sunday life: try this self-control trick

This week I delay gratification


To be honest, I just don’t trust people who can keep an open packet of TimTams in the fridge for two weeks.  Are you one of these? Can you take one biscuit and leave the rest, and not think about them incessantly until you’ve demolished the lot (rationalising that, hey, they have to be eaten some time.)?


Well, I don’t trust you.

I mean, I’d trust you with my biscuits, should I ever require someone to mind a packet for me. It’s just I don’t trust that you are fully human, in the messy, unrestrainable way I am.

My brother Ben’s one of these types. At Easter we used to get two small, hollow eggs each (hidden in the lavender bush…yours too?). He’d be able to nibble at his Charlie Bucket-style, until June. My friend Zoe’s the same. Every spring she cuts all crap from her diet so she can shed her winter cushioning. Just like that. No fuss, no distress. “I just decide to do it…what’s the big deal?!” she says wide-eyed when I ask for her secret.

Self-controlled types are certainly oddities. They’ve also, of late, become a quirky source of scientific enquiry. Little wonder. A lack of will power – our inability to curb our over-eating, over-spending and overly-addicted-to-email ways – is killing us. Finding out what makes the self-restrained tick is only going to get hotter in academic circles, I tell you.

Already the theories are rolling in and this week I tested a few of them, even if just conceptually. Most conclude that self-controlled types are, in fact, fully human. It’s just they’ve developed clever abilities to trick the mind into not desiring something. Florida scientists found they often frame the pushing aside of a temptation as fun. So, committing to not drinking coffee for a month is made easy by making it a breezy project that you tweet about, do with a mate, or whatever. I get that. It takes away the resentment that can lead to the self-sabotaging of a goal.

Other studies say self-control can be achieved if go small. So, instead of quitting sugar forever, tomorrow, just don’t have it in your tea right now. This has a calming effect (quite often lack of self-control is fuelled by the anxiety of too many options to fend off). “If…then…” approaches work, too, apparently. Instead of self-flagellating with, “I’m banning dessert”, simply tell your reptilian brain, “If I’m offered salted caramel with dark chocolate flints, then I’ll ask for a tea instead”.

But perhaps the most effective trick I came across in my search this week is “gratification delay”. It’s been 40 years since psychologists famously played the marshmallow trick on a bunch of American four-year olds. They were each given a marshmallow; if they waited for 20 minutes before eating it, they could have another. Most cracked as soon as the scientists left the room, but a third of them held out. The kids have been monitored ever since (they’re now in their mid-40s) and the results were released a few months back: the kids who delayed gratification grew up to have more successful and happier lives.

Which is kind of depressing for the two-thirds of us over here living messy TimTam-obsessed lives. Except that the marshmallow tricksters say practicing gratification delay can actually see most of us regain some control. (And just as a comforting aside, a professor at the University of Minnesota said in the New York Times this month that humans are simply not designed to deal psychologically with the immediate gratification we’re bludgeoned with these days. We need the delay, the run-up, the rituals to remain in control.)

So, no snacking before dinner, no BMX until you’ve saved your pocket money, no presents until Christmas. Our parents were onto something, weren’t they? They were training our self-control muscle.

But be warned. Yet another boffin has found if we work the will-power muscle too hard, we run the risk of  “self-control fatigue” (which I just know is going to form a defense in some court case any day now). We have a limited pool of will to draw on. This is why, after a highly disciplined day at work, we just can’t man up to a Spin class. And after a week of dieting, we binge.

So the lesson here? As always, go easy on yourself!

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