Wednesday, July 17, 2013

One Solution to the Problem with Self-Control

By Diana Hsieh

As you might have noticed, I answered a question about cultivating powers of self-control on the 23 June 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio.

In that discussion, I mentioned that one strategy for increasing self-control is to set clear standards for success and failure, perhaps even with artificial rewards and punishments for oneself. For example, if Paul and I go out to a movie, sometimes I don't wish to eat any of his popcorn. In that case, I'll agree to pay him $20 if I eat any of his popcorn. (He's not allowed to tempt me; that would be unfair.) I've never paid him that $20, simply because the prospect of doing so is sufficient incentive. I'm motivated not merely by the loss of $20, but also by the shame of so clearly giving in to temptation and thereby doing something that I know isn't good for me. Plus, he'd never let me live it down!

As I mentioned in the broadcast, my friend Trey Givens used that same strategy last winter to help himself to clean up his diet and start working out. At some point, I'd tweeted him, "I have a solution to your lack of discipline! Send me $20 for every pound you gain or every week that you don't workout!" He came up with a better plan, as explained in this blog post:

So, here's what I'll do: I will donate $20 for each week that I don't work out AND I will donate $20 for each week that I don't stick with The Whole 30. So, it's possible that I could end up donating $40 in a week. I'll donate it to Diana's Philosophy in Action webcast. This also supports another personal goal of mine which is to give more monetary support to Objectivism this year.

Shortly thereafter, he modified the deal as follows:

OK. After thinking about it a bit more, I want to modify the deal for donating dollars to Philosophy in Action based on how well I stick to my diet and exercise plan.

I will donate $20 to PiA for every week in January that I do not work out at least 3 times.
I will donate $20 to PiA for every meal in January in which I deliberately break The Whole 30 rules.
I'm changing it because I think the previous arrangement was a bit too generous in leaving room for "error." Like, if I ate a piece of candy today, I don't want to find myself rationalizing into eating ice-cream for the rest of the week. And working out once a week is for the fat lady I am, not the fat lady I want to be; my goal is 3x a week at a minimum and so that's why that's the goal.

So, with these changes, it actually could end up that I owe Diana a zillion dollars at the end of a given week. I'm pretty sure I have enough self-control to avoid that, but in the event that I don't, I will also change my name to "Congress."

That's definitely a better deal for Trey: the more fine-grained and specific that you can get with these artificial rewards and punishments the better.

So how did this experiment work? Pretty well, I think, particularly given the demands of the Whole 30. Still, I can't help but laugh:

Well, it is finally over. And it is difficult for me to express exactly how glad not to be worrying over The Whole 30 any more.

I suppose the worrying part is my own fault, since for the month of January I could probably count on two hands the number of mornings that I woke without a vivid memory of a dream in which I ate something bad and worried about paying Diana $20 for the infraction. Clearly, my subconscious is far more concerned about financial matters than my physical well-being. So, how did I end up doing?

Well, I paid Diana a total of $80 this month.

Half of it was due to a week in which I was on a business trip and only worked out once. 2 missed workouts * $20 = $40.

On that same business trip, I was at a restaurant with my boss's boss for dinner and I ordered what appeared to be a "safe" meal and explained to the waitress that I absolutely could not have diary. First, she came back with a plate sprinkled with cheese, so I sent it back. When she returned to the kitchen she explained that what I had ordered actually also included butter. So, I had a choice: change my order completely and be the awkward person sitting at the table without food or just suck it up and pay Diana $20 for having eaten some butter. Not being able to think of a delicate way to avoid the awkwardness, I decided to just pay up.

The second infraction happened just this past Saturday. I was at Costco and they have all these samples out and one of the displays caught my eye. It was some stuffed grape leaves and the package said it was dairy free and gluten free. I checked the label and the only thing that jumped out at me was that there is a bit of canola oil. I didn't spot any cheese or sausage or wheat, so it must be OK, right? I tried it and it was pretty tasty. It wasn't until last night that I was reflecting on this and realized I had just eaten a mouthful of RICE, a grain. So, this morning, I paid Diana another $20, but I have a package of those grape leaves in my freezer and I am very excited about eating them at some point in February.

You can check out his blog post for details on his ten-pound weight loss, plus before and after pictures. Really, $80 isn't a bad price for a radical change in lifestyle!

Of course, I think that this is an excellent idea, and I encourage all of you to make use of it! Certainly, you're welcome to use Philosophy in Action's Tip Jar as your motivator. You definitely want to write down the rules -- and better yet, share them with someone. You're welcome to share them with me too. Basically, you need some kind of accountabilibuddy.

Oh, and in case you've not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the segment of the podcast on self-control here:

For more details, check out the question's archive page. The full episode -- where I answered questions on lying for the sake of a happy surprise, people too young to raise children, and more -- is available as a podcast too.

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