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 learnt, practiced and improved. There was a time when personality traits were thought to be predetermined by genetics and preset at birth. But through the good 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 all very complex and loaded concepts that are almost synonyms for one another. These all speak to our own understanding of our 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 children’s education. He would not accept the hypothesis that ethnicity or socioeconomic status or “background” pre-determined a child’s future and life’s success. His research was undeniable proof that the ability to improve oneself is inside all of us and he documented many insights on how.

His initial experiment was conducted on 4-year old kids. Many copycat experiments 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 excruciatingly long for a child). The researchers used different circumstances to tease out the key learnings of 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 of kids showed a high correlation between successfully avoiding temptation and personal success later in life. Some observers jumped quickly 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 anyone (all of 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 may well lead to great personal success.


Action Phase

The inspiration is that anyone can improve. Now we need to set aside concrete action plans to reach those goals.

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

  1. That there are several effective strategies that might work, but what works for someone else might be different than works for me; and 
  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 never stopping.


Take action

The Marshmallow test experiments gave Dr. Mischel a powerful lens into where to start. In his book, he labels this “if … then” strategies. This is to say the best approach is to have a plan about 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/when you wake up in the morning, then, you will drink the glass of water at my bedside. And even prior to that, you can set an alarm to mark your time to go to bed. If/when you hear your bed-time alarm, then you should prepare a glass of water to be placed at my bedside for when you awake. 

As you can see the idea is to use 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. So self-reflection on moments of intense emotion or internal conflict can help you to identify your triggers. Recall any moments of intense feeling, and visualize a replay of the context, as if you relived 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 emotion?

Dr. Mischel recounts how effective such “if … then” strategies were with very ill-behaved teenagers at a school camp that he observed, to identify triggers and to implement counterbalancing remedies.

With wellness goals, often the self-control issue is that the wellness 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. To paraphrase, 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 this one thing extra each day, through the course of many weeks, months, years, will lead to monumental change. This one thing is much more manageable than the seemingly mountainous task of changing lifestyle.

Some personal trainers refer to this as “have short term goals”. In other words, to characterize results in terms of smaller units or micro activities. Maybe the initial one extra thing per day is “if I want to be better, then I will use the stairs instead of the elevator” or “if I feel lethargic at work, then, I will take a 10-minute break to walk outside”. 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 very 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 tomorrow could be. Maybe add climbing an incline to that 10-minute walk, notice your breathing and intensity. Maybe use the stairs instead of the elevators more than once, how often and at what pace? 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 try multiple ones and pay attention to their efficacy for yourself. Anticipate what might derail your goal. Learn and adapt to new outcomes.



To do so requires the other important action item, to have the right mindset.

On the topic of the “growth mindset,” Dr. Mischel cites and gives credit to the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, the author of “Mindset”. The lesson that Dr. Dweck brought to us is that goal setting and self-control strategies and sticking to them depends on one’s view of your 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 about your future self are you? How much do you believe there is an awesome outcome ahead from 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. 

Here, I recount the anecdote that Dr. Mischel shared about a fellow psychologist use of 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). E.g. if playing a video game now were to be 10 units of happiness now, then waiting to play that game in the future would be 10 ÷ 2 = 5 units.

Now giving up something pleasurable now, would be a negative value or doing something onerous such as going to the gym now, would be a negative value. 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 obvious, namely to delay makes sense because time delay reduces the value of an action (positive or negative). 
What Dr. Mischel proved is that your goal, therefore, 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 about “why I workout?”, I had always pictured that one day I would play soccer and golf with my yet unborn son. That vivid imagery was easy to feel tangible because of how much I loved playing soccer and golf. Of course, both have since come true and it has only reinforced how much value I had perceived. The future benefit had and still has far greater value than 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” … now, the units of joy from that imagery is infinite value!



The third actionable area that I want to touch on briefly 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 can NOT be overstated. Dr. Jordan Peterson has a very impactful citation on this in the field of socio-biology. He 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”. This Dr. Peterson points out 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.

A child who has a parent die of cancer, the child experiences 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 to enjoy as many active years as possible. Vice versa, a parent and child who enjoy a loving, active and fun relationship that is ended by a peaceful death. That 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 (consciously or subconsciously) 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.

Similarly, a survey of hall of fame baseball players, that was split into players who felt that fate or luck had played a role versus those who ascribed success to planning and their training, showed longevity differences between the optimistic-planners vs lucky-pessimists … after all they were all hall-of-fame players.

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, in general, 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 your 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 … 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 … can you try it for a month.

Remember many young 4-year olds 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 each week, your self-test would be to note how many times you encountered the “if” and how many times did you execute the “then”. Write down your own mental math, to record your own score. Keep track of your own progress regularly. Monitor whether you are improving at spotting the “if” and improving at doing the “then”!

You are well 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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