Thursday, December 31, 2009

Two Keys to Self-Control

Some people abhor self-control. Or at least they think they do. Their life goal is to let loose, to free themselves of all civilized constraint, and to overcome inhibition. They are more than willing to sacrifice their character on the altar of full and open self-expression.

And why not? Didn't Freud teach us that the effort to control your appetites, your instincts, and your very lust, was an exercise in futility?

If human life is as Freud said it was, that is, a struggle to the death between your mind and your appetites, between your ego and your instincts, or between you and your cravings, then you are destined to lose.

All the recent research in this field tells us that you cannot control impulses or appetites by focusing your attention on controlling your impulses or appetites.

If you believe Freud, then, you should not waste your time trying to exercise self-control. You should join the winning team and let your instincts have more or less free reign.

I am well aware that Freud did not make this recommendation. That does not prevent it from inhering in the logic of his argument. And, the logic of the myth that underlies it.

For those of you who wish to become Counterfreudians, I recommend Jonah Lehrer's article outlining the latest research findings from the field of self-control. Link here.

When it comes to New Year's Resolutions Lehrer offers this utterly sensible advice: take one resolution at a time. If you are trying to change too many bad habits at once you will surely fail. The brain is not set up for drastic, instant transformations.

And Lehrer adds these two salient points: "... practicing mental discipline in one area, such as posture, can also make it easier to resist Christmas cookies. And when a dangerous desire starts coming on, just remember: Gritting your teeth isn't the best approach, as even the strongest mental muscles quickly get tired. Instead, find a way to look at something else.:

It sounds like Lehrer has read his Aristotle. If you want to build discipline, you must, Aristotle would have had it, practice discipline. And it is not all that important where you start. Try making a habit of showing up on time or of returning messages promptly.

Surely, this is quite different from the notion that you can build discipline by discovering the hidden reason why you have none.

The second point, also via Aristotle, is simple. When you have a bad habit, it is fruitless to get into a struggle to control or contain it. The best, and perhaps the only way, to get rid of a bad habit is to replace with a good one.

If it is just you and the Christmas cookies, you are going to lose. If you want to control your consumption of cookies, every time you start thinking about cookies, try thinking about carrots.

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