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[Link] Learning how to exert self-control

8 Post author: pinyaka 14 September 2014 11:07PM

Here's a link to a short op-ed about some tips to develop self-control. The author get them from talking with Walter Mischel, a researcher who correlated impulsiveness as a child (measured by ability to delay eating sweets) and various metrics as an adult (education attainment/cocaine use/weight). Mischel has a new book coming out, but this is not a review of the book. I thought this might be of interest because it talks a little about how self-control is a skill that can be developed and even gave some specific things to do.

1. If possible remove unhelpful triggers from your environment. If not possible, try to reduce the emotional appeal of the trigger by mentally associating it with something unpleasant. One example he gives is imagining a cockroach crawling on the chocolate mousse that a server at a restaurant offers.

2. Develop specific if-then plans such as "if it is before noon, I won't check email" or "If I feel angry, I will count backward from ten." The goal of these kinds of checks is to introduce a delay between impulse and action during which you are reminded of your goal and have a chance to consider the impact of following the impulse on that goal.

3. Link the behavior that you want to modify to a "burning goal" so that you have emotional impetus to actually make the desired change.

Comments (3)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 15 September 2014 12:37:32PM *  3 points [-]

If possible remove unhelpful triggers from your environment.

And from your head. I believe that for many chronic procrastinators, the worst things are already inside their heads. Sure, the things from outside helped to create and reinforce the internal habits, but the machine is already working inside the head, reinforcing itself, and will likely continue to do so even when the external triggers are removed.

Which is not an argument against removing them. Just a reminder that the work is not over then. Otherwise, all we would need to get rid of procrastination would be to rent some trigger-free workplace.

EDIT: I don't have a full solution, but I guess this is approximately the right direction: Explore your own thoughts, beliefs and behaviors, go into specific details, think causally about reinforcement, and notice which things create "ugh fields" around your work. Those you have to eliminate. (The problem is, sometimes you have a meta-"ugh field" around doing this. For example, a fear of losing identity, or refusing to do anything that doesn't pattern-match some superficial idea of rationality. Then you have some meta-work to do.) Don't use the far mode, always go near. For example many people believe that you can fix people using punishments. That's very high-status belief, but it doesn't work for intellectual endeavors. Punishing yourself for failing to work on X, or for working on X not well enough, or not fast enough... that's building an "ugh field" around X and around anything that reminds you of X. In other words, this is one of those poisonous beliefs that you better get out of your head.

One example he gives is imagining a cockroach crawling on the chocolate mousse that a server at a restaurant offers.

Following some LW article which said that identity and pride could be successfully abused for this purpose, when I see a chocolate, I say to myself: "Yeah, it's kinda good, but not good enough for me. I deserve the most healthy and tasty food." (But of course this is better followed by buying something that fits the description. Luckily, there are a few vegetable-based options for me.)

Comment author: buybuydandavis 15 September 2014 06:32:04AM 3 points [-]

0) Find a "burning goal".

Do what you love, because you'll be too freaking lazy to do much of anything else.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 15 September 2014 12:27:35PM *  3 points [-]

The connection between "wants to do" and "actually does" isn't straightforward. One can desire to do something, and yet procrastinate; so increasing desire isn't necessarily helpful. Also, there is this concept of "structured procrastination" where people do something (useful) to avoid doing something else (more important), so the second most important thing actually has a greater chance to be done than the most important one.