Self-control in an age of excess?

We have to admit that we expected to find some new answers that would help us pass up dessert after dinner and avoid checking our e-mail messages when we should be working in this new book. We didn’t. We did find some suggestions, but we didn’t find any brand-new or easy answers.

In his book We Have Met the Enemy—Self-Control in an Age of Excess, Daniel Akst gives lots of examples and even scientific research that shows that self-control is really difficult. In fact, this book is a little depressing. Very interesting, but depressing.

We’ll start this review with some of the depressing facts. Then, we’ll share how we finally found hope in the midst of our depression. And, finally, we’ll give you some of Daniel Akst’s suggestions for achieving better self-control.

A few depressing facts

It’s not that people have less willpower than they used to, Akst says. “But rather that modern life immerses us in a set of temptations far more evolved than we are.”

It wasn’t too long ago when the world’s greatest food problem was hunger—not an obesity epidemic. Today, for many people in this country, life resembles “a giant all-you-can-eat buffet,” the author says, with more calories, credit, sex, intoxicants and just about anything else you can take to excess than at any time in history.

Scientists study what they call “ego depletion.” Ask people to show self-control by resisting a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Then, present them with another task that requires self-control. This “depleted” group almost always performs the second task with less self-control than a control group that hasn’t been asked to restrain from eating cookies.

“Biological processes are at work when our self-control becomes depleted,” Akst concludes, although he says that scientists aren’t exactly sure how these processes work.

“People who first had to resist chocolate then gave up sooner in solving difficult problems,” he says. “Depleted individuals choose crappier entertainment and foods. Depleted dieters eat more.”

Sadly, most fat people stay fat,  Akst stresses. “We aren’t powerless, but we’re weak.”

A little bit of hope

It’s difficult, but people who can exercise self-control have a powerful tool for success.

Studies of eighth-graders showed that self-discipline was a “vastly better” predictor of grades than was IQ. That’s not surprising, Akst says, “since doing well in school requires sustained effort, putting off fun when it’s time to do homework and steady work toward a long-range goal.”

For college students, self-control was a better predictor of good grades than SAT scores.

Fayteen has worked with many people who have people who have problems with self-control in her counseling practice. “Self-control can be very, very difficult for all of us,” she says. “We all have to achieve self-control one step at a time. We may not succeed the first time. If we stumble, we have to try again.

“Most important, we have to make a commitment and a choice. We have to tell ourselves “I-want-to,” not “I-have-to.”

Self control is difficult, but many people do lose weight and quit smoking and tear up their credit cards.

 Some helpful suggestions

One interesting suggestion from Akst is a website called stickK.com. It allows you to use one of several contracts to lose weight or quit smoking or stop overspending. For example, you might decide to lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks. Then, you can agree to pay a certain amount of money to a charity you choose if you fail. You can even pick a referee to verify your results. Some people become very motivated when they pick a charity, like the KKK, that they would never dream of supporting.

Akst also offers these helpful hints:

  • Accept the idea that self-control can be depleted. Don’t try to quit smoking, Akst suggests, when you’re working on your master’s thesis.
  • Practice. Researchers have found some evidence that self-control  improves with practice.
  • Measure your progress. Some authors make a goal of writing a certain number of pages every day.
  • Motivate yourself with guilt. When you consider having a second drink before you drive home from a party, recite the names of your children to yourself and visualize how sad they would be if you had an accident.
  • Enlist the help of friends to help keep you on track. If you need to, hire a friend by going to a counselor.
  • Control your environment. Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets, and don’t keep potato chips in your pantry.
  • Cultivate good habits. If you get in the habit of walking every morning, soon you’ll get up and go for a walk every morning. You won’t have to get up and decide to go for a walk.

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