This month I am very excited to share with you a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. You have heard me talk before about self-control. Well, I am back at it again. But with good reason!
You see; our inability to control ourselves is the cause of so many of our problems. Just fill in the blank on any given subject and most often the challenge is the very specific problem with us taking control of our own minds and doing the tasks that need to get done to achieve the goals we say we want.
It is so strange, if we say we want some goal; we should just wake up one morning and be on our merry way to achieving it, no problems! But unfortunately life doesn’t happen that way, or better put, our brains don’t happen that way.
This month I am going to talk a bit more on the subject of self-control and let’s see if we can all get better at this elusive process.
Self-Control: The Key To Goal Achievement
According to Hedgcok, Vohs and Rao (2012), there are two stages in the process of self-control. The first stage is “recognizing the need for self-control” and the second stage is “implementing controlled responses.” The question that this study answers is in the context of the two stages of self-control. More specifically, what stage is affected by the depletion of resources? The second question addressed was to find out if it was possible to train people to be better at self-regulation.
In order to test which part of the process of self-control was affected, an fMRI was done. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is hypothesized to be most active during the conflict recognition phase, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was hypothesized to be most active during the implementation phase. Hang in there, the point is coming. You will be able to appreciate the study when we discuss the methods of improving self-control.
The results of this study were that the ACC was indeed activated during the task associated with “recognizing the need for self-control.” And it was not effected by former use of self-control. What this means in real world applications is that people do not have a problem with recognizing that self-control should be utilized. The DLPFC was effected by former use of self-control. What this means in real world applications is that people do have a problem in the implementation phase regarding self-regulation. This set the researchers up for the next phase of their study where they tested a behavioral therapy method that would help people improve at the implementation phase.
There were two conditions to the second part of the study. The first they called the “implementation intervention” condition. The second was called the “conflict intervention condition”. The participants in the implementation intervention were told to think about their goal. The participants in the conflict intervention condition were told to be mindful of the conflict between their goal and their immediate needs. At first blush, we can look at these options and logically deduce that it seems more effective to think about the goal only than to think about the goal and at the same time think about competing goals that fulfill more instant needs. And your instinct would be correct if that is what you predicted.
It is far more effective to think about one goal only and not competing goals. So how do we do this? For starters, let’s decide which goal we pick? Do you want the short term goal of instant gratification? If so, that is ok, just be perfectly clear that is what you are doing. Or, do you want a long term goal that you have been thinking about and salivating over for some time now? If so, I say, let’s pick that one.
Now, your only objective is to practice focusing on that. One way is to cut off those other options. Some people find this to be easy and effective. But if you really are conditioned to the goals of immediate gratification, not to worry, I have a super fun exercise for you.
Box of Thoughts Technique:
So you have two competing thoughts, so you will naturally need two boxes. What we are doing in the Box of Thoughts exercise is taking a mental thought and turning it into a physiological process. This allows us to represent physically what we were experiencing in our mind.
1. In the first box, put a list of at least 20 concepts or positive thoughts associated with your goal.
2. The moment you have a thought that is counter to your goal, write that thought down on a piece of paper and put it in the second box.
3. Now, pull out a sheet from the first box that has a list of one of your positive thoughts and this is your new thought to be thinking about.
Repeat this as many times as needed to help train yourself to focus on your goals and not what is conflicting with your goals.
That’s all there is to it! I hope you have enjoyed this month’s newsletter and the Box of Thoughts technique.
Hedgcock, W. M., Vohs, K. D., & Rao, A. R. (2012). Reducing self-control depletion effects through enhanced sensitivity to implementation: Evidence from fMRI and behavioral studies. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 486-495.