I had to go do a training workshop yesterday. Part of me loves these days for the bludge factor extensive and enriching learning that takes place, and the other part for the food. Catered morsels of goodness. All displayed on pretty doilies in all their glory. I seriously think any kind of food that you haven’t had to prepare yourself, and comes in small bite sizes, just tastes so much better than anything from home, am I right?
I go into these days with a steely resolve. I’m totes just going to eat the fruit and the salad out of the sandwich (can’t eat the whole sandwich. Because. Carbolinia. It’s real, people. And on a possibly related note, yes I may have some issues). And then I get down to the food table, trying to remain composed, but possibly recreating a scene from Chariots of Fire with my mad dash to the front of the line. And I start with the fruit. I truly do. But those little, tasty, treats are practically screaming at me to eat them. I think of the wasteful nature leaving them to rot on the tray would be, I think of the environment, and saving landfill, and I remind myself that I went for a 6.5km jog that morning *just in case*. So it starts with one treat, then another, and another. And I make sure I only eat half of the treat, so it’s half the guilt. Unless it’s really good. Then fuck it, in it goes whole. Then that slippery slope is laden with grease and goo and I’m slip slidin’ down with record speed. I’ve gone into a treat coma and when I wake, I realise that I’ve stuffed half the tray in my mouth, and the next session of the workshop is spent with me chastising myself and wondering why the hell I have no self-control.
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Self-control that is, not little morsels of delicious goodness. Nothing is funny about them. Saucy temptresses they are. There seems to be times where we have it, and times where we don’t. Some people are masters of self-control, and others (like myself) struggle. Where the hell does it come from? How does it work? And why do some of us have it and others seemingly don’t?
Well, this really cool old dude, Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University in the US has it nutted out. He’s studied self-control for many years, and did this neat test with pre-schoolers, known as the ‘marshmallow test’, devised nearly 50 years ago. He would sit these little lads and lasses down with a cookies in front of them (or whatever treat they chose), and test to see how long they could resist. If they resisted eating anything for 15 minutes, they’d get two cookies; otherwise they would only get one. Sounds simple, right? Not quite when you’re five. Have you ever seen a five year old ask for something once and then wait patiently until you decide to respond? Yeah, me neither. And if you have one of those gems, I hate you.
Turns out in this test, the kids who could wait the longest had higher scores in their school admissions tests (SAT tests), they were thinner, earned more advanced degrees, used less cocaine (because, you know everyone needs cocaine apparently), and coped better with stress. Who’dve thunk it? Of course it’s not to say that people with low self control all become cocaine junkies, but self-control can really put kids in good stead for the future. If the kids ate the treat, it wasn’t sealing their fate.
So, how do we get some of this sweet sweet self-control? If we’re not born with it, do we miss the boat? Apparently not. A lot of it lies in how we see the object of desire, and what we do to switch off. The children in the experiment who held off on munching down the cookie, would turn their backs on it, push it away, pretend it was something nonedible, or something gross. Distraction and distancing- that’s they key!
It’s all that shit I bang on about- you’re in the driver’s seat, and it’s about changing what you think about something, which then influences how you feel about it, and then what you end up doing. Use specific ‘if-then’ plans to hold off on stuff. Like “If I eat 5 pieces of fruit first, and have 2 glasses of water, then I will take a walk and wait for my stomach to feel full”. If we do these kinds of ‘if-then’ things repeatedly, we buy ourselves some time, to let our brains catch up to our bodies and allow that shred of self-control to get bigger.
Adding to that, we need a goal, that gives us a reason to kick in with self-control in the first place. So it might be “I want to still fit into my jeans by winter, so those treats won’t help” or “I’ve already had a treat and want to keep my meals balanced today”. That’s what’s going to give us the drive to show self-control. Why would we control ourselves if we had no reason to?
This all applies to our kidlets too. It’s hard to get control of that part of your brain-the sensible side that helps you plan and exert self-control. Kids need a carrot dangled in front of them too! So when you’re about to tear your hair out about little Johnny trashing the toy area, think of what goal would motivate him to exert some self-control and refrain from hurling puzzle pieces across the room. Although, it is pretty liberating to just hurl shit around. You should try it some time.
Mischel says to distract constructively, do it in a way that is satisfying and intrinsically gratifying. And you can grow self-control, for yourself and your cherubs. Walter has his first non-academic book out- “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control” and it sounds like it’ll be a good read for parents!
So I’m totes going to get my self control under check now….. ahhhh who am I kidding. I’m still going to eat those damn treats. Even Mischel is a self-confessed marshmallow man. Who am I to argue?
How’s your self-control? Can you avoid temptations? Or are you a treat guzzler, like me? And who the hell CAN avoid free food??
The full article of Mischel’s ideas can be found here.