The Lazy (but Smart!) Person’s Guide to Mastering Self-Control

If you watched any TV during the 90’s, you will probably remember the Lay’s potato chip challenge .

Their catchphrase was “Betcha can’t eat just one.” And as those diabolical marketing geniuses predicted, I did find it awfully hard to eat just one and call it a day – and I don’t even particularly like potato chips.

Indeed, we all know that many of the things we want most dearly in the long-term (e.g. becoming a great clarinetist, publishing a book, having healthy teeth) require effortful activities in the immediate present that aren’t necessarily fun (e.g. practicing, writing, flossing).

So if we’re going to make meaningful progress towards our long-term goals, we have to find a way to exert some self-control and put the desires of future us above those of present-day us.

But if we’ve learned nothing else from decades of failed New Years’ resolutions, it’s that self-control is not exactly our forte. Sure, we’re great at starting things, but sticking with things is a different story.

But what if that’s because we’ve been going about it the wrong way?

What if there were an easier, less painful, and more effective way to get ourselves to do the right thing?

Brute-force method of self-control

The old-school way of getting ourselves to do the “right” thing is to will ourselves to do it.

To look that piping-hot plate of Skyline chili straight in the eye, say “Is that the best you got?”, and walk away with a quinoa/avocado/grilled salmon salad instead.

Doable, in theory. But…argh…!

Strategic “process” model of self-control

Fortunately, a growing literature of research on self-control suggests that this is not the only strategy we can employ. And that other strategies may not only be more effective, but easier and less painful too.

University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth and colleagues have come up with a model of self-control which suggests that our impulses don’t just pop up out of nowhere, but grow stronger (or weaker) through 4 stages. For instance,

  • Stage 1: Situation (e.g. walk into the kitchen)
  • Stage 2: Attention (e.g. notice the box of chewy chocolate chip cookies sitting on the counter)
  • Stage 3: Appraisal (e.g. what the heck, it’s Friday and I feel like a cookie)
  • Stage 4: Response (e.g. eat dozen cookies)

Or, on a more positive note:

  • Stage 1: Situation (e.g. walk into apartment)
  • Stage 2: Attention (e.g. notice the practice area set up nicely, with music laid out with goals for next practice session)
  • Stage 3: Appraisal (e.g. Hmmm…would be nicer to finish practicing before dinner, rather than after)
  • Stage 4: Response (e.g. practice now; enjoy rest of evening off)

One of this model’s predictions, is that we’ll have greater success doing the right thing if we nip temptation in the bud and take action in the earlier stages, rather than waiting until the later stages when temptation is likely to overwhelm our better judgment.

Five categories of self-control strategies

The model also outlines not one, but five categories of self-control strategies that we can use:

  1. Situation selection: Preparing for a big audition in a month and want to practice? Hang out with the subgroup of your friends who go to bed early, wake up early, and practice diligently.
  2. Situation modification: Trying to practice effectively? Turn your phone off.
  3. Attentional deployment: Tempted to watch TV? Practice in a room with no TV in it. Or at least not in your line of sight.
  4. Cognitive change: Think about the pros of practicing now vs. the costs of practicing later or not at all.
  5. Response modulation: Practice through sheer force of will, even though every fiber of your being is screaming “Must see Game of Thrones…RIGHT NOW!!!”

I’m all about finding the easiest way to do the most challenging thing, so this sounds pretty appealing. Let’s take a look at how the model works in some tests with real students.

Study time!

159 undergraduate students were recruited for a study and randomly assigned to one of three groups. All reported the number of hours they studied on a typical day, and were also asked to set a study-related goal for the week (like “study French for one hour each night before [they] sleep” or “not go on Facebook while completing [their] research paper”).

The situation modification group was given information about the benefits of “removing temptations from sight rather than trying to resist them directly” and told to make any adjustments to their study environment that they thought would help to minimize any tempting distractions (like turning off their phone, installing apps to restrict access to Facebook, etc.).

The response modulation group was told that “people can actually strengthen their self-control muscle with repeated practice that consists of actively resisting immediate temptations (rather than simply avoiding them)” and asked to practice using their willpower to stay on task and resist any temptations that might present themselves.

The control group didn’t get any tips on how to stick to their study goals.

How’d they do?

After a week, the students reported in on a) how well they did with their study goal (1=extremely poorly to 5=extremely well), and b) how much temptation they experienced (1=not at all tempted to 5=extremely tempted).

From Duckworth, A.L., White, R.E., Matteucci, A.J., Shearer, A., & Gross, J.J.(2016) A stitch in time: Strategic self-control in high school and college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 329-341.
From Duckworth, A.L., White, R.E., Matteucci, A.J., Shearer, A., & Gross, J.J. (2016) A stitch in time: Strategic self-control in high school and college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 329-341.

As expected, students in the situation modification (i.e. minimize temptations) group were more likely to achieve their study goals than those in the response modification (willpower) and control groups. Which is cool, but what’s more interesting to me, is why they were successful.

From Duckworth, A.L., White, R.E., Matteucci, A.J., Shearer, A., & Gross, J.J.(2016) A stitch in time: Strategic self-control in high school and college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 329-341.
From Duckworth, A.L., White, R.E., Matteucci, A.J., Shearer, A., & Gross, J.J. (2016) A stitch in time: Strategic self-control in high school and college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 329-341.

Admittedly, this doesn’t explain all of it, but some deeper statistical analyses revealed that part of the reason why these students were more successful in achieving their study goals is that they experienced less temptation in the first place. In other words, they made things easier for themselves, by relying less on willpower, and more on what some have called “environmental structuring.”

Like trying to stop a panda from rolling downhill , the most effective time to intervene, is before the little guy gets too close to the edge.

Take action

There are times when it can be very valuable to practice focusing past distractions like Facebook, Netflix, and a plate of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. But not every day.

So on a day-to-day basis, what are some ways to restructure your environment to reduce temptations and make it easier to do the “right” thing?

Take a moment to jot down a list of 5 easy-to-implement ideas, and give it a try.

COLLEGE STUDENTS: And if you’re in college, I’ve just learned of an app called Pocket Points which rewards you with various discounts/gifts at restaurants and such for keeping your phones locked while you’re in class. Not available on all campuses, but perhaps yours is one of the lucky ones!

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5 Responses

  1. Noa, you’re a horrible person. How can you give a link to a panda video (that I incidentally just watched 2,5 times in a row) in an article on self-control which main idea is to keep away from temptations? Aaargh…

    P.S.: love your articles though.:)

    1. Be aware of that – unconscious psychological submission – this is called

      Submission to authority : like Daslow in I like Icarus .

      In a critical situation perhaps this could cost me not to be authentical like I would

      like to be.

      Just the fact of saying you don’t have to judge whether you act is crual or not. “I

      did what I was told to do.”
      Obedience or rejecting the fault on others for what I did is made comfortable.
      What is made comfortable for us is to do what authorities tell they think is good to

      be done. So that we say think and do not the contrary of what the authority tells.

      And say and think and do and obey to authority we respect and accept.

      My authentic voice is there – the way I am with people when I go well.
      For expl. :
      I begin taking into account who I want to talk to at the end of a concert
      and why. I find echo with my way
      of being in hers. Emotionally, I can conceive the way I have to behave with this

      But there is stress and racing thoughts. Thoughts and what people who don’t like

      me say to me. Things I was told which hinder my image : I want to be emotionally

      feel a certain way with this perosn as I talk to her – but I let people who don’t like

      me speak in my head. I give them credit by feeling how I was told by them to feel.

      By doing so I m weak and just after, think – because what I do is watched – ye,

      you’re all right, this is the way (weak) I want to be : unconscious submission.

      No, I don’t want to be the person who cries in the middle of the other people
      after a concert because
      she realises something is so true about herself and how the performer so much
      reflects herself as a kid
      but how she grew up and regrets tones of thing, is really a big failure.
      In brief, I don’t want to be weak.
      I know what I want to say to the person but again, I keep having thoughts.
      Among these thoughts, I let speak persons who hinder the way I want to be.

  2. Haha I agree, I even went showing it to someone else, keeping 2 people from practicing!

    Good article, although familiar, it is something to be reminded of regularly to keep your long term goals in vision and adjust behavior to that. Any help and support with that is welcome. Need to clear house from distractions now….

  3. I have been on a scientific article about flow and progressively came to the notion of “action-oriented individuals” vs. “state-oriented inividuals”.
    “Action-state orientation is concerned with individual differences in the ability to initiate and maintain intentions (Kuhl, 1994b).”

    “In addition to the general notion of action-state orientation, Kuhl (e.g., Kuhl & Beckmann, 1994) further suggests that three separate aspects or dimensions can be distinguished: preoccupation, hesitation, and volatility.”

    Anyway, I eventually found a way to measure the action orientation of an inividual according to these three criterias (and perhaps to enhance it if this is the wish). The measurement tool is Kuhl’s (1994) action control scale ;ACS 90.

    Koole & Jostmann (2004) also said that action orientation is associated with intuitive self-regulation which is less depleting than conscious self-control (Baumeister, Schmeichel & Vohs, 2007).

    For more information, I read the web article “Action-State Orientation: Construct Validity of a Revised Measure
    and Its Relationship to Work-Related Variables” by James M. Diefendorff, Rosalie J. Hall, Robert G. Lord, and Mona L. Strean.
    (the full item set of the Action Control Scale is at the end of the study)

    I also read the abstract of the following study :
    Action oriented individuals Action oriented individuals are less vulnerable to are less vulnerable to
    ego depletion ego depletion (Peter Gröpel & Jürgen Beckmann, Institute of Beckmann, Institute of Sport Psychology, TUM)

  4. I don’t agree with your title, Noa. This is not because I am smart that I am lazy. I am a thinker.

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