written by Mick Ukleja

Why Is SELF-CONTROL So Difficult and How does it impact Resilience?

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 5.17.22 PMLet’s start with a self-assessment.  This week did you…

  • Procrastinate more than you wish you did?
  • Exercise less than you wish you did?
  • Eat more than you wish you did?
  • Think more negatively than you wish you did?
  • React more unkindly than you wish you did?
  • Reflect less than you wish you did?

Self-control isn’t all that easy.  In the long term we have great wishes and desires.  The problem seems to be in the short term, i.e. the moment.

Even though we know something good is out there in the long-term, it is easy to over focus in the present and sacrifice the future.

Now we know this is a common story of mankind.  Take the story of Adam and Eve as an example.  Who in their right mind would sacrifice a blissful existence in the Garden of Eden for a piece of fruit?  Good question.  Who in their right mind would check email or text message while driving—knowing there is a 2500% greater chance of a mishap?  I mean, how important is living?  Yet in the moment that piece of fruit and that message take on a much greater proportion of importance than they deserve.

In multiple areas of life the momentary impulse overtakes us and we do counter-productive things.

In the late 1960’s psychologist Walter Mischel and his team at Stanford did a study on self-control.  Young children around the age of 4 were brought in one by one.  They were told by the researcher that he had to leave the room for a few minutes.  He offered them a marshmallow they could eat right now, or wait until the researcher returned and have two marshmallows.  Of the 653 “subjects” that participated, 70% ate the marshmallow now, and only 30% wrestled with the temptation but found a way to resist.

Okay, those are children.  Let’s look at two scenarios.

SCENARIO # 1: Would you, given a choice, want a chocolate chip cookie now or two cookies in a week?

Most would say, “I’ll take less now in order to get the cookie.”

SCENARIO # 2: Now stretch that out in time.  Would you rather have one chocolate chip cookie in a year, or two cookies in one year and one week?

It’s really the same choice.  You are waiting one more week to get twice the amount of cookies.  The difference is that both of these choices in scenario #2 are in the future.  The vast majority of people would be willing to wait the extra week when the decision is pushed into the future.

In the long-term view our decisions tend to be more altruistic.  Our decisions rise to a higher level—both practically and morally.  Looking to the future we will eat better, exercise more, and act in a kindlier manner.

But we don’t live in the future.  As a result our stellar future becomes our straying present.

As we practice focusing on what’s important in the long run, we tend to lessen what we are giving up in the present—those choices that jeopardize the future.  As we associate the future good with the present decision, we lessen its negative pull on our lives.  This is an important habit to develop since we are not very good at delayed gratification.

So what does self-control have to do with resilience?  Remember those 4 year olds in the marshmallow test?  In 1981 those researchers tracked down the participants who were now high school seniors.  They discovered that those who were able to control their impulses by focusing on the future and not the moment were doing significantly better personally, socially, and academically.

Knowing you will be tempted in certain situations to sacrifice long-term results for present rewards is a tremendous help.  Being aware of both our tendency and future outcomes is a key in delaying gratification and holding out for the best – (and staying out of trouble.)

With instant access to everything, the temptation to want it now surrounds us. There are more ways to fail today than ever before.  Failure is not new, but the number of options has increased exponentially.

The need for the Emotionally Intelligent quality of impulse control has also increased.  And it is a key component of resilience.

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03.10.2015

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