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How to master the science of self-control

Woman and Desserts


Calah Alexander - published on 07/25/17

These three principles could help you unlock limitless potential.

I have a confession to make: I’m not very good at self-control.

I’m good at pushing myself to do things when I don’t want to, like going to kickboxing when I’m tired or doing the dishes before bed, but I’ve got zero restraint. If there is chocolate in the house, the kids better pray they find it before I do or there’ll be nothing left. My only successful healthy eating strategy is to ban sugar from the house altogether, because even if I can resist chocolate at 8 a.m., by 3 p.m. it’s all over.

Gooey Marshmallow

Read more:
What the marshmallow test teaches us about self-control

So I was fascinated by this article in Quartz, about an academic who became an ultra-marathon runner using the “science of self-control.” I didn’t know there was a science of self-control, but apparently there is — and according to Nathan DeWall, ultramarathon runner and erstwhile “sedentary academic,” it’s pretty simple.

I believe that self-control is our greatest human strength, and the easiest thing that we can improve upon. By mastering the three components of self-control, you too could run 100 miles— or conquer other, seemingly unreachable professional and personal goals.

DeWall is a professor of psychology who spent decades studying self-control. He explained in Quartz how the death of his mother prompted him to take up running as a form of grief therapy, but it quickly evolved into a passion, sparked by a desire to run a 100-mile marathon.

In one year, DeWall transitioned from running a mile or two a day to successfully completing his first 100-mile marathon using his understanding of the three principles of self-control: standards, monitoring, and strength.

He describes standards as the reference points we use to determine “whether a given action is appropriate or desirable.” So, for instance, I love the idea of waking up at 5 a.m. That’s a desirable action, because I could accomplish so much while everyone else is still sleeping. But I have an 18-month-old who usually ends up in our bed around 4 a.m., so setting my alarm clock for 5 a.m. would result in less peaceful productivity and more cranky rage-baby. Waking up at 5 a.m. might be desirable, but until the baby sleeps through the night in his own bed, it’s inappropriate for me.


Read more:
How to teach your kids self-control

Monitoring is the second part of self-control, and it’s pretty self-explanatory: Keep track of your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Simple, right?

Not so much. I will never forget the first time I attempted The Whole 30 Program, a diet that calls for the elimination of sugar, dairy, grains and other foods from your menu. I had to start over on day one because at the end of the day, while shredding cheese for my kids’ quesadillas, I mindlessly ate a handful of shredded cheese. Worse, it took me nearly five minutes to realize what I had done because I just wasn’t paying attention. Self-control requires being present in the moment rather than letting yourself go on autopilot.

The last component of self-control is the one we usually focus on: strength, or the energy you have to control your impulses. The tricky part about strength is that in my experience, if you build up restraint in one area you will experience weakness or temptation in another.

Read more:
The difficult art of being present

For a while, I resolved to give up dessert after dinner. I had become habituated to getting the kids in bed, pouring myself a glass of wine, and eating all the chocolate I could find. This was really the only time of day when I ate chocolate, so I figured that if I could cut that habit I’d dramatically reduce my sugar intake.

I managed to cut out dessert and felt pretty good about it … until I realized that I had developed a new habit of stumbling out of bed in the morning and immediately eating chocolate. I’m not even kidding, I was stuffing chocolate in my face before I even turned the coffee pot on. It was crazy!

That’s where monitoring comes in. Some part of my brain really did not like feeling deprived, so it waited till I was on autopilot and took advantage of my sluggish awareness. I eventually solved the problem by having my husband hide the chocolate at night (because I am a child), but I could have solved it more effectively by taking stock of my mental, emotional, and physical state before getting out of bed. Acknowledging the chocolate craving and mindfully heading for the coffee pot instead would be an actual act of self-control, which would in turn build strength to resist other temptations.

I think monitoring is the key component of self-control. So many of my bad habits are formed when I’m not paying attention that I can’t help but think they’re formed because I’m not paying attention. If I concentrated less on setting goals and sticking to them and more on paying attention to my thoughts in order to act mindfully, I bet I could run 100 miles too.

I mean, maybe. That’s a lot of miles.

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