many aspects of your life and pay attention to their efficacy for yourself. Anticipate what might derail your goal. Learn and adapt to new outcomes.

 

Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck in her book "Mindset" describes goal setting and self-control strategies and indicates that our ability to stick to them depends on one’s view of their future self. If your future self is pre-determined then why follow through on anything truly transformative? Instead, a growth mindset posits that you can reshape yourself through continual learning.

A corollary of this mindset is how connected to and passionate you are about your future self. How much do you believe there is an awesome outcome ahead of your learning journey? This excited-ness is at the heart of the growth mindset. 

Dr. Mischel was the first to propose the cool and hot systems of consciousness. In the now, everything is hot and tangible. But the future is less perceptible and cooler. 

Dr. Mischel that a fellow psychologist used a simple time value function to demonstrate how avoiding the gym is intuitive. Assume that the value of the something in the future (cool) is always half of something you do now (hot). For example, if playing a video game now was to be 10 units of happiness, then waiting to play that game in the future would be 10 ÷ 2 = 5 units.

Giving up something pleasurable now or doing something onerous such as going to the gym, would be a negative value compared to continuing to play a video game. Say that going to the gym is -4 units. But the benefit of the gym is the increased ability to perform physically, say that is 10 units in the future. But that future value is only 10 ÷ 2 = 5 units now. So overall the value of going to the gym now is 5 – 4 = 1 unit.

Now suppose you delay going to the gym, then the unit value of that pain is -4 ÷ 2 = -2, and the value of the benefits of a gym workout remains 10 ÷ 2 = 5, so the total is 5 – 2 = 3 units for delaying one’s visit to the gym. 

Admittedly a bit crude, but the point is that to put off doing something we don't want to do makes sense because time delay reduces the value of an action (positive or negative). 

What Dr. Mischel proved is that your goal is to devise strategies that can vividly improve your perception and value of future benefits. Heat the future consequences and, cool the temptations of the now. 

In my own wellness journey, whenever I thought “why I work out?”, I always pictured that one day I would play soccer and golf with my yet unborn son. That vivid imagery was easy to make tangible because of how much I loved playing soccer and golf. Of course, both have since come true and it has reinforced how much value I had perceived. The future benefit had and still has far greater value than the formula of doing a few minutes of exercise per day or 90 minutes per week. 

Similarly, Dr. Peter Attia, a Canadian physician known for his focus on longevity, presents a life challenge goal to all of us: “think about what being the best 100-year-old ever would be like?”. He goes on to say, “in the Centenarian Olympics, the ultimate test would be to squat down to pick up an onrushing toddler and simultaneously stand up and lift the toddler into the air, safely”. For many of us, the units of joy from that image are of infinite value!

 

Social

The third actionable area is: socialize, socialize, socialize. In his marshmallow test, Dr. Mischel observed that many of those who were able to avoid the temptation of the one treat and won access to the two treats did NOT eat the treats. Instead, those kids chose to share their joy with their parents.

The role of play and social interaction CANNOT be overstated. Dr. Jordan Peterson notes that in experiments of social interaction, with an over-dominant rat and a much weaker rat, the dominant rat “allows” the weaker rat to win about 30% of their “fights”. Dr. Peterson points out that this is an incredible result that speaks to our inner wiring for social interaction and the need to play. 

Do not underestimate the importance of involving others in your wellness goal!

 

Test Phase

Your Future Self
Here is a thought experiment self-test: 

  1. Think about how many years of retirement that you plan to have
  2. Think about how active you intend to be.
  3. Now visualize your active future self. (recall Dr. Carol Dweck and Dr. Peter Attia)

I came across an interesting anecdote from a friend, an actuary and statistician. He pointed out that the survey response of a large cohort of pensioners to the question “how long do you plan to live?” (after prior questions about the age at which Grandparents and Parents had passed) was a very potent predictor of longevity. In his opinion, this one question response was the data point with the most predictive power about longevity on a standalone basis. Of course, what we don’t really know is the context.

When a child has a parent die of cancer, they experience vicariously the pain and suffering of the parent. The child would likely wish to avoid cancer in his/her own life, therefore, may live a more healthy lifestyle in order to enjoy as many active years as possible. Visa Versa, a parent, and child who enjoys a loving, active and fun relationship that is ended by a peaceful death at an older age, the child might feel his/her parents’ longevity is natural and their age of death would be an obvious goal.

In the population being analyzed, retirees, simply through their thoughts about their retirement duration or potential future outcome were priming their mind and body for an outcome in the physical world. Were they consciously setting a goal? We will never know, but Carol Dweck’s research on the future self indicates that goals (conscious or subconscious) impact behaviour.

 

Optimism versus Pessimism

Constantly review your own level of openness to possibilities. Are you on a journey of learning? Are you on a predetermined path? 

Peterson and Seligman, psychologists, have conducted experiments on hospital patients, rated their level of optimism vs pessimism, and showed that recovery and reoccurrence were directly related to one’s outlook. The optimists were more likely to recover quickly and avoid recurrence.

The Optimism test that Seligman et al devised is delivered with situational questions. Think of how you feel about obtaining a good grade on an exam, is it more likely that the exam was easy or your hours of exam preparation was impactful? Alternatively, how would you feel about a poor grade, is it likely that the exam was poorly constructed and unfair, or because of your own poor preparation? The Seligman optimism test helps you tangibly spot how optimists and pessimists see situations from opposite perspectives. The pessimist generally assumes the world is as given, e.g.: “I am talented, so a poor exam result must mean the exam was unfair”. The optimist views the world as an opportunity, to make an impact through their own action. Note the similarity to the “Growth Mindset” of Dr. Carol Dweck.

Here is a useful self-test: Find a quiet moment to reflect on your day (or week). Think about a moment recently when you were an exemplar of an optimist or growth mindset; Make a journal entry or do something physical to record it. Are there more moments? How many? How frequent? You want to learn to be more aware of these moments, to make them vivid in your memory and that will lead to future moments and so on and so on.

If… then

Consider your own personal goals, whether these are fitness, career, romance, financial, family, friendship, etc. Decide on an “if… then” strategy that helps with your goal, try it for a month.

Remember many young 4-year old children came up with creative strategies to combat the marshmallow temptation – surely you can design one for your own needs. Some people like using a meeting calendar, others like involving a friend and yet others prefer making a bet of it.

Each day, or week, your self-test would be to note how many times you encountered the “if” and how many times did you execute the “then”. Keep a record of your own mental health and your own score. Track your own progress regularly. Monitor whether you are improving at spotting the “if” and at doing the “then”!

You will soon be on your way to more self-awareness, more use of your executive function and more self-control … just like those successful 4-year-olds!


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