Several years ago psychologist Walter Mischel conducted what has become a classic social experiment. He left 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. He told them if they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they chose not to ring the bell, but waited for him to return on his own, they would receive two marshmallows.
In videos of the experiment, some children would squirm, kick, and hide their eyes in desperate attempts to exercise self-control in order to receive two marshmallows. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.
Tracking those children for several years, Mischel discovered the ones who waited longest earned higher SAT scores, got into better colleges, and had, on average, better adult outcomes.
On the other hand, the children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies, received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later, and were more likely to have drug problems by age 32.
Mischel’s experiment is worth noting because it demonstrates clearly that self-control is essential for successful, satisfying living. Poor self-control appears to be part of low self-esteem. People who are self-controlled can delay gratification and sit through difficult or boring classes in order to graduate. People who are self-disciplined can perform rote, monotonous tasks—such as those required to master a language. With self-control women and men can avoid drugs, alcohol, and other self-defeating habits.
For people lacking this skill, life can become a parade of foolish decisions: truancy, school failure, teen pregnancy, obesity, and drug, alcohol, and gambling addiction.
That’s why self-control has been encouraged by sages through the centuries. The apostle Paul cites it as a mark of Christian living: “The fruit of the spirit is . . . self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Benjamin Franklin advised: “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.” The Scripture writer notes: “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28).
Sadly, too many people have little self-control. Here are some methods and moments for tapping into the power of self-control.
Make self-control a priority. You may not succeed with every effort at self-control, but if you make it a top priority, you can improve your life. Remind yourself of this Bible teaching: “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
John Jay (1743–1829), the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, made self-control a key virtue of his life. After losing the 1792 gubernatorial race in New York (later he would serve two terms as governor), he wrote to his wife. Rather than lament his loss, he reminded himself and his wife about the priority of self-control: “A few more years will put us all in the dust, and it will then be of more importance to me to have governed myself than to have governed the state.”
Take a disciplined approach to a life crisis. Rather than respond with panic when life presents an unexpected and traumatic challenge, say to yourself, “I have self-control and I will use it in this situation.” Doing so will cut down on a natural tendency to come apart and enable you to come up with a more healthy, creative approach.
When David Fajgenbaum was 18 and preparing to enter Georgetown University, his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Instead of plunging into typical college life, David spent every weekend at home with family. “I had three feelings: I felt alone, I felt helpless, and I felt guilty for being at school,” he recalls.
Instead of continuing to live with uncertainty and fear, David decided to honor his mother by creating meaning out of her terminal illness. He began to reach out to others who were going through similar crises.
He learned the university had no services for grieving students beyond ordinary counseling. So David launched a support group: Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers. His project evolved rapidly and the organization now has more than 20 chapters, including some among younger teens who are still in high school.
Even after his mother died, David continued guiding the organization three or four hours daily. “I invested everything in it. It’s the most rewarding thing, to honor somebody and at the same time to be able to have an impact.”
Learn from others. Be the most coachable person on the planet. Look around and identify people who are role models of self-control and self-discipline. Study their behavior carefully and then incorporate it into your own life. Ask them for guidance. Apply this teaching of Jesus to your life: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7, 8).
Harvey Mackay practices this. Mackay is a best-selling author, syndicated columnist, popular speaker, CEO of a major corporation, prominent civic leader, marathoner, and an excellent tennis player. One of his “secrets” to success: he actively seeks out and learns from others. “You don’t have to know everything, as long as you know people who know the things you don’t,” he says. “There’s a lot that I don’t know, so I shamelessly ask for advice.”
Practice self-regulation. Cultivate the ability to handle and manage your emotions, especially when facing disappointment and distress. Staying calm, thinking clearly, and seeing objectively while under stress are essential for personal effectiveness. Self-control means managing panic and anxiety instead of reacting irrationally and fearfully to a difficult event.
Challenge your excuses. When life gets hard, challenges feel overwhelming, and things look impossible—those are the times it’s easy to come up with reasons why you can’t triumph and overcome. Remind yourself they’re just excuses that will keep you from getting to the next level. Challenge your thinking.
At age 77, Eula Weaver was paralyzed with a stroke. It would have been easy for her to make excuses by saying, “I can’t recover from this.” Instead, she challenged every objection that came into her mind and tapped into a spirit of self-control. Because of the paralyzing stroke, the doctors told her she had two choices: (1) spend her remaining time in bed as an invalid, or (2) get out of bed and begin walking no matter how painful and difficult.
She forced herself out of bed and began taking a few steps. When she was 88 the local newspaper featured Eula, who was running a mile every day.
In his book, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, John C. Maxwell gives this advice:
Get rid of excuses. Write down every reason why you might not be able to follow through with your disciplines. Read through them. You need to dismiss them as the excuses they are. Even if a reason seems legitimate, find a solution to overcome it. Don’t leave yourself any reasons to quit. Remember, only in the moment of discipline do you have the power to achieve your dreams.
Victor M. Parachin is an author and freelance journalist writing from Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is the ninth and final article in his series that has been appearing throughout 2008.