2003 was not a good year for me. It was the year that I turned 30, separated from my first husband, and lived in near-constant dread of not finding a job before my postdoctoral funding ran out. I coped badly with the end of my marriage and the uncertainty of my career. I ate whatever I wanted, gave up completely on exercising, and rapidly packed on the pounds. I went out most nights to bars with friends and drank a bit too much. Some days I slept until noon. My apartment was a mess. My work suffered. I spent money impulsively, thinking new clothes and dinner at fancy restaurants would make me feel better, and blew right through my savings. It was the lowest point in my life, and I was miserable.
Eventually, having hit bottom, I began the slow crawl back up again. Oddly enough, that change began when I brought home a 10-week old puppy. Lucy is a Miniature Schnauzer, and anyone familiar with the breed, or with terriers in general, knows that the little buggers are very demanding dogs. Lucy required a lot of me – regular walks, house-breaking, grooming, feeding, playing, and eternal vigilance to prevent the destruction of yet another of my prized possessions when I wasn’t looking (Lucy is a chewer – my shoes, books, and coffee table were her favorites). Since I was living in an apartment in New York City, she had to be walked several times a day in order to do her doggie business. This typically started at around 5am – quite a change from my usual habit of trying to get up before lunch.
The long and short of it is, I was exercising a lot of self-control in order to care for this dog. It took effort, it took planning, and it took a whole lot of patience. The first few weeks were incredibly difficult, mostly because I had grown so unaccustomed to being responsible for anything. But as time passed, it started getting easier. I got used to my new routines, and after a while getting up at 5am didn’t seem nearly so hard. The funny thing is, other aspects of my life started improving as well. I stopped going out so much, started eating better, and rejoined the gym. My apartment was looking cleaner (despite Lucy’s best efforts to redecorate), my laundry pile was shrinking, and my bank statements grew less terrifying. I clipped coupons, I looked for sales. My work improved – I was publishing papers again, generating new ideas, speaking at conferences. I interviewed for and was offered a professorship at Lehigh University. And shortly after my 31st birthday, I met my future husband (ok, that one I can’t really take credit for, other than for recognizing a good thing when I see it.)
I’m telling you all this because I think that year in my life nicely illustrates something about the nature of self-control. In the beginning of this book, I introduced you to the idea of the self-control muscle. Just like the muscles in your body, your capacity for self-control dwindles when you don’t exercise it. When I turned 30 and my marriage fell apart, I basically put my self-control on bed rest, and it atrophied. When the time came and I needed to rely on my self-control again to care for a new puppy, it was much like returning to the gym after a years-long absence - it hurt like hell and I was easily winded. Then, as I exercised my self-control each day, by sticking to my new routines, it started getting stronger. With that new strength, I found I could start tackling my other challenges and get my life back on track.
I am not, for the record, recommending that if you’re having trouble reaching your goals, you run out and buy a dog. There are lots of ways to strengthen your self-control muscle, and I’ll share with you some of the ones psychologists have tested in this chapter. It’s also important to remember that, like your bicep or tricep, your self-control muscle can get tired-out from exercise, leaving you vulnerable immediately after you’ve given it a workout. So you’ll need to know how you can help your self-control to bounce back after you’ve done something really taxing. You may also benefit from learning a few other strategies you can use to compensate in those moments when you’ve used up all your strength and can’t afford to wait for your second wind.
Want to learn more? Check out the paperback or e-book versions of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.