How to Improve Self-Control: Freedom from Your Hot Triggers

Self-control: we could all use more of it. Even those of us who are best at exercising self-control on a daily basis have so-called hot triggers, the special circumstances that would make us, too, lose our cool and start to behave less than rationally.

Self-control: we could all use more of it. Even those of us who are best at exercising self-control on a daily basis have so-called hot triggers, the special circumstances that would make us, too, lose our cool and start to behave less than rationally.


One of the examples Walter Mischel (the father of delay of gratification studies) likes to use to illustrate this point is Bill Clinton. So collected with Arafat one minute, embroiled in the Lewinsky scandal the next. Someone close to the former president is even purported to have remarked upon hearing Lewinsky’s physical description, “Yup, he’s guilty. That’s just his type.” Voluptuous brunette: hot trigger. Otherwise, just the kind of calm and collected leader you’d hope for.

Self-binding: a strategy for enforced self-control

But that need not be the case. I’ve written before on strategies to increase self-control, and will likely do so again, but today I want to focus on one in particular: self-binding. Removing an easy way to act on the trigger. Making it that much more difficult for you to lose control. It’s a strategy with wide precedence in diplomacy, to control the actions of a given international player, but less so when it comes to controlling our own actions.

1. Identify your hot trigger(s)

When you find yourself failing to reach an important goal, there is likely something standing in your way – and that something is, more likely than not, related to self-control. The obvious first step is to identify what the hot trigger, or that thing standing between you and your aim, happens to be in your case. For instance, if you want to lose weight, it’s all the food that you can’t help but eat, no matter how hard you try. If you want to save money, it’s that store you just can’t help but enter every time you walk by, or that item you seem to “add to cart” every time you spot it on your e-retailer of choice. In my case, it happens to be the internet.

When I should be writing, I find myself tempted to check a fact (and check my email, while I’m at it, and perhaps the New York Times, and why not Facebook, just while I’m here anyway…) every time I pause for the next thought. I study self-control. I study how to enhance it, how to prevent yourself from giving in to hot conditions, how to focus on your goal. And yet, somehow, time and time again, I find myself wasting precious minutes (hours?) in a less than productive manner.

2. Find an external mechanism that prevents you from giving in

Luckily, in one of my recent “research” excursions, I came across Dani Shapiro’s piece in n +1. There, I found just what I was looking for: a way to self-bind. It’s called Freedom, and what more appropriate day to write about it than Independence Day itself. For, with Freedom, that’s exactly what I got. Independence from myself, or that part of me that was keeping me from achieving what I so desperately wanted to achieve. No internet, for as long as I could take it, up to eight hours at a time. My productivity shot up. Exponentially. It was the best thing that happened to me in a long time.

Know your limits, and when willpower alone just won’t cut it

Why should you care, unless, like me, you find yourself in the throngs of internet addiction? Because it illustrates an important point about self-control: you need to know your own limits. And one of the best ways of ensuring that you don’t overstep those limits is to forcibly prevent yourself from doing so, with an external mechanism over which you don’t have any control. Even if you think (like I did), I don’t need it; I can do this on my own; I have WILLPOWER.

If you remove the hot trigger, you can’t act on it

Everyone has a hot trigger. And everyone comes to a moment when willpower, no matter how strong or all-caps it might be, will no longer cut it. So take a second to self-assess; and if you have a goal that is important to you, be it losing weight, saving money, writing more, reading more, seeing friends more often, ask: what’s standing in my way? And how do I create—or find, as the case may be—an external enforcer (that’s crucial; it can’t rely solely on you) that will eliminate that obstacle? It can mean not buying the foods that you can’t resist in the first place, so that they aren't ever there to entice you at home; changing the way you walk to work so that you don’t pass that tempting store; unplugging your cable box so that you can’t flip on the TV when you get home: in short, it can mean anything that will help you avoid your hot trigger altogether. Anything that binds your hands, so to speak, so that the choice to lose control is no longer yours to make.

Freedom is glorious. It means that I don’t have to go to the extremes suggested by Stephen King and rip my television out of the wall in order to be productive. And maybe, you’ll be inspired to find your equivalent of freedom, too. It’s a wonderful feeling, enforced self-control. It means being free, if only for up to eight hours, of one of the biggest obstacles that stands between you and your goal: yourself. 

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