Achieving Self-Control: It's About Delaying Gratification

Exerting self-control often means coping with emotions that tell us to indulge, feel melancholy, or focus on the negative.

Achieving self-control, avoiding negative emotions, and finding ways to stay productive are lessons that Columbia psychology professor Walter Mischel has approached through scientific examinations for the last 50 years. Most famous for the marshmallow test, in which children were offered cookies and told they could have another if they waited but 15 minutes to eat the first, Mischel is preparing for a nation-wide book tour at the age of 88. 


What adults can learn from children about self-control, he says, is that:

"The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them."

Exerting self-control often means coping with emotions that tell us to indulge, feel melancholy, or focus on the negative. One strategy, says Mischel, is using if statements such as "if it's before noon, I won't check Facebook." If the impulse to use Facebook in the morning arises, this phrase can give your mind a small buffer zone to reason its way out of caving to the base desire.

The reason our emotions so often seem counterproductive is that they were built for a world of scarcity and immediate threats to our bodily integrity, not a world in which a better spiritual self can be cultivated as a result of material abundance. As Paul Ekman explains, a tool called consciousness awareness can help us recognize our less-beneficial emotions as a first step toward overcoming them:

Read more at the New York Times

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