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The Lazy (but Smart!

) Persons Guide
to Mastering Self-Control
If you watched any TV during the 90s, you will probably remember the
Lays potato chip challenge.
Their catchphrase was Betcha cant 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 dont 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
arent necessarily fun (e.g. practicing, writing, flossing).
So if were 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 weve learned nothing else from decades of failed New Years
resolutions, its that self-control is not exactly our forte. Sure, were great
at starting things, but sticking with things is a different story.
But what if thats because weve 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. Butargh!

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 dont 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, its Friday and I feel like a
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. Hmmmwould 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 models predictions, is that well 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
ThronesRIGHT NOW!!!
Im all about finding the easiest way to do the most challenging thing, so
this sounds pretty appealing. Lets 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 didnt get any tips on how to stick to their study goals.

Howd 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

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 whats 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.

Admittedly, this doesnt 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

Take a moment to jot down a list of 5 easy-to-implement ideas, and give it
a try.
COLLEGE STUDENTS: And if youre in college, Ive 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 youre in
class. Not available on all campuses, but perhaps yours is one of the lucky

Does it ever feel like in spite of all your hard work, you're not
progressing as rapidly as you should?
It's not just your imagination. Not all practice is created
equal - and some approaches are much more effective than
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