This video by Aeon explores “Why preparation, not willpower, is the key to mastering self-control.” Nearly every great tradition of human knowledge emphasizes the importance of self-restraint.
Socrates already argued that self-restraint is vital to personal flourishment and a cornerstone of a healthy society. Failure of self-control can have damaging consequences both for the individual as well as society at large. But how do you restrain yourself from giving in to destructive desires?
Learn Self-Control from Odysseus
On Odysseus’ journey home after Troy’s fall, he encounters the sirens, who lure nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Odysseus knew about them and had himself bind tightly to the ship mast before passing the island.
This kind of behavior is now known as the Ulysses contract. Wikipedia describes it as “a freely made decision designed and intended to bind oneself in the future.” Temptations can be incredibly powerful in the present, so your best chance of resisting is before the heat of the moment.
But what if temptation strikes unexpectedly?
Exercise Your Willpower Muscle for Self-Control
Although preparation beats willpower, willpower can be seen as a muscle that we can exercise. The more we flex it, the stronger it gets. There are two willpower strategies that we can apply:
1. REFRAME AN URGE
Reframing an urge means that you come up with a clear and personal reason why you don’t want to give in to temptation. E.g. watching porn and masturbating right now would get you further away from reaching your goal of recovering from porn-induced sexual dysfunction and having a better sex life.
2. DIVERT YOUR ATTENTION
On the other hand, diverting your attention means focusing on a different object or task. This means if you encounter a pornographic image accidentally, you physically move your eyes away. Or if a fantasy strikes, you say the word “No” mentally or allowed and redirect your attention back to your immediate environment.
Your best chance of resisting temptations is by creating a barrier between yourself and the temptation—either practical with e.g., filter software or mentally by reframing or diverting your attention.
If you want to see adorable ways of how these two different approaches of self-control merge, watch a recreation of the infamous marshmallow test by Walter Mischel. Kids where promised a second marshmallow if they resisted the temptation to eat the one in front of them.