December 17, 2014

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Many of my clients have recently heard me talk about the benefits and limitations of willpower and self-control. The Marshmallow Test designed by Dr. Walker Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960s first sparked my interest in this issue. (Any test involving sugar gets my attention.) For the study, Mischel gave 500 4-year-olds the option of eating one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. Years later, he caught up with these same children as teenagers and adults. The children who had been willing to wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows as pre-schoolers, actually scored higher on the SATs as teens, and in adulthood had lower body mass indices, less drug abuse, and fewer divorces. Are you contemplating which group you would have been in?

Pamela Druckerman in the February 4, 2012, Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay, “Why French Parents are Superior,” shared that French parents actually teach self-control to their babies. French moms do not rush into their newborn’s room the second that their baby cries, instead they allow him/her to learn to fall back asleep independently. Rather than snacking all day like American children, French children eat three meals a day (not special “kid foods”) and only one afternoon snack each day at 4:00. Most astonishing to me is that Druckerman reports actually witnessing a three-year-old French girl help her mom make cupcakes and not lick her fingers once! Talk about un-American!

So how do those of us who did not grow up with French parents strengthen our self-control? Self-control acts like a muscle – the more we use it, the stronger it gets. The Monitor on Psychology reported that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires (i.e. ”Where are my chocolate chips?!”). We use self-control in other areas of our lives as well: controlling thoughts and emotions, making decisions, and pushing ourselves to do one more task before we go to bed. Unfortunately, self-control is definitely a limited resource; that is why by the end of the day, we are likely to relax our standards and say, “whatever!!”

We all have areas of our lives that we would like to have more control over. It helps to prioritize our focus on one particular area and as our behavioral habits adjust to a new normal, redirect our attention to our next priority. When possible (perhaps early in the day), we can attempt  to anticipate temptations and challenges that may surface later in the day and pre-plan our responses.  Such mindfulness requires willpower and self-control, but I think I can and think youcan too!

Live Well/ Be Well.

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