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The Discipline Conundrum: When to Exert Self-Control and When to Cut Yourself Some Slack

The ability to exert self-control is considered a fundamental trait of people who are successful. It has been a long held view since Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiments of the 1960s that people who can exercise self-control at will must possess some kind of super-power.

Self-control, or discipline as it is more commonly referred to by people who sense they lack it, is a learned skill. Like a muscle, self-control can be developed to essentially unlimited levels. But is a strong ability to exert self-control a good thing? New research suggests not.

"Developing your discipline muscle and practicing self-control is important. We should all do it. But we also need to know when to give it a rest and cut yourself some slack."

The Marshmallow Experiment

Most of our current understanding of self-control comes from the work of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiments of the 1960’s. I learnt about these experiments when I was studying psychology at university and, with an interest in the psychology of mental toughness, Mr Mischel became somewhat of a hero to me.

The marshmallow experiment presented children with a tray of tasty treats, including marshmallows. The kids could either eat one treat immediately or get two when the researcher returned from “running an errand”.

When questioned as to the strategies they used to “delay gratification”, some of the children said they imagined the marshmallow as an inedible object such as a cloud. They used imagery to warp reality. And this became one recommended strategy for exercising discipline.

Over time, the marshmallow experiment found that the children who delayed gratification scored better on their SAT college entrance exams, were less aggressive physically and less likely to smoke, take drugs or become obese.

Is Too Much of a Good Thing Really a Bad Thing?

There are obvious benefits to practicing self-control and flexing your discipline muscle, but new research suggests too much self-control might not be a good thing. Recent studies have found that people who practiced strict self-control were more likely to be taken advantage of, act amorally; and later in life, experience regret, high blood pressure and elevated levels of hormones associated with stress.

So What Does This Mean?

No one is suggesting self-control is a bad thing. Practicing self-control is valuable, and a vital component of success. What the new studies suggest is that practicing too much self-control can lead to negative outcomes now and later in life.

Developing your discipline muscle and practicing self-control is important. We should all do it. But we also need to know when to give it a rest and cut yourself some slack. This is easier said than done.

The first step to recognising when to cut yourself some slack is to practice self-control.

How to Practice Self-Control

  • Maintain eye contact with someone when they are talking to you.
  • Count backwards from 100 when you get angry.
  • Floss your teeth after you brush your teeth at night.
  • Get out of bed the first time your alarm goes off in the morning.
  • Make your bed every morning.

These are just some examples of how you can train your discipline muscle and practice self-control.

Training the discipline muscle through small acts like this will help you to flex the muscle when it comes to bigger acts such as eating healthy, exercising or getting your latest task completed for work.

As you develop your discipline muscle and become better at self-control, you’ll also become better at recognising when you should exert self-control or cut yourself some slack. You’ll also feel less guilt and more confident with cutting yourself slack because you’ll have proved to yourself that you are disciplined and good at practicing self-control.

Do you struggle with discipline? If so, what small action will you take right now to train it? And, what will you tell yourself to demonstrate that you deserve to cut yourself some slack?

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