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. 

Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

As religious diversity increases in the United States, we must learn to channel religious identity into interfaith cooperation.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Religious diversity is the norm in American life, and that diversity is only increasing, says Eboo Patel.
  • Using the most painful moment of his life as a lesson, Eboo Patel explains why it's crucial to be positive and proactive about engaging religious identity towards interfaith cooperation.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

The biggest threat to America? Americans.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond explains why some nations make it through epic crises and why others fail.

Videos
  • "A country is not going to resolve a national crisis unless it acknowledges that it's in a crisis," says Jared Diamond. "If you don't, you're going to get nowhere. Many Americans still don't recognize today that the United States is descending into a crisis."
  • The U.S. tends to focus on "bad countries" like China, Canada and Mexico as the root of its problems, however Diamond points out the missing piece: Americans are generating their own problems.
  • The crisis the U.S. is experiencing is not cause for despair. The U.S. has survived many tragedies, such as the War of Independence and the Great Depression – history is proof that the U.S. can get through this current crisis too.
Keep reading Show less

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less