“Your Future Self Will Thank You – Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science” (A Guide for Sinners, Quitters and Procrastinators)” is a delightful summary of an important topic produced by Drew Dyck of Moody Publishers in 2019.
Dyck writes with humor, self-deprecation and insight as he shares his own hard battles with self-control, drawing on wisdom from ancient sources, the Bible and modern science to enlighten the reader and share valuable information about how to live a better life.
Citing the centuries-old writings of Philo, Dyck was struck by the concept that self-control can be “a foundation for the soul.”
“Self-control isn’t just one good character trait, a nice addition to the pantheon of virtue,” Dyck writes ( p. 15). “It’s foundational. Not because it’s more important than other virtues, but because the others rely upon it…. The theologian Thomas Aquinas called temperance (another word for self-control) a cardinal virtue. He taught that none of the other virtues—including humility, meekness, mercy, and steadfastness—could be developed without it.”
“In one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, the apostle Paul lists self-control alongside core virtues like love, joy and peace as among the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ (Gal 5:22),” Dyck reports. “We tend to think of self-control as a strictly human enterprise, but Scripture describes self-control as a product of being connected to God. It’s something that grows when your life is rooted in divine reality. In fact, if it’s missing, your faith may be a ruse. No fruit, no root” (p.19).
Self-Control and the Marshmallow Experiment
One of the early scientific discoveries of the value of self-control was the famous “marshmallow experiment” at Stanford University in the 1960s. “Stanford researcher Walter Mischel put a group of preschoolers through a wrenching test. Each child was offered a marshmallow, cookie, or pretzel to eat. Or they could make a deal. The tikes were told that if they could hold off eating the sweet or salty treat for just fifteen minutes they would receive two treats” (p.21).
“Almost none of them could. A few jammed the yummy snack into their mouths immediately. Most at least tried to resist. The children who held out employed a range of behaviors to cope with the temptation. Some would put their hands over their eyes or turn away from the tray…. Others started kicking the desk or tugging on their hair. Some even played with the marshmallow, stroking it ‘as if it were a tiny stuffed animal” (p.22).
Years later the researchers “tracked down hundreds of participants from the original study, now teen-agers. Sure enough, the ones who had demonstrated the higher levels of willpower as preschoolers were outpacing their peers. Not only did they have better grades and test scores, they were more popular at school and less likely to abuse drugs. Th benefits continued to mount as the test subjects grew older. The children who had held out for the full fifteen minutes scored 210 points higher on their SATs than their weakest-willed counterparts. They went on to achieve higher levels of education and report higher levels of happiness in their relationships. They even had lower body mass indexes” (p.22).
“Since Mischel’s famous experiment, study after study has linked self-control to a surplus of ‘favorable life outcomes,’ including better relationships, higher incomes, and higher levels of happiness,” Dyck writes (p.23). “People with greater self-control are more sociable, honest, and sacrificial. They have lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and aggression. They even live longer. If you could bottle self-control, it would be one of the most valuable substances on earth” (p. 23).
Based on his extensive research, Dyck provides this definition: “Self-control is the ability to do the right thing, even when you don’t feel like it” (p.33).
“Sounds simple enough,” Dyck says. “But for Christians, there’s a catch. We believe that ‘the right thing’ to do has been determined by God. He knows what’s best for us. He’s shown us what’s right and wrong through His Word, and He speaks to us through the quiet witness of our conscience. Self-control, then, is about listening and obeying. It’s not self-determined. It means submitting every decision we make to God. It’s about surrendering. When we do this consistently, it’s called self-control” (p.33).
Willpower and Self-Control
Willpower is key to self-control, Dyck writes. “Willpower is the emotional energy needed to withstand temptation. From a strictly human perspective, it’s what enables self-control. It’s the fuel. Willpower is required for a range of activities, from resisting temptation to learning new tasks to making decisions to persevering in difficult circumstances. But willpower is limited. Often, we just don’t have enough” (p.78).
Research by Roy Baumeister and others tested students’ willpower after a period of fasting. They were brought into a test room and half the group was told they could eat fresh-baked chocolate cookies, while the other half could only eat radishes. It was quite difficult for the designated radish-eaters. Following this test, students were given a puzzle impossible to solve. “The participants who had eaten cookies dramatically outperformed those who had eaten radishes. It wasn’t even close. Those who had consumed the delicious cookies struggled with the puzzle for about twenty minutes before calling it quits. The radish-eaters lasted only eight minutes, less than half as long” (p.81).
Baumeister’s research demonstrated that “willpower is a finite resource, one that can be depleted” (p.81). So strengthening self-control requires a lot more than just using more willpower. And—life isn’t fair—some people are born with more willpower than others. But “self-control is like a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets” (p.84).
How To Strengthen Our Willpower
“How can we strengthen our willpower?” Dyck asks. “Just like we strengthen our muscles—with resistance. In other words, if you want to grow your willpower, start doing hard things. Read a challenging book. Go for a run. Learn a foreign language…. It all takes willpower and the more you do it, the easier it will become. Not only will you get better at the specific task; the growth in willpower you gain will enable you to push harder in all activities requiring effort” (p.87).
“Getting a good night’s sleep goes a long way toward restoring your willpower reserves,” Dyck writes (p.88). “Studies show that people who are well rested demonstrate far greater self-control than people who skimp on sleep. Eating well is also key. Tasks that expend your willpower (even if they’re not physically demanding) cause your blood glucose levels to drop” (p.89). But researchers warn against too many sugary snacks which can cause insulin spikes—“low-glycemic foods, those that keep steady blood sugar levels” are better (89). Mindful meditation and prayer are other proven ways to replenish willpower.
Making Self-Control Automatic with the Transforming Power of Habits
Each of us lives out our days following habits—taking a shower, getting dressed, eating breakfast, driving to work, doing work etc.—in most cases running on autopilot, deeply grooved habits. We think we are making choices, but in most cases were are just running our habit routines. Charles Duhigg, author of the highly regarded The Power of Habit, says “a habit is a behavior that starts as a choice, and then becomes a nearly unconscious pattern.”
“These unconscious patterns determine a lot of our behavior,” reports Dyck. “A Duke University study found that more than 40 percent of our actions come from habit rather than decisions. That means nearly half of our actions on any given day take place without much conscious thought. We just do them. They’re habits” (p.96).
Learning to drive a car is a good example. At first it requires much conscious thought. But once it becomes a set of habits, we can drive a car in heavy traffic, talk to someone in the seat beside us and think about our next stop all at the same time. Habits are valuable energy savers. Neuroscientists call learning these habit sequences “chunking.” While learning new routines requires the brain’s executive functions in the prefrontal cortex, once they become “chunked” as habits they are stored in the an area called the basal ganglia—like an internal hard drive where they can be called up as needed. This frees the prefrontal cortex to learn new things and make conscious decisions when needed.
As noted earlier, “expend enough willpower by tackling difficult tasks or resisting temptation and eventually your willpower reserves run dry,” writes Dyck (p.92). “You can build your willpower. You can be strategic about how you use it. But ultimately you only have so much. That’s where habits help. Once a behavior becomes encoded as a habit, it no longer requires effort” (p.97).
Bet on Habits Every Time
“Whether it’s resisting temptation or following through on a promise of completing a difficult task, bet on habits every time,” Dyck says. “Habits are so powerful they can even override our conscious choices” (98). Dyck cites business guru Tim Ferris who said, “I value self-discipline. But creating systems that make it next to impossible to misbehave is more reliable than self-control.” Pastor John Ortberg states it bluntly: “Habits eat willpower for breakfast.”
“If habits are truly powerful,” Dyck says, “the key to living a holy life isn’t simply to out-battle temptation at every turn. It’s to build righteous patterns into your life. it’s achieved through habits” (p.98-99).
“…Experiencing transformation takes more than mere information,” Dyck notes. “You could study the violin for years, read up on the instrument’s history, and develop a sophisticated understanding of its mechanics. Yet if you never picked one up, you’d still be a lousy violinist. All of your knowledge wouldn’t mean squat. In a similar way even the most accurate, in-depth understanding of spiritual truth won’t produce change in and of itself. It must be internalized and put into action” through forming new habits (p.103).
The famous nineteenth-century American psychologist Williams James said, “All our life so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Forming New Habits with the Habit Loop
Today scientists analyze habits in terms of the “Habit Loop.” The loop consists of three parts or steps: a “cue” which is the trigger that tells your brain which routine to use, a “routine” which is the behavior that follows the cue, and a “reward” which is a positive stimulus that tells your brain the routine works well. The key to changing a habit is not trying to eliminate it—it is already wired into the brain—but to replace it with a new modified habit.
Dyck confesses that, like many other people, at social events he tends to eat too much unhealthy food. It alleviates social anxiety and gives us something to do with our hands. “Understanding the habit loop has helped me tackle my bad habit of eating too much in social situations. I can’t eliminate this cue from my life…. But now when I’m in social situations, I try to come in with a plan…. I decide beforehand how much I’ll allow myself to eat. Another trick I employ is to chew gum. It gives me something to do with my mouth. And since I’d have to spit it out to eat, it’s often enough to prevent me from starting” (p.125).
Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg suggests, for example, “if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book).
Introduce New Habits One At a Time for Best Success
Dyck suggests, “If you’re trying to build new habits in your life, introduce them one at a time. Don’t start a diet the same day you begin running….This may feel counterintuitive…. Unfortunately our enthusiasm to make sweeping changes guarantees we’ll fail to make any. So rather than trying to create multiple habits at once, focus son creating one habit at a time. Once you’ve established on healthy habit, then yes your replenished willpower to move on and create another” (p.127-128).
“How long does it take to form a habit?” Dyck asks (p.131). “The most common answer is twenty-one days.” But this refers to simple tasks. For more complicated habit formation, an average of 66 days has been identified through research.
“Habits are hard,” he acknowledges. “They’re not shortcuts or life hacks. Yes, eventually they enable us to live better lives without exhausting our willpower, but they start with a burst of effort. Our brains are lazy. Our wills are weak. Our nature is bent. Even if we employ all the approaches outlined above, it still takes sweat and struggle and striving to break the inertia of your old ways of doing things and move in a new direction” (p. 136).
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