Self-Control

Self-control does not have a glamourous image. When we think of self-control, we tend to think of terribly grim types like Lord Chesterfield, who wrote in his instructions to his son that “In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter… I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.”

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield by William HoareMind you, this was his illegitimate son he was writing to, so he’s probably not the ideal poster-boy for self-control. Expunge him from your mind. (What a wonderful word that is: expunge. Expunge.) The point is, though (I knew I’d find it in here somewhere), that self-control has a reputation for being one of the more tedious and unpleasant virtues. This reputation, I must say, is wholly undeserved.

To be fair, self-control is not an easy virtue to acquire, but what can you do without it? Well, lots of things, most of which will come back to bite you, in the near or distant future. Without self-control, the athlete sleeps in instead of training and thus never wins. Without self-control, the kiddie eats chocolate cake until he pukes, and fails to enjoy his party. Without self-control, the office-worker socks his annoying boss in the eye and gets fired. Without self-control, the student watches TV instead of studying and thus fails to make the grade. Without self-control, the politician sends inappropriate pictures of himself (under a cringe-worthy pseudonym) to an affronted woman, thus sabotaging his reputation and career.

"VD CAN BE CURED BUT THERE'S NO MEDICINE FOR REGRET" - NARA - 515957Self-control: don’t leave home without it. In fact, don’t do anything without it.

Consider how the day might go without self-control. You’re late for work because you couldn’t make yourself get out of bed. You get in trouble for playing Frozen Bubble/Spider Solitaire/Minesweeper/[insert addictive game here] when you should have been working, because you couldn’t resist the urge. You go with the unhealthy option for lunch. You hit the mall for some retail therapy, just to make yourself feel better after your horrible day, and – this is so embarrassing! – your card is declined, because you have made one too many impulse purchases already. You go home to sulk, realize you haven’t sorted out anything for dinner, and end up eating dry toast because you can’t be bothered cooking anything ‘proper’ and you haven’t made the time-sacrifice necessary to have anything in the cupboard suitable for putting on toast. Depressing? I think so.

Ah, but what can you do with self-control? You can reach your goals. You can politely refuse to take on inessentials (because saying “no” to yourself is excellent training for saying “no” to others). You can have a glass of wine at the end of a long day without drinking yourself under the table; or a piece of dark chocolate without scarfing the whole block. Because self-control doesn’t always mean saying “no” to yourself. Sometimes it means saying “not now”, or “that’s enough.”

Tiny Bunny Has No Self-ControlSelf-control is freedom. Self-control is what gets good habits going. Self-control is what gets you to the Olympics (whether it’s as an athlete, or someone who saved up for tickets). Self-control is what gets you a healthy life – not only physically healthy and financially healthy, but time-healthy, because you never watch TV just because it’s there, and you never get caught doing stuff that doesn’t matter because you somehow couldn’t say no.

Enough! I hear you saying. Stop blethering on about the attractions of this wonder-virtue and tell me how I can get my hands on some. (Sudden urge to tell people to send in an SASE with only $2.99 for a pamphlet on how to gain self-control in three easy steps. Urge resisted. See? Self-control: good for everybody.)

Three steps, eh? Let’s see. Personally, I’d advise working up to it. Build up a bit of virtuous muscle before tackling the big stuff. Trying to go straight from a life of unfiltered impulse to a life of perfectly balanced control is a bit much of a jump: you’ll probably pull something. Break it down and take it step by step.

Women heptathlon LJ French Athletics Championships 2013 t144221Step #1: find an area of your life which could use a bit more discipline. This doesn’t have to be something huge; in fact it would be better if it isn’t. Washing the dishes promptly, say; or putting the rubbish out.

Step #2: coach yourself. Right! you say to yourself, the hour has come when we are going to get those dishes washed. Now this isn’t going to hurt; it’s not a big deal; we’re just going to mosey on over there and run some water into the sink. Done in no time, and then we’ll put our feet up with a cuppa. Keep telling yourself why you’re doing this. It’s going to be a habit! It will never be a huge deal again! The dishes will get done without us even having to bother about it!

Step #3: Rinse and repeat. Actually, just repeat. If you need to rinse your dishes after washing them you are probably using too much detergent.

Take another example: not bolting through that entire block of chocolate. Again the steps: #1, you decide what needs to be done (or in this case, not done). No more than two squares a day, you tell yourself. #2: you coach yourself through it. You decide you’re going to save the squares as an end-of-the-day unwinding treat. Every time you find your mind – or your hand – creeping toward that chocolate, you tell yourself you can have some tonight. And then – this is very important – you eat the chocolate. No seeing how far you can push this self-control thing just yet. Put the chocolate away (step away from the chocolate), and #3: have some more tomorrow.

Bar of chocolateThere’s nothing new here; and I’m sure you all know all this. The problem, I find, is that we have so long relied on some outside force to “make us” – the boss that will fire us if we’re always late; the guest whose presence will embarrass us if we don’t clean the house; the parent who won’t let us play til we’ve done our homework – that we’ve never learned to exert control over ourselves. There’s always been someone else to do it for us.

Basically, the bits of us that aren’t self-controlled are the bits that haven’t grown up yet. So deal with them like you’d deal with a kid (and no I don’t mean bribery mixed with threats). Set yourself some boundaries and keep to them. When you’re struggling, remind yourself how much you don’t want to be trapped in a life that is out of control. And as always, if you have any helpful tips, be sure to leave them in the comments.

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Making Cuts

I’ve been posting a lot lately about purging, decluttering, getting rid of things, seeking the essentials and hacking back everything else.

I don’t want to be one of those irritating people who give everyone else good advice but never follow it themselves; and I think what I’ve been trying to do with all these posts is to shift the balance of my thinking. It is not easy, as I’m sure you know. Mental habits are ruts that are hard to break out of.

Rutted field near Ravarnet - geograph.org.uk - 1144990

The good is often the enemy of the best, I wrote. This is a lovely aphoristic saying, full of insight and meaning. But it isn’t anything more unless you apply it, put it into practice.

There are a number of elements I consider as essential to my life: the love of God, my husband, family and friends. Writing, reading, and handwork. Those are my core activities and priorities. Then there are the necessary ancillary activities like cleaning, eating etc.

There are a lot of other things I would like to do – often, being all excited about a new shiny idea, I start doing them straight away – which there isn’t room for in my life, not without filching time from the more important activities.

Where this really lands me in trouble is with the sunk cost fallacy – having enthusiastically launched into a project or activity, I feel I can’t call it quits, because that would be wasting the resources I have put into it.

Does anyone else know the dragging guilt and wearying heaviness induced by too many unfinished projects? Are you in over your head too?

Raise your hand if you can't swim

Here’s the truth I have to face: if it wasn’t a good idea to start giving your time to something, it isn’t a good idea to keep giving your time to it.

The sensible thing – nay, the wise thing to do is to admit that there isn’t room in your life for this right now, and let it go.

That being the case, I am regretfully withdrawing from the Historical Sew Monthly. I made a shift and a balaclava, both of which are useful, and I am pleased that I did.

I also made half of an Edwardian maid’s apron – my first attempt at pleating – which I may use as a half apron, or finish with bib, straps etc in the fullness of time, either with the frou-frou Edwardian bib, or with a fuller, more practical one.

Spot the Jabberwocky!

Spot the Jabberwocky!

But as much as I enjoy historical sewing (or at least, the results thereof), it isn’t a high enough priority in my life for me to be devoting as much time to it as the HSM’15 requires. So, I shall take my final bow (that’s me in the back row) and retire to the audience where I can sit and applaud the efforts of others.

I do feel disappointed, I admit. But the disappointment is tinged with relief, knowing this was the right decision to make, and nervousness, knowing that this is very likely only the first of many such decisions.

How To Beat Procrastination

Last week we looked at the first two steps to leading a successful Essentialist life: identifying the important, and getting rid of everything else.
Since you’ve all had a week (or seven days) to work on that, no doubt your lives are now swept clean of all extraneous matter, dust-catchers and time-wasters. No? Well, neither is mine, but every little bit helps, and we’ll get there.

MARK TWAIN(1883) p453 - THE BROOM BRIGADE

Step three is to remove obstacles; in other words, to make it as easy as possible to do the important things, and not do the unimportant things.

But the procrastination, I hear you say. How do we defeat the procrastination? This has been an ongoing battle in my life, and an ongoing preoccupation of the blog since – well, since the second post I ever wrote.

It was sometime while reading Essentialism, or a book quoted therein, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – sorry I can’t be more precise, but I’ve been sick the last couple of weeks and it’s all turned into a sort of formless soup of days – that I had the epiphany.

Eureka arkimedi

The solution to procrastination is habit.

What is procrastination but the deferral of what we know we need to be doing? What is habit, but the doing of things without thinking about it?

Of course, not all habits are good habits. When we think of having a habit, we tend to think of drink or drugs or smoking, or something similarly unhelpful or destructive. Think again.

Do you have to consciously make the decision to brush your teeth twice a day, or do you find yourself wandering into the bathroom and loading up the toothbrush automatically (whether it’s time to brush your teeth or not)? Do you need to think about where the light-switch is, every time you walk into a dark room, or do you just turn it on? Do you get dressed in the morning, or do you head off to work in your pajamas?

Pijama on a motorbike

Habits can be good or bad. The trick is to make a habit (or rather a whole slew of habits) of doing the needful thing, so you don’t have to spend all your time and energy strong-arming yourself into doing it, or feeling bad for not doing it. You just do it. Easier said than done, I know, but there are things that can help.

For one, you can trick your brain. Brains get so used to how the habit works – cue, routine, reward – that they wander off and do something else meanwhile and just stroll back when it’s all over to check that nothing exploded. As long as the cue – whatever starts the routine rolling – and the reward – feeling good afterward – remain the same, you can put pretty much anything in the middle and your brain doesn’t really notice. If you think of a habit as a sandwich, the cue is the first slice of bread and the reward is the second. Your brain doesn’t really notice what’s in the middle, it just goes “ha! a sandwich!”

sandwich-74330_640

So you can change the filling of your habit sandwich, and your brain will never notice, because by the time it comes back to check that everything happened as usual, the sandwich is down the hatch and your brain is too proud to ask your digestive system what just happened. (It are a fact. I know because of my learnings. Read Duhigg if you want something a bit more legit.) The crucial difference is that you’re doing what you want & need to do, instead of what you briefly felt like doing.

That’s changing habits. It is also possible to start entirely new ones, although it seems to take more work as you are creating an entirely new pathway in your brain instead of altering an old one. This is the sort of thing that FlyLady gets you to do.

Either way, whether re-using an old pathway or creating a new one, the aim is to tread that pathway down into a rut that you can slide along with the minimum of effort. Yes, it takes a lot of work at first to create a new habit or amend an old one, but think of the results! Imagine a life where you don’t waste your time doing things that don’t matter, and where the important things get done quickly and efficiently without you having to constantly bully and nag yourself into doing them.

That's me right now

Doesn’t that sound good?
It is possible, and the way to reach this golden dream of a future is to train our habits to serve us, instead of allowing ourselves to serve them.

So there you have it, my fellow procrastinees. Go forth and conquer.