By Levi Riven
Self-control is hard. It takes effort to delay gratification—to override your immediate urges for the sake of your long-term goals.
Self-control is also critical for success. No matter your objective—loosing weight, earning a college degree, or starting a business—self-control is necessary for securing the future that you envision for yourself.
But what if you are someone who struggles with self-control, someone who succumbs to the impulse to snack, procrastinate, and spend? Are you locked into a lifetime of giving in? Are you destined for a future marked by poor health, underachievement, and debt? Or is self-control something you can develop, a kind of skill that you can sharpen with the right tools?
Like any important question, there are compelling arguments on both sides, but the research shows that indeed people can get better at self-control, and I’d like to teach you at least one strategy for doing so. It’s called reframing and it works by simply changing the way you think about your choices.
On some level, all goal-driven actions are based on a choice between “gratification now” versus “waiting for a larger reward”. Eat that calorie-rich dessert or maintain your long-term fitness goals. Spend your income on a flashy new possession or save for retirement. Binge-watch your favourite TV-show or study and ace your upcoming exam.
This is why psychologists often measure self-control by asking people to choose between two kinds of payments—one that they can spend right away, or a slightly larger one that they can earn if they wait.
For example, would you rather receive:
A. $100 right now
B. $110 in two weeks
There are literally hundreds of studies examining people’s responses to this type of question and the findings are clear. People who go for option A—the immediate payoff—are more likely to be overweight, in debt, and have poor grades. People who choose to wait for more money, option B, have better health, higher educational attainment, and more successful jobs.
Now while it’s probably obvious that self-control is what separates B-people from A-people, the more important question here is what causes this difference in self-control? What inner forces drive B-people to delay gratification and reap the benefits of a healthier, wealthier future, while A-people sacrifice it all for a quick fix?
Framing is all about how information is organized in your mind—in other words, framing is the way you think about a problem or situation. When it comes to choosing between “gratification now” or “waiting for a future reward”, there are different ways to frame your options. And this framing will dictate which option you choose.
People who continuously exercise self-control, B-people, frame their options in a specific way. Not only do they consider what they stand to gain, they also consider what they stand to lose. In other words, they think more broadly.
Let’s look at the same decision problem from earlier, but this time, with a slight reframe:
Would you rather receive:
A. $100 right now and $0 in two weeks
B. $0 right now and $110 in two weeks
Notice that the bottom-line here is exactly the same as the problem I showed you earlier. Both offer $100 now or $110 in two weeks. But this version includes more information—it shows you the zeros.
Here’s another look at the two frames side-by-side:
Frame 1 is narrow. It shows you ONLY what you stand to gain. Frame 2 is broad. It shows you what you stand to gain AND what you stand to lose.
What is most interesting about this reframe is that the zeros don’t actually add or subtract value to either option. They’re zeros. They’re worth nothing. The two frames offer exactly the same payments at exactly the same times. And yet, the research shows that people choose differently when the zeros are exposed: They chose to delay gratification. They exercise self-control. They become B-people.
Even more remarkable, these zeros actually change how our brains react to the choices. When the frame is narrow—when all we see is what we stand to gain—the reward pathway in our brains become highly reactive, and drive us to indulge. When the frame is broad—and we also see what we stand to lose—the same reward pathway goes still. We become, in effect, less excitable. We can see the long-term effects of our actions more clearly, and this changes our choices for a better future.
Now, I get that these decision problems are a little abstract. Nobody is ever going to offer you free money now or in two weeks. So how can you apply reframing in your own life? How can you uncover the zeros in practical problems like procrastination or binging?
After all, the zeros are not always obvious. And when they are, there are many different kinds of zeros happening at different times. Binge eating, for instance, can lead to (1) feeling bloated a few moments later, (2) loss of energy a few days later, and (3) health complications a few years later. How can you reframe your choices when there are so many different components?
Remember, the trick is just to think more broadly—to uncover at least one or two zeros that you tend to overlook. The next time you reach for that tub of Cherry Garcia, ask yourself an explicit A-versus-B question.
But instead of asking narrowly, like this:
Should I eat ice cream or baby carrots?
Ask broadly, like this:
Should I eat ice cream now and feel bloated and sluggish later,
should I eat baby carrots and feel healthier and energetic later?
By filing in the gaps in your thinking, reframing helps to dampen your emotional reactions, and this makes self-control a much easier choice.
The take-home message is straightforward: It is true that we are not all endowed with the same capacity for self-control. There are indeed A-people and B-people—those who repeatedly succumb to their immediate impulses, and those who are unrelenting paragons of self-discipline. But impulsiveness is not a life sentence. Self-control can be developed with the right strategies. And your ability to delay gratification can be boosted by changing the way you think about your options.
Levi Riven is a therapist at the MindSpace Clinic. He uses cognitive-behavioural therapy to help clients change unwanted thinking patterns, build resilience to distress, enhance motivation and productivity, and find greater fulfillment from work and relationships.