Setting Ourselves Up For Failure – Why Impulse Control Doesn’t Work, and Nine Strategies That Do

-Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

When we think about controlling impulses, we are usually thinking about what we shouldn’t do. We really shouldn’t eat that ice cream after dinner. We really shouldn’t skip that workout, drink that beer, or have another piece of Aunt Martha’s apple pie. And if self-control is a game of stopping action, as oppose to starting it, the question is: Why do most popular theories of self-control advocate taking action to get a grip on those impulses?

Asking just this question, along with which form of self-control actually works best – the effortful pursuit of one’s goals, or the delaying of behavior until enough information processing has occurred – researchers from Idaho State University and the University of Southern Mississippi first exposed volunteer participants to action words, such as “start,” or “active” or inaction words, such as “stop”, or “pause”. Next using a classic test of self-control, participants were asked if they would rather have some money now or more money later.

What effect did action words have on self-control? The participants who were motivated to be active were more likely to select immediate rewards and had poorer impulse control than those who had been primed with words suggesting inaction (Hepler, et. al., 2011). In the words of Justin Hepler, who led the research study, “Overall, these experiments demonstrate that attempting to motivate oneself to be active in the face of temptations may actually lead to impulsive behaviors. On the other hand, becoming motivated for inaction or calming oneself down may be the best way to avoid impulsive decisions” (Hepler, 2011).

It turns out the pull of temptations is stronger than we realize. And, much like a fighter who is stronger than us, when we go head to head with our impulses – with motivation strategies – we usually lose. Even worse, we might make even more impulse decisions. As second study lead, Dolores Albarracín explains, “Those who try to be active may make wild, risky investments, for example, and persist in behaviors that clearly make them unsuccessful” (Albarracín, 2011).

Contrary to what we might think, motivating ourselves to lose that weight, fit into that dress, and be more healthy by taking action, might not be the best thing for our impulses. Controlling impulses may have more to do with learning to stop in the face of impulses, delay gratification, and take less action, not more. It’s the difference between free will and free won’t.

But the question remains, if impulse control doesn’t work, what does? Here are nine strategies to improve your self-control:

Use strategies that increase attention to the benefit of an activity throughout the duration of the activity. Running always looks better to us before we do it than when we are actually doing it. In order to be successful then, look for ways to remind yourself of the benefit of running while you are running. For example, you can use text reminders about the specific health benefits designed to be delivered during your run. You can also do this with statistics, reminding yourself of other desirable outcomes – such as increased intelligence, emotional regulation, creativity, or optimism – linked to running. Or you can use in-run reminders delivered to you by your supporters. Like being cheered for along the course of a marathon, having a close friend or family member send you some virtual cheering might just make you want to run a few more miles.

Reduce exposure to tempting options. It’s in our very nature to exaggerate the temptation costs of avoiding alluring options. If for no other reason than this, you should make every effort to avoid exposure to them. Having someone else to order off the menu for you while you avoid looking at it, and avoiding the grocery store and instead using a preset online shopping order can go a long way toward making sure those tasty muffins don’t end up in your shopping cart, or on your plate.  

Ensure that the long term goals are as certain as possible. The more uncertain your long term goals are, the more likely you will be to discount the risk in giving in to your impulses. And this effect is exaggerated when you depend highly on that long term goal. So whatever long term goals you choose, you should be certain you can get there.

Incorporate mastery. In order to continue doing something, you have to have an interest in it. And interest is highly linked to mastery. To incorporate mastery then, focus on learning goals, such as being able to shoot a free throw shot in proper form, learning the correct biomechanics of running, or learning how to ride a horse.

Avoid performance goals. Performance goals are linked to higher performance, but not continued involvement. So if you want to change behavior, and cultivate continued involvement, you should make every effort to avoid performance goals.

Minimize hot states. In hot states we are prone to errors in judgment and impulsive decisions. Minimizing hot states, and, at the very least, separating them from the self-control decisions you need to make, might not just help you steer clear of some nasty fights with your spouse, but also ensure that your waistline won’t pay the price for them.

Develop strategies to combat procrastination. Because chronic procrastination weakens executive function and lowers mood, you should make every effort to minimize it. You can do this through preset commitments. Giving $1000 to your neighbor to keep unless you follow through on your required tasks, (thereby avoiding procrastination) quite likely will spur your motivation – and keep that $1000 dollars in your pocket. On the other hand, you can also limit your exposure to more pleasurable (and deceptively distracting) options. Disconnecting, moving, or giving away the television, not surprisingly, might just help you get your work done – instead of watching the latest sitcoms.

Find ways to replenish self-control. Self-control is a limited resource, and the more you use it without replenishing it, the less of it you have. In order to replenish self-control then, allow yourself areas of your life where you can have free choice. For example, if you have spent all day restricting your impulse to go on Facebook, yet you’d like to be able to convince yourself to go to the gym after work, by first giving yourself one half hour to do whatever – such as calling a friend, going on a walk, or taking a nap – you’d like, you are much more likely to make it to the gym.

Minimize contact with self-control drains. Self-control is influenced by several factors, but one of the most insidious ways self-control can be derailed is through hanging out with the wrong people. When you see those around you giving in to impulses, suddenly you find a host of reasons why you should also. Not only do you not want to miss out on what you see someone else getting (it’s never fun to watch someone enjoy a delicious brownie right in front of you), but those justifications become that much easier (it’s always much easier to find reasons to do something someone else is already doing). So one of the best things you can do for your self-control is protect it from the things (and people) that drain it. When you notice who around you doesn’t exhibit the level of self-control you desire and minimize your contact with them, suddenly the power to control impulses becomes that much easier.

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