Why Self-Control Is Only Half the Answer

Self-control alone is like a tool without a project.

Posted Sep 14, 2014

Esther Williams makes s'mores.

Ms. Druckerman’s article is a brief but fascinating look at the man behind the marshmallows (as it were) and well worth a read, but one passage in particular stood out to me. After summarizing Mischel’s thoughts regarding the benefits, limitations, and difficulties of developing and maintaining self-control, she writes:

Self-control alone doesn’t guarantee success. People also need a “burning goal” that gives them a reason to activate these skills, he says. His students all have the sitzfleisch to get into graduate school, but the best ones also have a burning question they want to answer in their work, sometimes stemming from their own lives. (One student’s burning question was why some people don’t recover from heartbreak.) Dr. Mischel’s burning goal from childhood was to “make a life that would help my family recover from the trauma of suddenly becoming homeless refugees.” More recently, it’s been to find coping skills for children suffering from traumas of their own.

In my opinion, this point is all-too-often neglected in articles on self-control and willpower (and I include my own in that indictment!). Self-control, discipline, resolve—while they may be good qualities (or virtues) to have, they are useful only insofar as they help a person achieve some deeper goal, dream, or purpose. Self-control is often called an executive virtue because, rather than leading to good actions or decisions itself, it helps a person exercise his or her other traits and further meaningful goals. Most articles on self-control take for granted that the person reading them has such goals and wants help channeling her or his resolve in order to reach them. But if a person doesn’t have goals or dreams, or is still figuring out what they are, self-control is going to be of little use.

I often think of this idea when the topic of deadlines arises. Deadlines can be a useful tool for procrastinators, whether they help schedule tasks over time or motivate timely effort towards completing them. But a deadline alone is not of much use if the person doesn’t care about meeting that deadline enough to overcome other tendencies for delay. There may be some people for whom a deadline triggers an unconscious drive to get the task done. But for most of us (I’d wager), we need some motivation to meet the deadline; it can’t do the work on its own.

For instance, you or someone one may tie a reward to meeting the deadline; maybe you promise yourself a night out if you finish on time, or your boss hints at a promotion. Or, it may simply be a matter of pride to finish on time: “I made three deadlines in a row—let’s try for four!” In order for deadlines to work, you need a reason to meet it—if you have no motivation to finish the task itself, simply attaching a deadline to it is unlikely to help. The deadline has to have some additional meaning that you can leverage to help you finish the task on time. Just think of the famous quote from author Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” They obviously didn’t matter to him!

The same principle holds for any exertion of willpower, whether it’s used toward losing weight, learning to play the piano, or any other goal—there has to be a reason behind that goal in order to motivate the effort to control oneself. There are many great tools, kluges, and nudges to help you enhance your self-control, and more direct ways to help you develop it internally. But you need some underlying goal or purpose, something you want badly enough, to motivate not only the work towards it but also the effort to build your self-control. For people with such a purpose, these tips and strategies are wonderful. But for those without a “burning goal,” dream, or passion, increased self-control is of little value. It needs to be channeled toward something, which people such as this don’t have yet. If you find yourself asking, “why lose weight—what’s the point?” or “why finish this paper on time—really, who cares?” then you know what I mean. (If you work for the NSA, you know I say these things often.)

Just as the virtue of kindness is worthless if it doesn’t result in kind action, the virtue of self-control is worthless if it doesn’t have a goal or purpose to contribute to furthering. Similar to my earlier post on vacations, some people need to do some extra work on their goals before they’re ready to work on their self-control in order to further them.. As Dr. Mischel writes, you need to know what you’re working for before you can usefully exert self-control toward achieving it. Self-control is merely a tool, and a tool is worthless without a project—and if you don’t have a project, that’s where you have to start.

You’ll see me there—I’ll be the guy with the empty bag of marshmallows.


For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.

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Image courtesy of Blonde at the Film.