The Art and Psychology of Self-Control

One of the most difficult aspects of personal finance – for me, at least – is the art of self-control. I have always found it difficult to just say “no” to my spending temptations.

For many years, I’ve found success in putting up barriers. This works, to a large extent. By making it more difficult for me to give into a temptation, I’m forced to spend some time actually thinking about that purchase, which is enough to usually get me to say “no” to that temptation.

What do I mean by barriers? I’ll delete login information from my web browser and credit card information from websites. I’ll leave my wallet at home or in the vehicle when I know I’m going into a place full of temptations. I’ll use a shopping list and choose to shop when I’m at my sharpest. Even things like having a “money free weekend” or a “money free week” are simply barriers against bad choices.

Those barriers keep me from being in situations where I might fail at self-control, but they don’t actually create self-control. They’re helpful, don’t get me wrong, but all of the barriers in the world can’t keep me from making a dumb decision in the heat of the moment.

Lately, I’ve been working on self-control strategies to make this kind of short-term self-control easier. I’ve found three that have really helped.

Visualizing something less tempting This requires a bit of recognition in advance that I might be tempted, but it works shockingly well. The idea borrows from one of the most well known studies in modern psychology, the Mischel “marshmallow” study. In it, the psychologists discovered that children found it much easier to keep themselves from eating marshmallows if they visualized them as something else.

In fact, that’s exactly what I do. When I know I’m entering into a tempting situation, I strive to imagine the things I might want as something non-tempting or even negative. When I go into a bookstore, for example, I find it a lot easier to not buy books if I visualize negative experiences I’ve had with them, like a nasty paper cut I once received or the most boring book I’ve ever read. My goal isn’t to destroy the appeal of books, but to simply reduce it in the short run. I simply think of those books in a less-tempting light.

This works well for pretty much everything as long as I recognize the potential for temptation ahead of time.

When you know you’re about to be tempted, think of the negative attributes of those things that would tempt you. Load your mind up with them so that when you see the temptation, you don’t actually see the pleasurable aspects. You see the negatives, at least for that moment.

Thinking about core values What are the things I believe in the most? What are the things I value the most in my life?

I value my family. I value my children’s future and my own future. I value individual freedom to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others. I value helping others and a community spirit.

Strangely enough, I’ve found that reflecting on those key values during the day makes it easier to avoid temptation in tempting moments. I feel much stronger about the things I truly hold dear and the lesser things just naturally pale in comparison. My desire for a treat pales in comparison to the other things I hold dear in life, and when those key things are foremost in my mind, the little things slip away.

Spend some time each day reflecting on the things you truly hold dear in your life and the values you truly cherish in your heart. It makes it easier for lesser things to just fade out of your mindset.

Setting simple non-material rewards Another tactic that’s worked well is setting a simple reward for myself for successfully navigating tempting situations.

For example, the last three times I’ve gone to the grocery store, I made myself a simple pledge. If I came home with nothing that wasn’t on my list (or a necessary list substitute), I would allow myself an hour to just read for pleasure. I deeply enjoy reading, but I typically only do it in the evenings before bed, so doing it in the middle of the afternoon can be a real treat.

Carrying that idea of a reward in the back of my mind made it much easier to skip out on the treat. I actually spent much of each shopping trip thinking about the book I was reading and so whenever I was tempted, I immediately made the connection between reading and putting that temptation back.

Look for some simple non-material rewards you can give yourself – like reading for an hour or watching a movie or playing a video game – to encourage walking away from impulsive situations.

These tactics, in concert, have done wonders in helping me skate right through some tempting situations in the last month or so. Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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