self control Not being at the mercy of your own unconscious.

control self

Lets call it self-control.

button                 self regulation

The idea of being in control of yourself has been called many things. This site does not hold that calling it 'self-discipline' serves any useful purpose (although it is correct usage). This is because our understanding of the word discipline has been muddled by its many confusing meanings as explained elsewhere in this site. This site does not hold with the concept of 'willpower' either. Willpower appears to be a mystical force and seems to promote the idea of a split self as also explained elsewhere in this site. In the psychology journals of the past the subject has been referred to as 'self-regulation' which seems a perfectly adequate term to cover this concept. Unfortunately the general public is unfamiliar with this term and appears to find it strange. On the other hand the term 'self-control' seems to be well understood and well used by everybody, so lets stick with it.

will power

Learning self-control, self-controlling your learning.

Perhaps the most important thing you can learn is how to control your own mind and body. This is because self-control is a prerequisite, even essential for any type of real learning. Indeed, this site holds that without self-control there is no real learning. Sure you can have information packed into your head, but if you are unable to connect that information to what you believe, you do not understand it and it has no practical use. Real learning requires that you find errors in what you believe and correct them. You cannot do this without self-control. Knowledge is what is left when you have made these corrections. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn asks us two very important questions about self-control:

"How many people in the world have a self discipline problem? Nearly all of them! How many of those people have ever read a book, or even an article, about how to solve that problem? Almost none of them."

"What fraction of children who make bad grades in school ever read anything about how to make better grades? The fraction is very small. The instructions are out there in the librarys and the book stores (as well as in the book you are reading now). They are readily available, and they are cheap. But it take self-discipline to read them."


robot self The conscious self and the robot.

The unconscious or as many have called it the subconscious comes in two quite different forms. One is the creative form, where it is the place that unconnected ideas are connected in a random chaotic process to produce unexpected and uniquely creative new ideas and solutions. Then there is the unconscious place which runs automatic programs that can sometimes be referred to as skills and at other times be referred to as habits. This site has adopted the term proposed by Colin Wilson in his book "New Pathways in Psychology" to refer to this part of the brain that runs these automatic programs. 'The robot' as Colin Wilson calls it seems to be an ideal term. Thus we can say that our bodies are run by two competing processes, our conscious self and our personal robot. Therefore, clearly each individual is not completely in control of everything he or she does, because much of what we do is simply done automatically by 'the robot'. In his book Colin Wilson explains it like this:

"...the moment I stepped through the office door in the morning, the familiar smell and appearance would switch on the automatic pilot which controlled my actions... I was was clearly aware that the problem was automatism. And in a paper I later wrote for a symposium on existential psychology I elaborated on this theory of the automatic pilot, speaking of it as 'the robot'. I wrote: 'I am writing this on an electric typewriter. When I learned to type, I had to do it painfully and with much nervous ware and tear. But at a certain stage, a miracle occurred, and this complicated operation was 'learned' by a useful robot whom I concealed in my subconscious mind. Now I only have to think about what I want to say: my robot secretary does the typing. He is really very useful, He also drives the car for me, speaks French (not very well) and occasionally gives lectures in American universities."

robot secretary           robot limit

If this idea seems a little unscientific a more scientific model can be provided by neuroscience. The following is taken from a paper called "The Cognitive Neuroscience of Self-Regulation" in the "Handbook of Self-Regulation":

"A useful framework for understanding self-regulation is provided by Norman and Shallice (1986). Their seminal model concerning the role of attention in automatic and willed action describes two processes for control of behavior. According to the model, well-learned simple actions may be executed via the contention scheduling system, without conscious input. On the other hand, more complex behaviors that require attentional input are carried out via the supervisory attentional system (SAS). The contention scheduling system via lateral activation and inhibition among selected schemas for action. Schema activation within this system does not rely on attentional control but is simply based on the determination of the activation values of the schemas. Norman and Schallice use the example of typing a word on signal; this action sequence is represented by a set of schemas that trigger the  appropriate finger, hand and arm movements, and can be carried out within the contention scheduling system without attentional input.

However the model also allows for the conscious control of more novel or complex tasks, a function of the SAS. This system mediates attention, which in turn can control the activation or inhibition values of behavioral schemas and bias the selection of the contention scheduling system. This higher order control provided by the SAS is required only for complex, novel or dangerous tasks (e.g., a task that requires error correction or planning), or tasks that require planning or overriding temptation. In other words, the SAS is is required when there is no available schema to achieve control of the desired behavior. As mentioned earlier the initiation and execution of routine action sequences do not require input from the SAS."

Please note that the SAS in this model is necessary for any type of real learning because real learning requires error correction, and schemas do not exist until we have learned them. Real learning cannot be automatic. Those who believe in unconscious learning are talking about letting random input from the environment program our stupid robots. This results in bad habits and superstitions. It happens, but it is not real learning because it is not what we want or intend to learn, nor is it in any way normally to our advantage or befit. 

self contol To be or not to be (in control of yourself).

Strangely many people do not seem to want to be in control of themselves. Some people seem to want others to tell them what to do. They do not want to make decisions or take responsibility for anything they do and the simplest way to avoid that is to let somebody else make the decisions and take the responsibility. People take drugs and drink alcohol so that their ability to inhibit their base short term desires is impaired. But people are also often slaves to habits that have built up over time but which do not represent what they consciously enjoy doing. Such people are not living full lives and are often just drifting through life.

The fact is that most of the things we do in life are not directly enjoyable in themselves, but rather become enjoyable by association with other things. For instance when we get up from our chair and go to the refrigerator, take out a can of coke, and pop it open, these are all activities that are not enjoyable in themselves, but which have become enjoyable because they are normally followed by that coke splashing on our tongue and trickling down our throats. Now going to the refrigerator, taking out a can of coke and popping it open are not exactly unpleasant activities but this still would hold true if they were. Exercise can be quite painful but it also has many rewards that follow on from it. People exercise and those rewards, such as feeling healthy, are associated with the exercising and the exercising becomes sort of enjoyable. What we like doing, what we want to do, and what is good for us to do, are all very different things and being in control of our selves is simply a way of trying to bring these three things closer together. 

Not being in control of yourself means essentially not being able to learn. (You can remember information but you cannot use it because it is not adjustable or correctable. You can only use it if someone tells you what to do with it.) In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn explains: " work on self-discipline in order to enjoy life more. It is not about being glum and grim all the time." The stoics of ancient Greece only had it half right, they seemed unaware that their ability in self-control meant a life of greater pleasure, albeit very different pleasure. Being without self-control means not being able to fully enjoy life and it means a life devoted to escaping pain. Joy arises out of controlling ourselves sufficiently to accomplish the things we like to accomplish. It is also making the things that we like to accomplish those things that we want to accomplish. It is also making the things we want to accomplish those things that are necessary for our wellbeing. Finally, it is risking our comfort for an optimal personal outcome.

programing yourself Programing your robot.

So the supervisory attentional system, the SAS is our conscious self and this conscious self uses energy to either inhibit our impulses or to initiate actions that prevent us from getting into situations we are afraid of or find repugnant. When we perform such actions we are asserting the I or me (our self) and taking control of or overriding the robot. The robot is the contention scheduling system or the CAS. When we are not performing intentional actions there is no self, there is only the robot doing things (which is essentially stupid if not properly programed). You end up with environmental contingencies acting as cues to activate routines which are more or less automatic reactions to those cues. When the robot is running things we are very much as the behaviorists imagined us to be.

programed        automiton  

The robot is not another self, but is rather an unthinking machine that should be doing our bidding as our servant. However, it is often performing actions that are not what we want, nor in our best interests. This robot has to be programed and it can be programed in three different ways. It can be programed by our conscious self, it can be programed by others, or it can be programed by accidental random contingencies thrown up by an uncaring environment. If we are not programing the robot we are just a passive, passenger, observing our life as the robot does our living for us. This site holds that each person should, to the best of his or her ability, be doing the programing of his or her personal robot. Here attention is the key to the conscious self.

"Being able to turn your attention where you want it to go appears to be very useful for all sorts of other self-discipline challenges. If you want to make something more pleasant or less unpleasant, you can turn your attention toward the pleasant parts of it and away from the unpleasant parts."

Charles Duhigg Skills and habits as automatic routines.

skills Skills.

When we are learning skills they are not automatic. But as we perform them over and over they can, or at least parts of them can, become so well learned as to become automatic and require no conscious input from the self to activate. Thus they become habits. If, on the other hand, we continue to find slight errors in our performance and continue to modify that performance of the skill, then the skill does not become completely automatic. The skill can be said to be still in the process of being learned and thus remains flexible. Thus it can be said that such a skill remains relatively easy to change or modify. Skills usually remain somewhat flexible in this way. Learning a skill always requires considerable input from the conscious self as it always involves an existing routine being modified through a process of error elimination. Only as parts of skills become very expert is it possible for those routines to become automatic. As we are learning skills we are continually programing our robot till the routine is perfect only then does it become something we do without thought (a habit).

bad habits Habits. good habits

Habits are very similar to skills except that they usually do not retain much in the way of flexibility. Also unlike skills habits tend to be programed into us by random cues and rewards occurring in our environment. Sadly these random cues and rewards that our environment delivers rather easily program us with many many habits and most of them are bad habits. Habits programed into us in this way are laid down over and over till they become strongly and deeply entrenched and thus inflexible and very difficult to change or modify. Our parents our teachers and society in general all try to program our robots to give us what they consider to be good habits. Thankfully they are never very successful in programing our robots. We are most out of control, we have least control over what our body is doing, when the robot is running routines that are easily recognized as bad habits. Bad habits are routines that are counter productive, self destructive, and generally run counter to what we would want our bodies to be doing.

baumeister  Habits and self-control.

In his book "Willpower" Roy Baumeister explains how his research led him to the importance of habit and how it interrelated with self-control.

"...Baumeister working together with Denise de Ridder and Catrin Finkenauer, two Dutch researchers...led an analysis of a large set of published and unpublished studies on people who scored high in self-control as measured in a personality test. These studies reported experiments involving a variety of behaviors, which the researchers divided into a couple of broad categories: mainly automatic and mainly controlled. The researchers assumed, logically enough, that people with high self-control would tend to exercise it most noticeably in the behavior they controlled the most. Yet when the results were totaled up in a meta-analysis, just the opposite pattern appeared. The people with high self-control were distinguished by their behaviors that took place more or less automatically. ...Their results suggested that we don't use self-control on controllable behaviors. How could that be?

The behaviors they had coded as automatic tended to be linked to habits, whereas the more controlled sorts of behaviors tended to be unusual or one-time -only actions. Self-control turned out to be most effective when people used it to establish good habits and break bad ones.

Learning Learning and habits. learned 

Habits are not enemy of self-control they are in the end just how things are done on a regular basis by the robot. Habits are actions you have already learned or have been acquired without your intention. Actions for which you have to maintain attentional control, on the other hand, are actions in the process of being learned. If you wish to control what is done by you on a regular basis the you have to program your robot to do that. Part of the problem is that habits are always there. You cannot just program the robot you have to reprogram it. Reprogramming the robot means, not just creating a good habit and learning its routine, but normally unlearning a bad habit as well.


loop Habits and the three step loop.

In his book "The Power of Habit" Charles Duhigg explains what habits are and how they are formed:

"This process - in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine - is known as 'chunking,' and it's at the root of how habits form. There are dozens - if not hundreds - of behavioral chunks that that we rely on every day. Some are simple: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed or making the kids' lunch are a little more complicated.

Others are so complicated that it's remarkable a small bit of tissue that evolved millions of years ago can turn them into habits at all. Take the act of backing your car out of the driveway. ...Millions of people perform this intricate ballet every morning, unthinkingly, because as soon as we pullout the car keys, our basal ganglia kicks in.

...Habits scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefor causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and eventually, airplanes and video games.

...This process within our brains is a three step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:

the habit loop

Over time, this loop - cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward - becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, whether in a chilly MIT laboratory or your driveway, a habit is born."

goals Goals and Resolutions. resolutionsresolutions


In order to change a habit you have to want do it and believe that you can do it. This probably means you have in mind some future circumstances for yourself that should come into being if you are able to break the habit. That future circumstance would be your goal an is also a reward. Resolutions, on the other hand, are promises you make mostly to yourself because you anticipate some eventual reward. Either you promise to start doing something or you promise not to do something. Things you promise to start doing are really an attempt to instigate a new good habit and things you promise not to do are attempts to break a bad habit. 


Goals and resolution are what motivate us to break bad habits and replace them with good habits. Our success at reaching a goal or fulfilling a resolution is a big part of our eventual reward when we get there. Goals and resolutions in a sense are rewards. However, goals and resolutions are useless without self-control and that means making a mental effort to change. Whether you have self-control or not reaching goals or fulfilling resolutions requires work and clarity. Strayhorn puts it like this:

"One of the major goals of both education and psychology is to rig things up so that ordinary people, without huge amounts of self-discipline, can do productive work. But even in the best of circumstances goals take work to accomplish."

"If possible, it's good to make your goal statements so specific that it's very clear whether you have reached them or not."


In his book "The Antidote" Oliver Burkeman warns us that goals have become part of the rat race of modern day life and can become so important in driven people's live that they afford no reward or pleasurable outcome. For such people overlapping multiple goals leave no time to relax and appreciate rewards. Strayhorn provides some perspective on this: 

"It is true that you want to give yourself enough time to relax and enjoy life. It's important not to feel that you have to be working all the time. But many people are more afraid of pushing themselves to work hard than they need to be."

brain effort Mental effort.

Changing a habit or a skill requires mental effort. Some people would call this willpower but this site holds that mental effort is a better description of what's involved as the same type of mental effort is required to make decisions or even just choose between alternatives. Here's why. Mental effort is required when a schema or program is about to activate and we try to suppress that schema or program by sending a signal from the prefrontal cortex to inhibit that schema or program. Deciding, choosing, or trying to prevent the activation of a habit all require that an inhibiting signal is sent to interfere with the running of different programs. All of them require mental effort. Habits are actually a useful device created by our brains to conserve this mental energy. Habits do not require mental effort. They run automatically without any input from the self. It is only when trying to change a habit that the brain is taxed by mental effort.

brain effort Physical and mental effort.

Just as physical effort, if sustained for some time, makes a person tired and his physical energy is depleted by the effort, mental energy also becomes depleted with sustained mental effort and if used for too many things. It can become so depleted as to make mental effort impossible. This analogy between physical and mental effort is even more closely aligned in that just as physical effort uses up glucose in our bloodstreams so does mental effort. In his book "Willpower" Roy Baumeister sites many experiments that clearly show that glucose is depleted in the bloodstream by trying to prevent the activation of a habit, by making decisions, and by making choices. In his book "Willpower" Roy Baumeister tells us the following:

"As the body uses glucose during self control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat -which is bad news for people hoping to use their self control to avoid sweets. When people have more demands of self-control in their daily lives, their hunger for sweets increases. It's not a simple matter of wanting all food more - they seen to be specifically hungry for sweets."

"In order to not eat, a dieter needs willpower.

In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat."

This is a biological catch 22 and is the reason that the habit of overeating is the trickiest or most difficult habit to break. It is possible, however, as this site will show further on.  

brain execise Self-control, persistence power, regulatory strength or grit and how to get it.

Strayhorn tells us that: "Self-discipline and persistence power are in many ways like a muscle. You can develop persistence power by exercising it. You can also get it tired."

We all have at our disposal different amounts of energy that we can use to produce effort, both the physical kind and the mental kind. This is linked to the amount of glucose in our bloodstream. The amount of glucose in our blood is linked to how recently we have eaten, what we have eaten, how much rest we have had from using this particular energy, and how much sleep we have had. Strayhorn gives us some examples of different ways of restoring your power to persist:

"Suppose that you have been using your persistence power to sit still all morning and work on writing an article. You might find your persistence power restored best by taking a nice run, walk or swim Suppose that you have been helping to put out a forest fire. You have been using your persistence power to keep working hard even though you are physically exhausted. You might find your persistence power restored best by taking a nap."

Strayhorne is suggesting that the power to continue resisting can be restored by doing the opposite of what you have been using mental effort to resist. This makes some sense up to a point. It is certainly a way to make sure you are taking a rest from using persistence in that way. So it is certainly providing the body with a chance to restore it. However only food and a good night's sleep will completely restore it because what you are restoring is your ability to produce mental effort. 

The body creates glucose from almost any food. Rest and sleep allow this process to restore the correct balance of glucose without further depletion. It is possible, however, to increase the efficiency of the body's use of energy so that it produces superior results. If you exercise your body gets stronger it uses more energy but also recovers more quickly and is able to produce more effort. In a similar the overall mental effort a person can produce can be improved by exercising self-control. The more you change bad habits into good ones the easier it becomes to do it. Our ability to improve our self-control in this way has also been called grit by psychologist Angela Duckworth, but in most research it is referred to as regulatory strength.


How do our robots get programed?

The big question is, "How do these habits get programed into our robots?" There are three ways this can happen. We can program our robot ourselves, others can program it, or random events in the environment can program it. In the case of bad habits, they are normally programed into the robot by random occurrences in our environments. How does the environment manage to pull this off?

How do random events in our environments manage to program our robots?

This process was well known and understood by the behaviorists and was studied in detail by Skinner. He called it operant conditioning. The behaviorists didn't seem to understand that they were only studying habits but this was the case. Be that as it may, operant conditioning works like this: The organism performs some action and for whatever reason is somehow rewarded. There are so many reward processes built into our bodies that the chances of our being rewarded for any action is quite high. Still a habit is not formed by an action that is rewarded one time. A habit is only formed if the action is performed many times and rewarded each time. So after some time the organism performs the same action again and gets the same reward. It has happened twice so the organism gets the idea that it might happen again so the organism becomes motivated to perform the action. The organism performs the action again and is rewarded again. It becomes even more motivated. So the process continues locking action and reward together. Organisms begin to associate the action with a reward. Still the habit loop is not complete. At some point in this process the organism starts to associate the action with some event that precedes the action being performed. This event after many repetitions becomes strongly associated with the action and the reward becoming the cue that cues the action to be performed. The behaviorists called the cue a stimulus, they called the routine a behavior and the reward reinforcement.

How do others program our robots?

People are constantly trying to program each other's robots. Our parents try to program us, our teachers, our bosses, all try to program us. Fortunately we have strong built in defenses that prevent us from being easily controlled by others. At the slightest wif of manipulation or control by others we tend to resist. This resistance to control comes from our need for autonomy. In it's strongest form this kind of resistance has been overcome by reverse psychology. There are always ways for others to get past our defenses and end up controlling us somewhat, but this is not the norm.

pupetmaster How do we program our own robots?

The rest of this page will be devoted to answering that very question. This is because the process is very complex and difficult but well worth the effort. First, there is the golden rule of habit change which Charles Duhigg lays out in his book "The Power of Habit":

can not change

How does it work? 

  1. Use the same cue.

  2. Change the routine.

  3. Provide the same reward.

keep the cue

keystone Keystone habits. 

If you're going to find out how to change bad habits into good habits it seems logical to look at people who have been very successful at doing it. That is just what a group of Neuroscientest, psychologists, geneticists, and a sociologist did. In his book "The Power of Habit" Charles Duhigg tells the story. 

"All the participants had one thing in common: They had remade their live in relatively short periods of time. The researchers wanted to know how." So they measured subjects' vital signs, installed video cameras in their homes to watch their daily routines, sequenced portions of their DNA and, with technologies that allowed them to peer inside peoples skulls in real time, watched as blood and electronic impulses flowed though their brains while exposed to temptations such as cigarette smoke and lavish meals. The researchers' goal was to figure out how habits work on a neurological level - and what it took to make them change."  

Many of the subjects supplied hints about what was happening that allowed them to change their lives so radically, but one subject was clearly the star. Her name was Lisa and her life had been a tragic mess of bad habits. Suddenly all that changed during a trip to Cairo. Everything was going wrong in her life. She was getting a divorce. It was a very low point in her life when she got it into her head to go on a trek through the desert. In order to do that she felt she would have to give up smoking. Duhigg explains:

"...the conviction that she had to give up smoking to accomplish her goal - had touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every part of her life. Over the next six months she would replace smoking with jogging,and that in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her work days, planned for the future, and so on. She would start running half marathons, and then a marathon, go back to school, buy a house, and get engaged. Eventually she was recruited into the scientist's study and when researchers began examining images of Lisa's brain they found something remarkable. One set of neurological patterns - her old habits -  had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa's habits changed, so had her brain.

It wasn't the trip to Cairo that had caused the shift, scientists were convinced, or the divorce or desert trek. It was that Lisa had focused on changing just one habit  - smoking - at first. Everyone in the study had gone through a similar process. By focusing on one pattern - what is known as a 'keystone habit' - Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life as well."

too many

Because we are able to produce only a finite amount of metal effort at a given time, trying to change a lot bad habits during that time is not the best strategy for replacing bad habits with good ones. Instead people should pick the habit which they most want to change and concentrate entirely on it. Many of the books on self-control tell you to make list of your goals or write down your resolutions, but it is clear from this research that such is not a good idea, especially if you try to implement them all at the same time. If you try to implement more than one your chances of succeeding go down alarmingly.

There are, however, some circumstances where trying to change more than one habit will prove to be more effective. If for instance you wish to lose weight it is obvious that changing both your diet and you exercise simultaneously will be more effective than changing only one of these activities. Related bad habits tend to reinforce one another thus changing them simultaneously is more effective. You will change faster and more saliently thus rewarding you with more immediate success. It is important to succeed, because when you do, it increases the amount of mental effort you can produce. Change one bad habit into a good one and your ability to replace bad habits with good ones increases. An immediate success can lead to other rapid successes. Thus you can set off a chain reaction where you change one or two bad habits then another and another, each time becoming mentally stronger and more easily able to change other bad habits. A keystone habit is the first one (or two), the ones that can make it possible to change all the others. As with any kind of change you have to start small.

It is important to note, however, that that you do not have to reach your goal before attempting to change other bad habits. You only have to install the new habit to the point that you are being rewarded with good progress. The moment you are satisfied you are making good progress, and thus the new habit is effectively installed, you can start to plan how you will change a different bad habit. Especially if the new good habits support one another, this will result in further acceleration in the total change and in your ability to change as each new good habit comes on line.   

The cue the routine and the reward.

behavior change

Although it is best to change the routine or activity both the cue and the reward can be changed also.

cue Changing the cue.

The cue is the key element in a habit loop. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorne calls cues choice points. However, it is probably best not to think of cues in this way. The whole purpose of habits is to conserve mental energy and to reduce mental effort. If we use mental effort to abort a bad habit every time a cue prompts a bad habit to activate, this is doing the opposite of conserving energy. We would be wasting mental effort on a massive scale. Anyway, it is simply not necessary to oppose bad habits directly with large amounts of mental effort when we can use a bit of mental jujitsu to get around them.    

Discovering the cue.

If you wish to change a bad habit you first have to discover what the cue is. What is it that activates that habit. Finding out what the cue is, can be accomplished by taking note of all the various environmental elements present when the habit starts to activate. The cue will be one of the following: 

  1. The time of day. Does the habit start to activate at about the same time each day?

  2. The place where you are. Does the habit start to activate in the same place each time?

  3. A person. Does the habit start to activate when you are with the same person each time?

  4. A sensory input. Does the habit start to activate when you see, hear, smell, taste or feel a some particular thing each time?

  5. Something you just did. Does the habit start to activate when you just did something each time?

  6. Some emotion you just felt. Does the habit start to activate when you feel a particular emotion each time?

It may be necessary check out several possibilities before you find the right cue. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn talks about cues as choice points: 

"Sometimes you know what the most difficult choice points will be as soon as you write down your goal. At other times, you have to try making daily plans and see which ones are the hardest for you to follow. But it's very useful to answer the question: 'In meeting this goal, what are the situations that will challenge my self-discipline skills the most?' These are called self-discipline choice points."

Two ways of dealing bad habit cues.

When you have found out what the cue is, there are two ways you can try to deal with it. Both of these ways make use of the the fact that habits weaken through inactivity. The less a habit is activated the weaker the habit gets.

  1. In his book Duhigg suggests that you keep the cue in tact and use it to activate a different routine that is a good habit. To make this work you have to use mental effort at first to perform the new routine but as the new habit takes hold and the old habit gets weaker it takes less and less mental effort to accomplish. This is the best way to change a habit because the old habit stops being cued as the cue can only cue one habit at a time. 

  2. The other way to deal with a cue for a bad habit is to rearrange your environment so that the cue does not occur. You simply arrange your life so that you avoid any presentation of the cue that activates the bad habit. In this way you avoid the cue and thus circumvent the activation of the bad habit. Joe Strayhorn calls cues stimuli. He says:

    "If you purposely arrange the stimuli around you to try to bring out the responses in yourself that you want you are using stimulus control. When you use stimulus control well, you avoid the temptations that would get in the way of your goal. Someone who goes into a quiet room to study instead of trying to study in front of the TV is using stimulus control."

    Unfortunately this tactic is less effective. No mater how careful you are about avoiding the cue it will turn up. You can supplement this idea by making the activation of the habit as difficult as possible for yourself. For instance if you don't want to eat certain things do not keep them close by or in the refrigerator. Assuming this tactic is fairly effective, you can then create a good habit complete with a cue of your own choosing. The best kind of cue to use is the time of day. In his book "The End of Illness" Dr David Argus informs us that timing is everything. He tells us that doing as many things as you can at unique and fixed times each day promotes not only health but happiness, skillfulness etc. He tells us our bodies have been molded by evolution to function at their best when particular things happen at the same time each day. When we eat at the same time, sleep at the same time, exercise at the same time, our bodys can prepare to automatically adjust themselves for each eventuality. This way our habits become attached to our daily rhythms.

Perhaps the best approach to dealing with cues is some combination of these two ideas.

willpower       drastic

reward Changing the reward.

While changing a habit is easiest if exactly the same reward is used, this is not often possible. If you use the same cue, the same reward and change the routine you will find changing a habit is easy. Unfortunately it is usually impossible to use the same reward. In that case the only way to make it work is to use an equivalent or better reward. Sadly the normal rewards for good habits are not usually immediate but are rather delayed to some unspecific time in the future.

delayed gratification
Connecting to and investing in a personal future.

To have any chance in making delayed rewards effective we have to some how connect to our personal futures and invest in that future. Many of the techniques for helping us to change our bad habits into good ones is about connecting us to, and getting us to invest in, our personal futures.

Delayed gratification.

In his book "Willpower" Roy Baumeister tells of an experiment that showed a major difference in people's ability not to indulge in a temptation, if they had postponed indulging in the temptation initially by telling themselves they could indulge later. Roy Baumeister explains:

"The results suggest that telling yourself 'I can have this later' operates in the mind a bit like having it now. It satisfies the craving to some degree - and can be be even more effective at suppressing the appetite than actually eating the treat." 

Modeling and imitation.

One way of connecting with the future is to surround yourself with other people who tend to forgo small rewards now for large rewards later on. Only recently it was discovered that when we observe another being doing something, our neurons for that action schema fire up, and in all probability this action has to be inhibited by our prefrontal cortex. In other words we are cued to copy or imitate others unless we actively try to prevent it using self control. So by surrounding ourselves by others, in this way, we are using habit to overcome a habit instead of wasting precious mental effort. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn explains: 

"How do people learn to do what they do? A large fraction of what we learn is from modeling and by imitation learning. People see people doing something, and they tend to do the same thing."

"Two researchers Albert Bandura and Walter Mischel, did an experiment. They showed children someone else who was making this choice. [between a small reward now or a greater reward later.] The children tended to imitate the person they saw. Children who saw someone choose the greater reward later on were influenced to use self discipline too in that way. Children who saw someone choose to get the smaller reward right away were influenced to make the same sort of choice. This influence took place even when children heard about the choice and did not see it in real life."

"How can you take the most advantage of the power of modeling? By collecting written or recorded examples of the type of self-disciplined behavior you want to do more often, and purposely exposing yourself to those models over and over."

"It is natural and good to admire the actions of people who use this skill successfully. Admiring these people's actions can only help us get the energy to develop our own self-discipline skills."

"It's easier if you see other people doing the work".

Convince yourself with logic.

Another way to connect with the future is to talk yourself into it. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn suggest we need a sales pitch for ourselves:

"...when you are trying to convince yourself to...triumph in any...self-discipline need a sales pitch for yourself."  

"How about thinking, 'This problem may take lots of work for me to solve. But if I'm willing to work enough, I can make things better. If doing that work makes my life better, it will be worth it.' This is the way of thinking that causes success."

"What about when you are trying to convince yourself to work hard to improve schoolwork, keep your temper, lose weight get in better shape, or triumph in any other self-discipline goal? You need a sales pitch for yourself."

A sales pitch is basically two lists. List number one is a list of the reasons why you should implement a new routine. List number two is a list of all the counter arguments to reasons you might give to keep indulging in the same bad habit routine.

Feedback, measurement, improvement and self-monitoring.

Perhaps the most effective tool we have to connect ourselves to a future goal (reward) is to find some way of measuring our improvement toward that goal (reward). This serves to provide you with small incremental rewards, each one connect to the future reward along the way, each one providing increasing ability to summon your mental effort and increase you determination to reach that goal. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn says: 

"'That which gets measured gets improved.' If you really want to get better at something, measure progress accurately and frequently. That way, you will know right away if you are getting off track, and you can correct yourself. You will also get positive feedback if you are on the right track, and you can reinforce yourself for that. Measuring, or monitoring, how you are doing gives you the crucial information you need to decide 'Do I keep on doing more of the same?' or 'Do I change what I am doing?'"

"Sometimes you can count on other people to measure your performance. If you are a professional basketball player, after every game you can find out what percent of your shots went in, how many rebounds you made, and many other statistics. But if you are trying to pay attention in class, lose weight, quit smoking, control your temper, or start homework projects early, you will have to do most of the measuring yourself. No one else is interested enough in your goals to do it for you."

"He weighs himself every morning and writes down down his weight on a chart he keeps. He has weekly and monthly goals for the weight he wants to be, and he frequently compares his actual weight to his goal weight."

Support from others.

Support from others has been long known to be of great help in making future rewards more real and desirable for us. There may be many reasons individual and group support works. As Joe Strayhorn explains individuals or groups can provide small rewards leading to the larger reward in the future:

"Usually doing that work [on a self-control problems] is much easier if you have some really nice, supportive person helping you out with it, encouraging you and celebrating your successes with you."

Roy Baumeister says:

"An outsider can often encourage you by pointing out signs of progress that you have taken for granted. And when things are going badly, sometimes the best solution is to look elsewhere for help." 

Research has shown over and over that support from a person or group of people can have an amazing effect on making future rewards real for us and is highly instrumental in enabling us to invest in those future rewards. Perhaps its partly modeling, or as Roy Baumeister explains below fear of rejection by a group can help us overcome temptations:

"...the most enthusiastic walkers were the ones who shared each days tally with a few friends. They were applying a sound psychological principle that was demonstrated in some of Baumeister's earliest experiments, long before he got involved in studying self-control: Public information has more impact than private information. People care more more about what other people know about them than what they know about themselves. A failure, a slip up, a lapse in self-control can be swept under the carpet pretty easily if you are the only one who knows about it. You can rationalize it or just plain ignore it. But if other people know about it, its harder to dismiss. After all, the other person may not buy the excuses that you make, even though you find them satisfying. And you'll have even more trouble selling that excuse when you expand from one person to a whole social network. 

Roy Baumeister also points out that others can help you monitor your behavior thus helping you conserve some mental effort:

"You're also outsourcing the job of monitoring, which can ease the burden on yourself."


Fantasy Rehearsal.

Another good way of connecting to you personal future, connecting to rewards for reaching long term goals, and fulfilling resolutions, is to actively imagine you are already performing the new good habit and then have been performing it for some time. Joe Strayhorn has the following to say in his book:

"This chapter contains a very important idea, one that can help you improve your performance in almost any area you want to improve in. It has been used by Olympic athletes, professional speakers, musicians, people who want to get along better with other people, and by successful students. The idea is called fantasy rehearsal. The idea is that by practicing things in your imagination, you can get better at them in real life."

"The experimenters asked one group to perform a physical action, and another group to imagine vividly that they were doing the same action. The activation of the brain was very similar for both groups. This study suggests that by fantasy rehearsals, you can bring about effect on your brain that are similar to real rehearsals."

This is not just useful for improving your performance but also helps speed up the process of habituation. In other words it will help you get used to any unpleasant elements involved in the performance of the new good habit. For this to be effective you have to experience in your mind what it will be like to perform the new habit moment by moment with all the emotion, strain, fatigue, discomfort, pain and pleasure that might involve. In addition by vividly imagining at the end of this process the eventual reward that will be yours if you reach your goal or fulfill you resolution, you will make a strong connection to the future reward. You have to imagine how people will react how you will feel how pleasurable it will be just as if you had just received the reward.

In his book "Willpower" Roy Baumeister recounts the results of an experiment where people were required to reflect on the goals they had achieved or the goals they wanted to achieve. These results indicated that it might not be such a good idea to celebrate our past achievements, although it seems possible that rewards already experienced could be used to help us imagine what long term rewards might be like:

" random assignment half were told to reflect on what they had achieved thus far... The rest were instructed to reflect on what they were planning to achieve but had not yet accomplished. The ones who wrote about what they had already achieved had higher satisfaction with their current tasks and projects, as compared with the ones who reflected on what they had not yet achieved. But the latter were more motivated to reach their goals and then move on to more challenging projects. Those who focused on what they had already done did not seem eager to move on to more difficult and challenging tasks. They were reasonably content with where they were and what they were currently doing. For contentment, apparently it pays to look how far you have come. To stoke motivation and ambition, focus instead on the road ahead." 

Self reinforcement or extrinsic self rewards.

Connecting to future rewards may be facilitated by giving yourself rewards for progress toward that long term reward. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn gives several suggestions as to how one might go about rewarding one's self:

"There are several different types of rewards, or reinforcers. When you say to yourself, 'Hooray for me! I did a good job' that is an internal reinforcer, or a self talk reinforcer. When something happens outside you that makes you feel good, that's an external reinforcer. There are several sorts of reinforcers."

Self talk rewards.

You can congratulate yourself or praise yourself either inside your mind or out loud when you reach some points in you progress toward your goal.

"The principle is that if you reward yourself in your own mind for self-discipline triumphs, you'll be more likely to repeat them."

"You have to some magic on yourself that lets you enjoy your own compliments. But if you cultivate the skill of feeling good about your own inner congratulations, your ability to triumph over self-discipline choice points will soar."

Give yourself a physical reward.
You can arrange your life so that you can allow yourself some physical pleasure when you reach some points in you progress toward your goal.

"...he decides to make the tea and biscuit reinforcers for writing. He has a program on his computer that measures his keystrokes. He decides that he will give himself the tea and biscuit when he has typed 10,000 keystrokes on his book."

"Rachel makes a rule for herself that on any day, she will do her academic work first. When all her work has been done really well, she will only then let herself surf the Internet."

"Ralph sets up a rule for himself that he is allowed to play computer chess on any day when his room is very organized, when he has made a to do list, and when he has done all essential items on the list. The chance to play chess then becomes a reinforcer for organizing."

"The people in the last three examples did not give in to the temptations. But they also did not give up the temptations altogether. They decided to give themselves the rewards, but only after they had done their work toward their long term goals. Thus the same foods or activities that had been temptations now did some special thing for the work on the long term goal."

Joe Strayhorne Resolutions and the worst habit.

The worst habit you can get into is to set gaols for yourself and fail to reach them, to make resolutions and fail to accomplish them. If you do not reach the goal or accomplish the resolution you do not get the reward and the whole effort you have put in is wasted. Not only that, but by giving in to temptation you are giving yourself a different reward for failing, you are making a habit of failing. When you do this you are making the whole process of changing a habit impossible. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn is fully familiar with this and has the following to say:

"Many people are in the habit of constantly making resolutions and then breaking them. This is an important habit to stay out of! You want to get into the habit of keeping resolutions. If you break too higher a fraction of your own resolutions, you get discouraged with your own ability to do what you plan."


It is absolutely essential that if you set a goal for yourself or make a resolution, that you accomplish that goal or resolution as often as possible. It is only by reaching the goal or accomplishing the resolution that you get rewarded and the new habit can begin to replace a bad habit. Strayhorne goes on to say:

"Sometimes when people make resolutions that are too hard, and break them, they feel guilty. Sometimes they try to take care of their guilt by making even harsher resolutions"

This is obviously the worst thing you can do. If you fail in you resolution it is probably because you have made the resolution so difficult as too be almost impossible to accomplish. Clearly you need to make your goals easier not harder.

Make your goals and resolutions sufficiently easy that you can accomplish them.

There are two ways to think about turning bad habit routines into better ones. We can do this either by setting small resolutions or goals for ourselves or by setting proximal goals for ourselves. In this way we concentrate on changing the bad habit and not on reaching some distant goal. Habits usually involve fairly small manageable routines. This being so, our goals or resolutions should similarly be focused on each one of these small routines, and the replacing of it with a better one.

  1. Small goals.  The idea with small goals is to make the goal or resolution easy enough to accomplish. Strayhorne goes on to say: "so you start by making easy resolutions to follow. You take into account that you may not have developed the best possible habits yet. You try to arrange success experiences for yourself. For people who have become discouraged about keeping those resolutions, the first resolution should be really easy." For dieters it is a matter of cutting down on the amounts of different food you eat. For cigarette smokers it is cutting down the number of cigarettes. For exercising it is a matter of starting with easy exercises. etc. etc. We can reward ourselves for accomplishing these small goals as we accomplish them even if its only the feeling of accomplishment that comes with succeeding in those small goals.

  2. gratification          Instant

  3. Distal and proximal goals. With big goals it is best to think of them as being composed of smaller goals that can be more easily accomplished. Because many of the habits we wish to change are not rewarded in the immediate time frame, and are only rewarded in a distant long term future, it may be necessary to divide such goals into much smaller goals that are easy to accomplish. Such goals can be rewarded immediately. Strayhorn put it like this: "Doing that work is also easier if you get rewarded in some small way for each small bit of progress that you make." "Often a certain skill is made up from a combination of simpler skills. Sometimes if you are having a hard time getting fast and accurate at some skill, it is best to practice the simpler skills that are part of it." Bandura discussed the possibility of breaking long term goals into smaller goals that act as sort of stepping stones to the long term goal. He called the long term goals 'distal goals' and the short term goals 'proximal goals'. Take exercising. There is a big pay off for exercising. Eventually it makes you healthy and normally makes your body look good. Such rewards however are very much in a distant future that we may not be invested in. We can however reward ourselves in a more immediate present by taking note of changes in our body and health as they occur and patting ourselves on the back as we notice. As with all learning the trick with proximal goals is to only make them small enough to allow them to be accomplishable. But if you make them too small there will be little feeling of accomplishment and/or the whole process of reaching the final distal goal will take too long.

routine Changing the routine.


Changing the routine requires planning. When you have found out what what the cue is, that is activating your bad habit, and what the reward is that you are craving, you can plan to perform a different action when the cue presents itself. While this could be any old action that produces the same or an equivalent reward, ideally we want to take the opportunity to replace the bad habit with a good one. In his book "The Power of Habit" Charles Duhigg gives the following example:  

"Take for instance , my cookie-in-the-afternoon habit. By using this framework, I learned that my cue was roughly 3:30 in the afternoon. I knew that my routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and chat with friends. And through experimentation, I had learned that it wasn't really the cookie that I craved - rather it was a moment of distraction and the opportunity to socialize.

So I wrote a plan:

At 3:30, every day I will walk to a friend's desk and talk for 10 minuets.

To make sure I remembered to do this, I set the alarm on my watch for 3:30.

It didn't work immediately. There were some days I was too busy and ignored the alarm, and then fell off the wagon. Other times it seemed like too much work to find a friend willing to chat - it was easier to get a cookie, and so I gave in to the urge. But on those days that I abided by the plan - when the alarm went off. I forced myself to walk to a friend's desk and chat for ten minuets - I found that I ended the work day feeling better. I hadn't gone to the cafeteria, I hadn't eaten a cookie. and I felt fine. Eventually, it got to be automatic: when the alarm rang, I found a friend and ended the day feeling a small but real, sense of accomplishment. After a few weeks, I hardly thought about the routine any more. And when I couldn't find anyone to chat with, I went to the cafeteria and bought tea and drank it with friends."

In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joe Strayhorn talks about plans in terms of reaching goals but his advice is also applicable to simple plans to change habits:

"Sometimes it takes a very long time to find the right plan to achieve a goal. You can save yourself a lot of time by studying the plans and method used by people who have already been successful."

"...when you make plans, it's good to project yourself forward in your imagination, to the time when you will be carrying out those plans."

You do this to try and anticipate any obstacles or things that could derail your plan and thus prepare for those problems. This is obviously connected to his next bit of advice:

"But you also have a plan in case you mess up. You plan that if you have a little failure of self-discipline, you will tell yourself, 'My task is to start back immediately on the pattern that will help me reach my goal. A small failure is much smaller than a big failure! The fact that I had a little failure doesn't change the fact that everything counts in either advancing me toward my goal or moving me away from it. Let me view the reasons I want to achieve my goal and muster my energy toward accomplishing it."

The "What the Hell" effect. 

That bit of advice from Strayhorn, it turns out, is highly significant when it comes to making plans to change habits. As to just why this is so is made abundantly clear by Roy Baumeister in his book "Willpower" in the section called "The What-the-Hell Effect" where he describes the following experiment:

"The people arrived at the lab in what researchers call a 'food deprived state,' which is more commonly known as 'hungry'. They hadn't eaten for several hours. Some were given a small milkshake to take the edge off; others drank two giant milkshakes with enough calories to leave a normal person feeling stuffed. Then both groups, along with other subject that hadn't been given any kind of milkshake, were asked to serve as food tasters. It was a ruse."

This was just a way of tempting them with piles of different types of snacks.

"The non dieters reacted predictably enough. Those who had just drunk the two giant milkshakes nibbled at the crackers and quickly filled out their ratings. Those who had drunk the one modest milkshake ate more crackers. And those who were still hungry after not eating for hours went on to chomp through the better part of the cookies and crackers. All perfectly understandable.

But the dieters reacted in the opposite pattern. The ones who had downed the giant milkshakes actually ate more cookies and crackers than the ones who'd had nothing to eat for hours. The results stunned the researchers, who were led by Peter Herman. Incredulous, they conducted further experiments, with similar results, until they finally began to see why self-control in eating can fail even among people who are carefully regulating themselves.

The researchers gave it a formal scientific term, counterregulatory eating, but in their lab and among colleagues it was known simply as the what-the-hell effect. Dieters have a fixed target in mind for their maximum daily calories, and when they exceed it for some unexpected reason, such as being given a pair of large milkshakes in an experiment, they regard their diet as blown for the day. That day is therefore mentally classified as a failure, regardless of what else happens. Virtue cannot resume until tomorrow. So they think, What the Hell, I might as well enjoy myself today - and the resulting binge often puts on far more weight than the original lapse."

This What-the-Hell Effect, or beginning again after a lapse back to a bad habit, is not just applicable to over eating and dieting. It can happen with any bad habit and is much more severe with habits where people are said to be addicted. When an alcoholic has one drink he/she must have another and so on. You not only have to have a plan but you must also plan what will happen, what you will do if you fail. Roy Baumeister in his book "Willpower" has some advice for dealing with lapses"

"Have an idea of what you want to accomplish in a month and how to get there. Leave some flexibility and anticipate setbacks. When you check your progress at month's end, remember that you don't have to meet each goal every time - what matters is that your life gradually improves from month to month. Aiming for huge and quick transformations will backfire if they seem impossible."


The moment you put a different routine in place of the old habit it begins to build momentum. Not only does repetition build persistence power, but you also begin to get used to the new habit and you start to build pleasurable associations with it. All this makes a person who has been performing the new habit for some time, more likely to continue than a person that is just starting a new good habit. In his book "A Programmed Course in Self-Discipline" Joseph Strayhorn points out:

"The person most likely not to smoke on a given day is the person who has not smoked for a good while up until that day. This is the person who has some 'momentum' for the self-discipline habit."

"Part of the way momentum works is simple habit strength. When you repeat a action several times, it starts to become a habit. Life is much easier and happier if you can get into a habit and routine of making certain good choices; you get to save the energy of struggling with them over and over."

"If you tell yourself, 'Just one will not make any difference,' you are also telling yourself something false, because you run the risk of having your momentum stopped."


The beauty of putting a new routine in place is that, although it may be very unpleasant to perform at first, it will after a time become what is normal and comfortable. Joe Strayhorn explains:

"Part of the way people increase their work capacity and their self-discipline is by habituation. Habituation means 'getting used to it.' Someone at first can't stand to do homework for more than fifteen minutes without stopping, but he pushes himself to work for longer and longer. The more experience he gets with working for longer times, the more he gets used to it. It isn't so unpleasant as it was before. As he habituates to working, he becomes able to work for a couple of hours without stopping."


When you work hard and long you habituate to the unpleasant sensations of putting out effort. You get used to those feelings, so that they don't bother you so much. Pushing yourself really hard sometimes makes you enjoy the work a lot more in the future rather than making you hate it."

Self-control metamorphosis.

As Joe Strayhorn explains below that  not only do we get used to almost anything but after some time most habits become enjoyable: 

"I made up the phrase advanced self-discipline to refer to a very important accomplishment. When you use advanced self-discipline, you gradually train yourself to enjoy the activities and choices that accomplish your long-term goals. For example, someone starts an exercise program. At first, it's very unpleasant to exercise. The person uses ordinary self-discipline to make himself keep running. But gradually, something changes. The person trains himself to take pleasure from running. He looks forward to his runs. Now his long term motive and his short-term motive are less in conflict with each other. He can use some of his self-discipline energy on something else."

This site does not hold that people have to train themselves to like or take pleasure in good habits. Everything we do has parts of it that are pleasurable and parts of it that are unpleasant. Just think of Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. On the one hand it must have been an exquisitely pleasure to see this painting coming into being. On the other hand it must have been very painful lying on his back painting upwards. Here is the thing though, the more he worked on the painting the more pleasurable it would have become. After a while even pain becomes pleasurable. Any masochist will confirm this. The pleasurable bits get associated together with the unpleasant bits and the pleasure overwhelms the pain and it all becomes pleasurable. Indeed the pain associated with pleasure this way seems to intensify the pleasure. For more information on this please click here for the page dealing with work.

The special case of food.

Although dieting is only peripherally significant for learning, it is the one thing most people try to use self-control for. Thus information is included here to provide a clear understanding of the connection between food and self-control. As explained earlier on this page there is a biological catch 22 involved in dieting, in that we need glucose to enable us to maintain mental effort used in overcoming temptations, and to obtain glucose we need to eat.

Losing weight, getting fit and being healthy.

Unfortunately dieting is further complicated by the fact that people do it, not just with the goal of losing weight, but also to get fit and be healthy. This is because getting fat is, not just what you eat but also, how much you exercise. It follows then that people struggle with dieting because they often try to exercise at the same time. As documented above the likelihood of succeeding if you do this is very small. Unless you are very over weight (obese) it's probably better to try and change you exercise habit first simply because it is easier as there is no catch 22 as there is with eating. When you have established a good exercise habit you can use the momentum and persistence strength, obtained from that, to help you work on your eating habit.   
The sugar rush and crash.
In his book "Willpower" Roy Baumeister points out that although the body tends to crave sugar when you have depleted your ability to enact mental or physical effort, you should avoid satisfying this craving, and instead replenish your energy by eating other food. He says: 

"...a sugar spike is promptly followed by a crash that leaves you feeling depleted, so its not a good long term strategy."

In fact although our bodies are experiencing this craving getting a quick fix of sugar does not help at all, it just makes things worse by producing cycles of high and low glucose in the blood. Roy Baumeister continues:

"The body converts just about all sorts of food into glucose, but at different rates. Foods that are converted quickly are said to have a high glycemic index. These include starchy carbohydrates like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and plenty of offerings on snack racks and fast food counters. Eating them causes boom and bust cycles, leaving you short on glucose and self-control -  and too often unable to resist the body's craving for quick hits of starch and sugar from doughnuts and candy."

Because sugar enters the blood as glucose so quickly it tends to flood our system with too much glucose. In response our body tends to rev up or become very active both physically and mentally in an effort to balance out our glucose levels, which results in us using up the excess glucose and more. This in turn leaves us with low glucose, a craving for sugar and little self control. If we then eat sugar the cycle begins again. 

"To maintain steady self-control, you're better off eating foods with a low glycemic index: most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pairs), cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other 'good' fats. (These low-glycemic foods may also help keep you slim.)"

You burn fat while you sleep.

Recent studies have shown that your body burns flab while you sleep, but only if it isn't too busy processing a full stomach. While you are awake, your brain and muscles use some of the calories you eat for mental and physical effort, and the rest is stored in your liver as glycogen. While you are asleep, your body converts that glycogen into glucose and gradually releases it into your bloodstream keeping your blood-sugar levels steady. When the stored glycogen is used up, your liver starts burning fat cells. However, it takes a few hours to use the glycogen built up during your awake time. The secret to losing weight is not just eating less but fasting. This does not mean you have to fast for long periods of time, which is hard on the body, but simply increase the amount of time in our natural everyday fast between our last meal of the day and breakfast. If you do not eat anything after 7pm, assuming you go to bed at 1am or later and have eight hours sleep, should allow your body enough time to burn all of the stored glycogen plus some fat every night. 

So it is possible to diet despite the catch 22 it is just a matter of following 2 simple rules:

  1. Avoid sugar, starches and fats and fill up on other food with a low glycemic index.

  2. Do not eat anything at least 6 hours before you go to sleep. Do not drink any sugary drinks during that time. It's also best to build a good habit of only eating at certain fixed times so that, it becomes your eating habit.

habit change

Self-control and life long learning.

Learning is many things. Further up this page it was suggested that learning is something done intentionally and attentionally by our conscious self, while what has been learned is something done automatically by our personal robot and is thus a habit. While this is essentially correct, it is not the entire story. Learning is an activity and any activity that is roughly performed the same way many times can become routine and can be rightly classified as a habit.

The habit of learning has to be seen as a good habit and one of life long practice. As you know by now, a habit involves cues, routines and rewards. The problem with trying to perceive learning as a routine, is that a learning activity is slightly different each time. Oh sure, many of the sub activities are similar each time like reading, searching though books and papers, or doing an Internet search with a search engine, but even they are not exactly the same each time. Each time you are reading or researching something different. This process relies on the reward for doing routine A to be anticipated for doing routine B. Given the right environment this works by means of our tendency to generalize the reward we get for learning one thing to be applicable to learning similar items. This is understood as developing a passionate personal interest in a particular content area. In this way a single bit of learning is generalized to be similar to a whole subject content area where it is anticipated any learning will rewarded as was the single item of learning. If we develop this passionate personal interest by means generalizing rewards we can start a process whereby we can develop a life long habit of learning within that content area.

There are many rewards for learning. There are often external rewards such as money or praise, but these extrinsic rewards can be counter productive. Still learning also generates many kinds of internal or intrinsic rewards. Because learning helps us accomplish all of our goals, it provides rewards in the form of feelings of accomplishment, worth, usefulness, efficiency, orderliness, etc. etc. Such strong intrinsic motivators or rewards should guarantee that learning should become a life long habit. But there is more. Learning itself has its own intrinsic reward. The feeling of having learned something, and that now you know something is the special reward well known to learners. Unfortunately our schools for the most part are not places where we get to feel these pleasures much, because of students constantly being coerced into learning things in which they have developed no interest, and the fact that they are often punished for not having learned as well as instructors would hope. 

If you develop the desire to learn you desire to learn some particular things and to do that you need to be in control of what is being learned. In fact self-control enables you not only to control what you learn, but also how much, and how well you learn.  Also Roy Baumeister in his book "Willpower" provides some evidence that if we enjoy doing some thing (say for example learning) it does not require much in the way of mental effort to do it, and that mental effort is only required to maintain such tasks for long periods of time. In other words learning requires less and less mental effort the more we do it.

Ideally, however, learning should not stop with developing an area of passionate personal interest. Learning should involve developing new interests where the similarity in the generalization of the rewards becomes less similar as our interest expands outward to envelop many fields of knowledge and areas of deep personal interest. Ideally learners could approach the point where the pleasure associated with learning would be generalized to anything and everything. In this way we could develop a life long desire to learn all things. Life long learning is all about being in control of our self in order to develop and guide this passionate interest in learning and the desire to learn which ultimately becomes itself a habit.  

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Karl Popper Body Control Knowing Maria Montessori Neuroscience Brain Plasticity Memory