sunday life: try this self-control trick

Posted on October 31st, 2010

This week I delay gratification


To be honest, I just don’t trust people who can keep an open packet of TimTams in the fridge for two weeks.  Are you one of these? Can you take one biscuit and leave the rest, and not think about them incessantly until you’ve demolished the lot (rationalising that, hey, they have to be eaten some time.)?


Well, I don’t trust you.

I mean, I’d trust you with my biscuits, should I ever require someone to mind a packet for me. It’s just I don’t trust that you are fully human, in the messy, unrestrainable way I am.

My brother Ben’s one of these types. At Easter we used to get two small, hollow eggs each (hidden in the lavender bush…yours too?). He’d be able to nibble at his Charlie Bucket-style, until June. My friend Zoe’s the same. Every spring she cuts all crap from her diet so she can shed her winter cushioning. Just like that. No fuss, no distress. “I just decide to do it…what’s the big deal?!” she says wide-eyed when I ask for her secret.

Self-controlled types are certainly oddities. They’ve also, of late, become a quirky source of scientific enquiry. Little wonder. A lack of will power – our inability to curb our over-eating, over-spending and overly-addicted-to-email ways – is killing us. Finding out what makes the self-restrained tick is only going to get hotter in academic circles, I tell you.

Already the theories are rolling in and this week I tested a few of them, even if just conceptually. Most conclude that self-controlled types are, in fact, fully human. It’s just they’ve developed clever abilities to trick the mind into not desiring something. Florida scientists found they often frame the pushing aside of a temptation as fun. So, committing to not drinking coffee for a month is made easy by making it a breezy project that you tweet about, do with a mate, or whatever. I get that. It takes away the resentment that can lead to the self-sabotaging of a goal.

Other studies say self-control can be achieved if go small. So, instead of quitting sugar forever, tomorrow, just don’t have it in your tea right now. This has a calming effect (quite often lack of self-control is fuelled by the anxiety of too many options to fend off). “If…then…” approaches work, too, apparently. Instead of self-flagellating with, “I’m banning dessert”, simply tell your reptilian brain, “If I’m offered salted caramel with dark chocolate flints, then I’ll ask for a tea instead”.

But perhaps the most effective trick I came across in my search this week is “gratification delay”. It’s been 40 years since psychologists famously played the marshmallow trick on a bunch of American four-year olds. They were each given a marshmallow; if they waited for 20 minutes before eating it, they could have another. Most cracked as soon as the scientists left the room, but a third of them held out. The kids have been monitored ever since (they’re now in their mid-40s) and the results were released a few months back: the kids who delayed gratification grew up to have more successful and happier lives.

Which is kind of depressing for the two-thirds of us over here living messy TimTam-obsessed lives. Except that the marshmallow tricksters say practicing gratification delay can actually see most of us regain some control. (And just as a comforting aside, a professor at the University of Minnesota said in the New York Times this month that humans are simply not designed to deal psychologically with the immediate gratification we’re bludgeoned with these days. We need the delay, the run-up, the rituals to remain in control.)

So, no snacking before dinner, no BMX until you’ve saved your pocket money, no presents until Christmas. Our parents were onto something, weren’t they? They were training our self-control muscle.

But be warned. Yet another boffin has found if we work the will-power muscle too hard, we run the risk of  “self-control fatigue” (which I just know is going to form a defense in some court case any day now). We have a limited pool of will to draw on. This is why, after a highly disciplined day at work, we just can’t man up to a Spin class. And after a week of dieting, we binge.

So the lesson here? As always, go easy on yourself!

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  • Natalie

    I’m an extremely self controlled person, but as a result I suffer a lot of the ‘self control fatigue’ you mentioned, and that leads to guilt. It’s tiring caring all the time, even if it is easy to just do.


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  • Laura

    Thank you Sarah!

    This piece reminds me of Gretchen Rubin’s abstinence v moderation theory, based upon Samuel Johnson’s quote “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult”… Abstainers find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately, while moderators do better when they try to make moderate changes, when they avoid absolutes and bright lines. It seems as though, from reading your blog, you have succeeded in completely giving up lots of naughty things, and I am the same… but, like you, I cannot understand how some people manage to have tim tams in the house, yet restrict themselves to just two a week… it’s unfathomable!

    The rest of Gretchen’s post is here:


  • zoe

    If it’s any consolation, my UK trip has lead to an utter FAILure of the self-control button! xxx


  • Mia

    All things in moderations… including moderation! I’m a big fan of allowing yourself some nutty time as a reward for the majority of the time being good. One meal a week in which nothing is off limits. A certain amount of money each week to spend on mad crazy stuff in order to save the rest for practical things. If you know the good times are coming, having something to look forward to nearly makes delaying gratification fun. (Nearly.)


  • Jo – living savvy

    Tim Tams are very safe in my fridge (beware the chocolate bullets & freckles) & self control has nothing to do with it. Tim Tams were like their own food group for me growing up, Mum always sent me two (yep that’s right two Tim Tams for morning tea). So I can have one with my cup of tea at night or not. When I need to practice or develop my self control muscles, I focus on the small ordinary things first and then build up. I have to, I am not comfortable with the word NO in any form so I have to convince my mind and spirit that I am not saying no, I’m saying later or just not yet.


  • Jenny Blume

    It’s a bit like folders and scrunchers, isn’t it!


  • shereen

    I used to be the ‘delayed gratification’ type with minimal effort. I’m now the exact opposite.. I’ve usually eaten my treat before I’ve left the store! I didn’t know you could waver between types.. I thought you were born one of the other.. but I feel at one with my newfound indulgent self 😉


  • Kimia

    hahaha! I don’t trust em either!!


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  • Elana

    What exactly was the “trick” in this article? I feel cheated!


  • David Cain

    To get away from TimTams I had to leave Australia. Self-control in action.


  • Gum disease

    You can certainly see your skills in the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.