Self-Control Made Easy
February is the time of the year when it's not only colder, you're more likely to have sick days, but also you're heading into the testing season, too. Oh, one more thing...we tend to put on a few pounds, too!
Any help out there?
This month, we'll learn about how to get yourself and your kids to do much, much more. This month, we'll learn about the science behind "self-control". This executive function skill turns out to have such an enormous impact on our lives that those that are higher in self-control tend to be sick less often, earn more money, have better quality relationships, get more schooling, earn higher degrees, are happier and even donate more money. In short, there's a very, very strong correlation with quality of life.
But...is it teachable? For the surprising news, keep reading...
We know that self-control has a genetic component (as do many of the executive function skills). But that only speaks about a small likelihood of its strength, not certainty. As usual, DNA is not your destiny. The research on self-control is complex and messy.
Here is what we know (that is relevant to you) and what the research tells us.
First, the effects of low self-control tend to be persistent. Individuals who were less able to delay gratification in preschool and consistently showed low self-control abilities in their twenties and thirties performed more poorly than did high delayers.
Second, self-regulation can be taught. I'll tell you how a bit later on.
Third, the sensitivity to environmental "hot" cues plays a significant role in the individuals' ability to suppress actions toward such stimuli. For example, a crying baby (chocolate or sexy peer) may trigger to activate the brain's "hot" cue in one, but not in another. Thus, resistance to temptation is partly predicted by environmental cue sensitivity.
We know that willpower is depleted by usage. For example, some kids have to work VERY hard to PAY attention, or to NOT touch another student. After a while, their brains have "run out of" willpower. The longer dieters are tempted, the harder it is to stay away from their sinful wishes.
We know that we use the same "stockpile" of willpower for all the tasks we do. If a husband and wife have to exert willpower ALL day at their jobs, when they get home, they may not have the raw energy left to be "nice" to their spouse. They've used up their willpower!
The scientific term is called, 'Decision fatigue'. It can explain why competent people can do very stupid things if you catch them at the wrong time. We have learned that willpower can be for control of thoughts (ever heard a song that you can't get out of your head?), emotions, work performance or just about anything. It can be taught and it can be learned, but the key is give the person a reason to do things. A huge component of willpower is that the fuel for it is glucose. Having enough glucose in our blood and brain means we can exert better self-control.
Here is what the scientists have learned about willpower. While there are many strategies, we'll focus on just three of the BIG ones.
First, we have a limited supply of it (willpower), so focus on just one task or challenge at a time.
Narrow your goals to the one or two things that matter most. Build confidence with small time amounts ("Can you do this for just 30 seconds, please?"). Then, over time, continue to build up the length of time for the classroom task ("We've already tried and succeeded at 30 seconds, so let's try for one full minute this time.") Avoid asking kids at school to resist something. Instead, just deflect or redirect their attention to something more interesting. Limit the brain and get small things accomplished. Keep the task short, compelling and over time, you can extend it.
Second, the relationship between willpower and glucose is well studied.
A single act of self-control causes glucose to drop below optimal levels, thereby impairing subsequent attempts at self-control. In short, when our blood sugar is low, we run out of willpower (we get to the "Oh, whatever" stage, where anything will do). Low levels of blood glucose after an initial self-control task predicted poor performance on a subsequent self-control task. When we consume a glucose drink, it reduces self-control impairments. To raise blood sugar, there are only 3 options: 1) food or drink, which is expensive, 2) movement which releases glucose stored as glycogen in the liver, or 3) strong emotions which trigger the release of glucose. No glucose means no willpower. By the way, this applies to dieters.
Third, to reduce the depletion risk, make things actionable for your brain.
Avoid putting anything down on your "to do" list that you cannot at least take some immediate action on. When you write out your goals and plans, write them so that each can be done ASAP.
In other words, "Send Valentine's cards," can't be done unless you already have either located the website to use (and have the email addresses), or have the physical addresses (and bought the envelopes, cards and stamps). Only put on a "to do list" that which can or must be done next, not a vague project like, "Paint the bathroom." For Valentines, your first item might be, locate awesome Valentine's website