Do you like Cake? Delaying gratification

“Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experience the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.” ~  M Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

A financial analyst was locked into a cycle of procrastination.

Peck asked, "Do you like cake?" She replied that she did.

"What part of the cake do you like better, the cake or the frosting?"

"Oh, the frosting!"

"And how do you eat a piece of cake?"

"I eat the frosting first, of course."

Having gained this insight, Dr. Peck started probing her work habits. Invariably she would devote the first hour or so of each day to the most gratifying and easiest of her tasks and the remaining hours never quite accomplishing the more onerous chores. He suggested that she force herself to do the objectionable tasks during the first two hours, then enjoy the remaining time.  

There is a critical moment early in your day when you make the decision as to whether you will plunge into the difficult tasks in front of you or not. Don’t allow yourself to decide – just act.  When taking the easy road is not an option, and you just plunge into the difficult tasks, you save yourself time and energy.. and make it easier to avoid those detours.

Intensive Parenting

Some social scientists have theorized, the tilt toward intensive parenting originated at least in part from parents’ anxieties about their children competing for education and jobs.     Many children surely benefit from being raised like this—concerted cultivation can serve them well later in life, teaching them how to manage their time and assert their individuality. But heavily involved parenting can at the same time stunt kids’ sense of self-reliance, and overcommitted after-school schedules can leave them exhausted. Also, there is some evidence that parents who overdo it increase the risk that their children will grow up to be depressed and less satisfied with life. And on the parents’ side, the intensive ideal can lead parents—particularly mothers—to fear that they aren’t doing enough to give their child the best future possible.     

Joe Pinsker writing in The Atlantic   

Self-Control can be Contagious

Not only do you tend to hang out with people like yourself, your friends will influence you toward or away from self-control. Even the people you are forced by circumstances to hang out with (like co-workers) have an influence on your behavior. 

That's the finding of researchers who asked participants to watch people either select carrot sticks or cookies to eat before taking tests related to self-control (not involving cookies and carrots). Participants who watched someone eat cookies before the tests did not do as well as those who had watched someone decide to eat carrots. 

In another test, participants were told to think of a friend with good self-control. This group performed better on a handgrip test (used to measure self-control) than did the participants assigned to think about a friend with weak self-control. Other tests showed similar results.  

The conclusion: If you surround yourself with people who make wise choices, you are more likely to do the same. You can boost your self-control simply by networking with other people who reinforce positive behavior (or vise versa). And when you show a lack of self-control, you are probably influencing someone else to do the same. 

Details of the study were published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

(more info)

Stephen Goforth

Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self

Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes. Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person. So think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.

Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity. Perhaps it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.

Ed Yong writing in The Atlantic

Gratitude and Self-Control

Studies from my lab show that gratitude directly increases self-control.

Our research also shows that when we make people feel grateful, they’ll spend more time helping anyone who asks for assistance, they’ll make financial decisions that benefit partners equally (rather than ones that allow profit at a partner’s expense), and they’ll show loyalty to those who have helped them even at costs to themselves.

What these findings show is that pride, gratitude and compassion, whether we consciously realize it or not, reduce the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. In so doing, they push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves. Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.

If using willpower causes stress, using these emotions actually heals: They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. By making us value the future more, they ease the way to patience and perseverance.

Perhaps most important, while these emotions enhance self-control, they also combat another problem of modern life: loneliness. From 1985 to 2004, the percentage of people who reported having at least one friend on whom they could rely and with whom they could discuss important matters dropped to 57 percent from 80 percent. Today, more than half of all Americans report feeling lonely, especially in their professional lives. But study after study has shown that those who are seen as grateful, warm and justifiably confident draw others to them. Because these emotions automatically make us less selfish, they help ensure we can form relationships with people who will be there to support us when we need it.

Cultivating the social emotions maximizes both our “résumé virtues” (those that underlie professional success) and our “eulogy virtues” (those for which we want to be remembered). In nudging the mind to be more patient and more selfless, they benefit everyone whom our decisions impact, including our own future selves. In short, they give us not only grit but also grace.

So as 2018 commences, take more time to cultivate these emotions. Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals.

David DeSteno writing in the New York Times

Just beyond your current limits

Excellent performers judge themselves differently than most people do. They're more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay.

By contrast, the best performers judge themselves against a standard that's relevant for what they're trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare it with the performance of competitors they're facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare it with the best known performance by anyone in the field.

Any of those can make sense; the key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Research confirms what common sense tells us, that too high a standard is discouraging and not very instructive, while too low a standard produces no advancement.

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated

How to exert self-control

Ever wondered why certain people are able to resist temptation? A Florida State University study indicates their secret is not sheer will power but rather consciously avoiding situations that test their self-control, The Wall Street Journal reports. Researchers recruited 38 volunteers and rated their levels of self-discipline using a series of 13 questions. Half were ranked as above average, half below. The students were then given an anagram to solve and told they could either start it immediately in a noisy student lounge or wait until a quiet lab became available. Among those with below-average self-control, most went for the lounge; among those with better self-control, most chose to wait for a quieter place to work. Previous studies have found that everyone has finite stores of willpower, which can be exhausted by repeated temptations. So researchers said the wisest way to pursue a goal—such as academic success or weight loss—is to structure your environment to minimize distraction and temptation.

The Week Magazine

inhibition

John Mazziotta pulled out a neurology textbook with pictures of a woman kneeling and praying next to a man who was also kneeling and praying. The woman, Mazziotta explained, had suffered brain damage and could no longer inhibit certain actions. She had not the slightest interest in kneeling and praying at that moment, but she could not stop herself from doing what brains want to do, imitate the action they see, like a monkey behind the glass at a zoo, making faces back at you.

Another thing to remember, Mazziotta said, is that many of the brain’s systems are running all the time. “Think of an airplane,” said Mazziotta. “Most people think that when it lands it has its engines on low and it’s just floating in. But that’s not always so; in landing, an airplane often has to be at full throttle in case it has to react quickly if something happens.” The brain, too he says, is set up to be whirring all the time. Even when we think of it as resting, its neurons are often firing at a low level, ready and waiting, so it can react in time before, for instance, it’s eaten by a bigger, quicker brain.

The brain is working constantly, and one of the tasks it works at is to inhibit itself from a variety of actions. It is striving to resist the urge to raise the coffee cup like the guy across the table, and striving not to do a number of things that might not be in its best interest. As the brain develops- in children and, science is now learning, in teenagers- it is this very inhibition machinery that is being fine-tuned.

“Development,” says Mazziotta, "is progressive inhibition.”

Barbara Strauch, The Primal Teen

Chocolate Cake Resistance

It is now a well-established proposition that both self-control and cognitive effort are forms of mental work. Several psychological studies have shown that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation.

Imagine that you are asked to retain a list of seven digits for a minute or two. You are told that remembering the digits is your top priority. While your attention is focused on the digits, you are offered a choice between two desserts: a sinful chocolate cake and a virtuous fruit salad. The evidence suggests that you would be more likely to select the tempting chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with digits.

People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations. A few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night. The self-control of morning people is impaired at night; the reverse is true of night people. Too much concern about how well one is doing in a task sometimes disrupts performance by loading short-term memory with pointless anxious thoughts.

The conclusion is straightforward: self-control requires attention and effort.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

It's Contageous!

Not only do you tend to hang out with people like yourself, your friends will influence you toward or away from self-control. Even the people you are forced by circumstances to hang out with (like co-workers) have an influence on your behavior.

That's the finding of researchers who asked participants to watch people either select carrot sticks or cookies to eat before taking tests related to self-control (not involving cookies and carrots). Participants who watched someone eat cookies before the tests did not do as well as those who had watched someone decide to eat carrots.

In another test, participants were told to think of a friend with good self-control. This group performed better on a handgrip test (used to measure self-control) than did the participants assigned to think about a friend with weak self-control. Other tests showed similar results.

Their conclusions: If you surround yourself with people who make wise choices, you are more likely to do the same. You can boost your self-control simply by networking with other people who reinforce positive behavior (or vise versa). And when you show a lack of self-control, you are probably influencing someone else to do the same.

Details of the study are published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Stephen Goforth

Self-control as a Child

Behaving yourself as a child brings big rewards in adulthood. Researchers tracked more than 1,000 people from toddlerhood into their early 30s and found that the more self-control they showed as kids, the healthier, wealthier, and happier they were as grown-ups. By contrast, children who struggled to complete tasks and handle frustration without lashing out at their peers were more likely to be overweight, drug dependent, and ridden with debt as adults. The study’s authors say that self-control can be taught and nurtured with practice, and that no matter what a child’s circumstances, “good parenting can improve self-control and improve life success.”

The Week Magazine

avoiding the ditches

Make your goal a readiness to deal with new and developing circumstances--instead of simply avoiding any possibility of failure by trying to control which circumstances you are willing to deal with. Chasing the latest fade (simply because it is new) or ignoring what’s going on around us (and thus becoming irrelevant to the conversation) are two extreme temptations. We can fall into these ditches in an attempt to avoid regularly thinking hard about life and deal with the uncertainty that surrounds us. To stay on the road of maturity, we have to allow for ambiguity and endure that nagging (and sometimes frightening feeling) about what may come our way.

Stephen Goforth

Revealing ourselves without realizing it

When we talk about ourselves, telling others who we are, researchers say the same part of our brain lights up as when we are brainstorming ideas, discussing our dreams, or speaking extraneously. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found this to be the case, even when musicians improvise. The same area of the brain is at work in these off-handed dispatches, putting on display a musical autobiography of sorts.

When we are engaged in these intensely personal pursuits, we not only reveal intimate parts of ourselves, the researchers say a part of the brain involved in self-control and planning is shut down.

Stephen Goforth