Self-control is something we all need to work on when we hit our teenage years and beyond. Teenage years are often full of bad decisions — pushing against conventional wisdom and challenging anything that represents the establishment or authority. My parents worked hard to teach me to control my anger, joy, as well as my desires. I still remember a day when I was so frustrated with life that some tears came out of my eyes. My Mom rushed to comfort me, and my Dad rushed to give me a lesson in adulthood and life. These simple lessons took on added meaning when I became an adult. My Dad said that I needed to control my wants and train myself to study hard when I go to college and avoid playing and wasting time.
When I joined college, certain well-disciplined students fascinated me with their power of self-control. As soon as they would finish the lecture, I would see them reviewing their notes and capturing anything the professor highlighted which they hadn’t caught while they were in the lecture. These students were the first to hit the homework trail and be ahead of anybody — I wish I had done this.
I just finished reading a great book “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works and Why It Matters” by Kelly McGonigal. McGonigal, a professor at Stanford, designed the class, thinking that not a lot of people would be interested. The class enrollment surprised her when hundreds of students and faculty members signed up for the class. McGonigal dove into the human nature of self-control and willpower, analyzing thoughts and actions from diets to bad belief systems. She studied the control of impulses, procrastination, avoiding responsibilities and accountability, and not being able to control bad thoughts.
My main surprise (one of many) is that if you tell yourself that you are not going to think about something, trying to control your thoughts, your brain will immediately think about that very thing.
The book told of an experiment with university students where they were asked not to think about a white bear. This made all the students think about the white bear. Our brains, as it turns out, follow the opposite of our wishes. This is why just trying to avoid bad thoughts does not work. In fact, bad thoughts can be mitigated by capturing them and making a conscious effort to observe them.
By paying attention to the thoughts and tracking how they are moving in your mind will allow you to let the thoughts slide away. In other words, it can be powerful to observe your thoughts as they develop and then to imagine them floating away as if they were balloons. This will make you feel much better and will increase your self-control.
Self-control can move you from a bad place to a very good place. It will allow you to see risk and avoid it. I am still working on this after all of these years of life experience.
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