The Art of Self Control

When someone finds out I’m vegan and I rarely eat junk food a common question seems to be “how do you do it?” In other words, “how do you stay away from foods that aren’t vegan and aren’t going to kill you of heart disease in 20 years?”

Tangent: I’d like to live forever. I used to think saying that was just silly wishful thinking; until this past weekend. Check out the genius inventor/thinker/visionary/scientist Ray Kurzweil and his book (co-authored with Terry Grossman) called Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. It is blowing my mind. I guarantee just the first 10 pages will blow your mind as well. :)

I don’t have perfect self control. Sure, I believe my will power is strong, but if I’m hungry and you put a bag of greasy, deep-fried french fries in my face I will probably eat them.

My solution is easy:u00c2u00a0I don’t put deep-fried french fries or other junk in my face. Meaning, I don’t buy that type of garbage and store it in my refrigerator and as much as I can help it, I don’t go to junky fast food restaurants. Out of sight, out of mind. No possibility, no temptation.

I don’t have to, nor do I want to, rely on self control. If you were to look at the food in my apartment right now you would find absolutely nothing that tests temptation. Beans, quinoa, rice, bananas, apples, spinach, tomatoes, almonds, oatmeal, and my emergency ration of protein bars (I usually take 1 with me when I leave the house). That’s not to say this is all I eat (quinoa/beans/spinach/tomatoes = an awesome dinner, btw!), but when I go grocery shopping (~3 times/week) I don’t stop at the cookies and crap aisle, or even in the frozen foods aisle. Again, I don’t give temptation a chance.

The Art of Self Control Is That There Is No Such Thing As Self Control

My point is, we don’t have self control. It’s not a common trait amongst humans and you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who truly has self control. And so the best way to deal with self control issues is to get rid of the situation that makes them possible.

Sometimes I’ll think to myself, “man, I sure wouldn’t mind eating a bag of potato chips right now.” Since they’re not readily available the craving goes away. If it’s a craving that lasts a long time I use what I call radical indulgence and force it out of my system.

I’ve used the following example before, but back when I had cable TV I used to leave my TV on all day. 12 hours/day or more. Sure it would only be on “in the background” but how often would I stop what I was working on and watch? How often would I get distracted, lose focus, and get out of the zone? Far too often. So I cancelled in 2006. My TV didn’t receive any free stations. Problem solved. If I wanted to watch TV I’d have to visit a friend or rent/buy DVDs. Much more inconvenient than just hitting that “on” button. These days, with Hulu and Netflix and whatever else, it’s much more difficult to simply “cancel TV.” It’s available on our laptops, on our phones, on our MP3/video players. If watching too much becomes a problem how do you stop? Get rid of the devices/apps or use one of the many programs that will block your access to certain websites and you’re golden.

Extreme Problem, Easy Solution

If the problem is extreme then quitting and canceling everything and completely avoiding certain stores (or sections of stores) seems like an extreme solution. But it’s not. When you’re honest with yourself it’s the easy solution. Just check out what Michael Martine did to quit an addiction. Many people aren’t honest enough with themselves to realize they’re having a problem. The fact that you’re reading this will hopefully awaken you to the possibility that it’s OK if you don’t have self control, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself and take a few conscious steps to kicking self control’s ass.

The Avoidance Strategy Can Be Used For Countless Situations

Maybe you keep going back to a girl/guy that you know is wrong for you. Cut ‘em off. Maybe you’ve been drinking too much, too often. Don’t stock your fridge and avoid nightlife that is focused around drinking. Maybe you’re trying to save money for a trip around the world, but you go shopping and waste it all. Choose a different commuting path and block the sites you love spending money on. (Here’s a quick list: amazon.com, etsy.com, ebay.com, woot.com)

Tangent: I’m still amazed at how often I overhear conversations at coffee shops / restaurants in which somebody loudly complains about not having money. I know I can’t be the only person who recognizes the stupidity of that situation. I know it’s tough, but avoidance doesn’t have to be forever. Stop going to places that quickly waste away your last $15 until you’ve figured out a plan to actually pay for life’s happy little indulgences.

How about you? What do you do when you’re faced with the challenges of self control?

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{ 39 comments }

Sarah

I’m vegan too :) Once I took the time to educate myself about what animals endure in the meat, dairy, and egg industries it became very easy to say no to those foods. Like, ridiculously easy. And this is from someone who was hopelessly addicted to sweets. Love your advice and totally agree with it.

Karol

I’m with you Sarah. That’s what prompted me to stop eating animal products as well. Knowledge is power. It takes a sociopath to know about the devastation that animals go through and not take action to stop it.

Michael Martine

Thanks for the mention, Karol, and great post. It’s true people have money for what they want (coffee, cigarettes, beer, porcelain figurines, WoW, whatever).

I read something not too long ago that the very notion of “self-control” was outdated and even detrimental to any real progress, because what we’re really talking about here is impulse control.

The difference is more than semantic because we can be trained to watch for and mitigate impulses as they arise.

Karol

Ahh, impulse control. That’s a great point. I also think that’s why avoidance works well for me. I can’t take action on the impulse if it’s inconvenient.

paurullan

Lately I find myself in this kind of train of thought. Beyond if free will exists I surely doubt in any power of my own willpower, thus I avoid «temptations» as much as I can. This behavior can be put on most of our needs and fears but one I love to work on is what Leo Babauta’s ZenHabits talks about the «One goal per day». That way I put myself on the fast track for the day on do have to think about it. No hesitation, no procrastination, awesome stuff!

Karol

Thanks Pau. The one goal per day is great to get the day off to a good start. I don’t use anything like that anymore, but I know it helped me in the past.

Paul

I take the zen approach. Let the craving come and don’t feel or think one way or another about it. Don’t act on it. Recognize that it is there then it eventually goes away. Let it come, let it go. For work, I take the kaizen approach. Just do anything in the day to work towards your goal or improve on something (a website?). Do a little thing every day. That way you don’t get overwhelmed.

Karol

Perfect. Thank you Paul. Recognize it’s there, let it be, let it go. :)

I’m with you on Kaizen as well! Recently mentioned that in an article. :)

Randall

This is one of the most inspiring post I have read from you. I always love it when you talk about being vegan. And the whole avoidance thing is a great way to walk away from addictions.
I see people addicted to sweets and the like. If they are not in the house then you can’t eat them! Out of sight out of mind..

Karol

Thanks Randall! So glad to know you’re into this one. :)

Roy Naim

Two burgers, two hot dogs, a bit of fries, some cole slaw and I will take that steak as well and go for second in a few minutes…

Can’t I have self control I asked myself?

In my journey of losing weight, this question popped into my head over and over again. And the answer, no I cannot.

People always talk about having the middle ground, a balance in life, but hell with it. We humans forever have been always on one side of the scale. We always say this or that but rarely both.

In regards to food, I love how all the healthy people say “moderation is key” and when you go watch what they eat, they don’t have anything unhealthy on their plate. Of course I am sure, myself included, that we do indulge here and there (and that is not moderation, it is an extreme), but in essence, we are on one side of the scale.

It is like anything in life, unless something is a “must”, it won’t happen. We all know we want to. We need to. We even know how. But until we find ourselves on one side of the scale…we won’t do it.

And all these are in regards to habits. You say to remove the obstacle from you and that is certainly one way on doing it. Other ways is, well, to repulse yourself to the habit (or extremely pleasurable). My father stopped smoking over 9 years ago because he came to a point where smoking was repulsive to him. I started eating healthy, well, because the being skinny part was extremely pleasurable for me more than the eating unhealthy food.

However, on traits, I do believe there are certain traits where we do have to find the middle ground. The need to be humble and yet know one’s value. Strict but loose. Kind but not pushover. And so on.

One just got to know oneself and not lie to themselves about their own behaviors and habits.

Karol

Hey Roy, repulsion works as well. hehe Although I’m not sure I’ve ever been repulsed by any of my habits so not sure that would work in every instance.

This was very wel put: “We all know we want to. We need to. We even know how. But until we find ourselves on one side of the scale…we won’t do it.”

Roy Naim

Well Karol, you sort of do it with the soda binge every so often…

And thanks for pointing that part out, sometime we often say things and we even read them and reread them over and over but until someone else point it out to you, you don’t realize that you got a good line. :)

Karol

Ahh, right! Radical indulgence to the point of repulsion. It’s a little different, but definitely on a similar track. :)

mike crosby

I used to be vegan, but I backslide.

Your idea is simple, and profound. Don’t have the temptation in front of you. But first I’d have to get rid of my wife.

So what do I do–no potato chips in the cupboard or no wifey in bed?

Rosa

“Your idea is simple, and profound. Don’t have the temptation in front of you. But first I’d have to get rid of my wife.” Funny!! but probably not the best solution :(

Karol

Hmm, I’m going to stay quiet on this one. :)

Rosa

I called it something else but, I have been practicing Radical Indulgence for years.
People comment at how good I am at self control when it comes to food, but I never thought I was. This post made me realize that, really what I do good at is avoiding temptation (for the most part).
So while my co-workers go get McDonalds every other day and complain that they can’t loose wait, I will sit here and eat my beans that I made myself pack last night :)

Karol

Thanks Rosa. I’ve felt that people give me to much credit for self control as well, hence writing this article. :) Congrats on using indulgence and avoidance well!

Miss P.

I do eat junk food, sometimes. If I do, though, I chose it consciously. From an avoidance standpoint I do get it, don’t tempt yourself and you don’t need self control. But what about commitments that we made and now are totally bored with, things we should be doing but aren’t?

Karol

If you’re bored with something you can quit. If it’s something you should be doing but aren’t then it’s actually something that you shouldn’t be doing. Unless that means brushing your teeth or something like that, in which case I say just do it. :)

Laurie

I’ve found that avoiding food temptations only works if I never spend time with other people…and that’s not an option I care to pursue. I think the popular slant on self-control is that it’s all about fighting with ourselves to keep from doing stuff we know we’d be better off without. I recently stopped eating desserts, and the temptations are everywhere in my world, but I look at it as a choice…eat too much sugar and feel like crap, or choose other kinds of treats, like fruit, and feel healthy. It’s a no-brainer. :) No fighting with myself, just looking at the choices and choosing the best one.
Is that not self-control viewed in a more positive light?

Karol

Hey Laurie, there are a lot of options of avoidance that don’t mean avoiding people. That is, eat immediately before you see them. And then even if you do eat some junk when you’re with them it won’t be as much. That said, you have to do what works for you and it seems like you’re all good. Most people can’t make the logical best choice (I have trouble with this as well). :)

Tom Brownsword

What many people don’t realize is that we are “wired’ to do things habitually. Hence you cannot simply “remove” a habit; you have to replace it with something else.

Take your vegan diet as an example (yes, I need to get back to it for many reasons, and I love your “quiet activism”, Karol). I’m sure it replaced a SAD (Standard American Diet) one, so you replaced one diet with another. And while I think this might be an obvious statement, your plan would have failed had you simply stopped eating bad food… And now that you do it all the time and make plans so that you’re not tempted by a bag of fries, it’s not a problem.

It’s easy to say that it takes “discipline” to establish a new habit, but the simple truth is that it just takes consistent action to do so. And “action” goes against our favorite habit: Inertia…

Best regards,
Tom

Karol

Thanks for bringing that up Tom. In the beginning I replaced the SAD with a vegan SAD. It was still junk food, just not cruel to animals. After I read about the health benefits of eating whole foods is when I finally made that switch. And I don’t mean to say I don’t eat junk. Last week I ate more junk than I’ve eaten for a long time. I don’t beat myself up over it because my diet is skewed to whole foods. I’ve made it a habit (ding!) to shop in the produce section and not elsewhere. :) In the beginning it can be difficult. But eventually, as you rid your body of all the garbage you eat, you don’t crave the garbage as often. These machines we embody and how they work are beautiful pieces of art, aren’t they? :)

Rasheed Hooda

Hey Karol,

I quit smoking three times, and every time I did it, I did it cold Turkey. It’s been 27 years since I had my last smoke. Same for drinking alcohol. I had a friend of mine ask me when he would be able to see the picture of him that I took. I told him I never took his picture. He said were you that drunk that you don’t even remember? I insisted I never took his picture, until the roll of film (this was 27 years ago, remember?) came back, and there it was.

I love photography, and for me not to remember it was more painful than the pleasure I’d got from drinking. So, it was a no-brainer. I figured if I was going to quit one vice, must as well let others go too. So off went ciggies and joints. I am still working on overcoming the lung damage, but it is a whole lot better than what it used to be.

So, yeah, it’s not about will power or self control, it is about making choices and setting priorities.

Now if I can only set being healthy to be a priority over enjoying massive amounts of food…

Rasheed

Karol

Kick ass! Thanks for sharing Rasheed. :) 27 years is enough time to overcome a lot of lung damage. :) And you’re right, it is about making choices and setting priorities as much as anything else. In the paraphrased words of Henry Rollins “pick the weight up off the mat or don’t.”

Elisa

I am constantly irritated by the “I don’t have money but I drink high-priced coffee/bar drinks all the time.” I am not one of those personal finance “Well, if you just cut out your daily Starbucks you could retire w/millions” people. I AM however, one of those “If you have a problem then do something about it, don’t whine at me” people.

So if you are going to complain about your money issues to me, then actually be attentive to where your money is going. If you are going to whine about your unhappiness with your current fitness/health, then stop eating crappy food and take a walk every now and again. It’s not always a complete self-control issue. Sometimes it’s just a “frigging do something about it then” issue.

Karol

Hehe, truer words haven’t been spoken: “Sometimes it’s just a “frigging do something about it then” issue.”

Colleen

Great post! I often ask my Vegan friends how they avoid cravings in a very Vegan-unfriendly area (there is actually a billboard nearby that says “real humans eat red meat” bold. tragic. hilarious.). They often ask me how I managed to loose 120 lb. without any “dieting”. It is funny that we all try and figure out each others secrets…when in reality the answer is the same. I think everyone’s secret is consciousness. Regardless of what or how much we choose to eat making deliberate decisions, however drastic they may seem, is vital.

For example, I have a disturbing desire to eat french fries when I am w/in scent distance of McDonalds, but after years of eating fast food (and feeling terrible) I decided that while their products are edible I do not view them as “food”. For me focusing is easier when I am very conscious of the motivation behind my decisions.

Also, I love your post on radical indulgence. I have never placed limits on what I eat and in some ways that is a radical idea while trying to loose a mass amount of weight. By indulging in what my body (not my mind) naturally wants I find that I mostly crave things like asparagus and berries. When I do have a craving for something like potato chips or chocolate I find having even a small amount in the house makes the temptation at the grocery and the actual indulgence far less (ha. there might be Y2K undertones there). Plus, I find most of my cravings tell me something else important, like my cravings for chocolate usually go away when I am getting enough Magnesium. (although, I’m not sure what a Mr. Thunder craving would mean…;). It is all about finding a system, however extreme, that works for you.

Karol

Thanks Colleen. You make a good point as far as finding a system. I’m a big fan of systems. (I write about that on the Mind Control Method page.) They make it easier for us to make difficult decisions without giving in to temptation.

Rob

I love transparency. That is why I’m a fan of your blog, Karol. Avoiding negative things and situations is half the battle. Celebrating victories and using them as momentum. Thanks Bro.

Karol

Thanks Rob. Glad you got something out of this. :)

Frank Paino

Hey Karol,

I loved this post. One of your best yet. But I do take strong exception to the remark you made to Sarah on the topic of being vegan. You wrote, “It takes a sociopath to know about the devastation that animals go through and not take action to stop it.”

That is grossly unfair and untrue. Sociopaths are severely mentally ill and deranged. Accusing people who know about the abuse endured by some animals and who still choose to eat meat is over-the-top. Yes, I eat meat. And yes, I am aware of animal abuse. For one thing, I don’t believe all animals are abused…though I readily acknowledge the problem is rampant. For another, I believe humans are omnivores by nature (through evolution) and that there is plenty of science to support the healthfulness of eating meat. But I am not here to debate that and I wholeheartedly respect your choice.

It troubles me that you imply the only solution to animal abuse is to stop eating animals. If I could raise my own cattle and slaughter the cows myself, I would do that. I would care for the animals and give them the respect due to them, and slaughter them painlessly. Of course, that is not possible, so as a person who chooses to eat meat (and who believes it is healthy and natural to do so) I am left with no option but to eat meat from animals that may have been abused.

I do what I can to try and select products that are at least alleged to be taken from animals that were treated humanely. PETA has a campaign right now to try and get McDonald’s (a corporation which I detest by the way) to kill chickens in a more humane manner. I support that and do what I can in as many ways as I can to get legislation in order to stop the torture and mistreatment of animals.

That being said, humans are animals and plenty of animals kill and eat other animals. It is natural. Abuse is not. But please don’t judge me and others by calling us sociopaths for choosing to eat meat. You may vehemently disagree with that decision, but saying we are deranged is neither true or fair.

Thanks for considering this point, at any rate…and thanks for the great post! I love your blog!

Karol

Hey Frank,

Thanks for your thoughts. The only way to truly “get legislation in order to stop the torture and mistreatment of animals” is to not support the industry (factory farming) that believes sociopathic behavior (rape and torture) is OK. The vast majority of the meat that the vast majority of people eat comes from factory farms. That food is very easily avoided. It’s not the easy choice, but who said saving humanity was easy?

Karol

Jeff

I’m doing that now with food. I even try to stay out of the middle aisles in the grocery store because that’s where my friend and enemy sugar resides.

I also did the same thing with my cable a few years ago. Even though I was only watching for an hour or two per night, I felt like there were so many other things I could be doing. After I canceled my cable service, I was SO much more productive at night.

Karol

Kick ass Jeff! :)

Monica

Hey Karol!
This whole thing about self-control seems to be a myth! I hear that it’s got something to do with identifying triggers and then eliminating them with supportive behaviors. Who does that? And how deep do I have to dig to find those little suckers anyway?

Just having come off of the conformist grid, I have a whole heap of knots to get out of my rope. How’s that for transparency? I wonder when will I be ready for prime-time? Right now I just have to find a time restricting program so I can stay off of FB and Twitter long enough to become productive. Oh, one that won’t store my info somewhere off in limbo until ready for their use.

So much for actually achieving self-control. And, I also have to say that I have never indulged in anything enough to be repulsed. Does that mean that I have an unusually high tolerance for things or did I just quit too soon?

Seriously though, maybe when I get the internet addiction under control, I can go out for a ride in my car again. When I get another one. I followed your other advice and am traveling (?) a lot lighter now.

Karol

Hi Monica, if I can be honest I’m very confused by your comment. :) As for staying off FB and Twitter. There’s an app called self control for Mac that will let you block them. There is also a Firefox browser extension called Leechblock that will do it as well.

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