Wednesday, September 6, 2017
SELF-CONTROL FOR SELF-SUFFICIENCY
Beyond a certain threshold, the multiplication of commodities induces impotence, the incapacity to grow food, to sing or to build.
-Ivan Illich. The Right to Useful Unemployment.
Yes, temptations are getting more sophisticated, but so are the tools for resisting them.
-Roy Baumeister & John Tierney. Willpower. Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
The city is a spiritual place because it seems as though something is happening.
- unknown (my italics).
For the past four years I have been experimenting with findings from the recently burgeoning science of self control, also called willpower in popular writing and self-regulation in scientific texts. My main aim being to improve my self-reliance or "self-sufficiency" especially regarding my food garden. Overcoming my aversion to tedious, negative and lengthy tasks like weeding being the focus (I'm not bad at all aspects of gardening, I have around 200 little known edibles doing ok).
The results have been encouraging though not exactly in the way I expected. Based on my experience I'd say self-control techniques are worth considering for anyone interested in homestead or community self-reliance, or at least those who are having difficulties. It is my observation many people interested in self-sufficiency struggle to put sufficient time and effort into their garden, though inadequate knowledge of gardening is also often part of the problem. Perhaps self-control techniques should even be seen as tools essential to ecologically sound communities and practice, just like alternative or intermediate technology. (It's outside the scope of this essay, but probably related, professional farmers and horticulturists in New Zealand often fly in labor from poorer countries because, they say, locals can no longer do the work like they once could. I even recently heard a report that when recruiting in third-world counties efforts are made to find people from rural areas because the city slickers can't do physical work) .
Many of the usual external workplace motivators such as being paid or fired by the boss are absent when you are at home trying to be self-sufficient. I'm also sure in my particular case having a personality more suited to creative and exploratory mental pursuits than repetitive physical tasks is part of the reason for my difficulty with tasks like weeding, fifteen years of learning to sit on my backside in the education system may also have something to do with it.
But I place most of the blame on our industrial-consumer utopia where everything is (supposedly) done for you and you don't have to do anything for yourself. It is easier to buy food or eat out than grow it yourself (at least superficially in the short term). On top of this there is a barrage of other industrial products competing for our time and attention. These commodities and institutions, like TV, IT or transport, tend to win against autonomous activities like gardening because their great power is highly addictive, whatever their actual or intended benefits may be. Finally there are numerous unintended stressful side effects of these industrial "fixes" (like crowded commuting or greater inequality) that increase the craving for another "fix" over autonomous activities (6.7.8.).
The following are self-control techniques and insights I found especially useful in the garden. I am not a qualified expert in self-control, for greater depth and more techniques please see the references:
1. Know your limits. The first thing to know about self-control is it is limited, we only have so much. It is possible to increase your self-control capacity by using it, like exercising a muscle (1.2.), this seems to have given many the impression self-control can be increased enormously or even endlessly in anyone. However, sustained exercise of self-control places considerable strain on the body, possibly weakening the immune system if we don't take significant breaks (2 ). Overdoing willpower is also associated with "inhibition of emotional expression and authentic behavior"(4). Self-control to the complete exclusion of impulsivity would also mean eliminating the likes of creativity and sex, therefore probably causing the extinction of the human race.
It may have partly been the choice of the term "willpower" in popular books and some of their blurbs (requirements of canny publishers perhaps) that allowed many people, including me, to assume self-control might be another source of seemingly limitless power like petrol, nuclear or the net. Or perhaps lots more power at our service is simply what we've come to expect of all "true" scientific progress (my favorite example being a prominent economist enthusiastically suggesting self-control might make the economy many many times more productive). Based on present evidence it is not like that "expectations should be modest" (3). It is however likely you can do more of what what really matters to you and less of the rubbish by understanding and focusing your limited willpower.
2. Know when it's running out. Not only is it limited, self-control can also easily be depleted by using it to fight temptation, stress and other mental exertion such as making decisions, even just trying to make decisions (1.2.). Interestingly you are unlikely to notice your self-control is being depleted unless you have learned to. The only indicator researchers eventually discovered is that likable things seem more likable and nasty things seem nastier when your self-control is running out (1). I find it fascinating to monitor myself getting more annoyed or besotted with things as I go about different activities.
3. Re-fuel. The most famous and easy way of restoring depleted self-control is eating, sugary food for a quick boost, much more healthy food like vegetables, nuts, fruit or meat are slower to act but have a more sustained effect (1.2.). The physiological basis of self-control has been found to be glucose, food appears to restore glucose levels depleted by exercising self-control or certain other mental exertion, this depletion process is called "ego depletion" (1). As usual with science this explanation is still being tested but from a practical perspective I find it works remarkably well, though my personal experience could be explained by the placebo effect.
4. Order. Another tool I initially found hard to believe but now use constantly is tidiness. It has been found disorder or mess reduces self-control, order increases it (1). Sometimes disorder may be desirable, a bit of contemporary art on the weekend may help to loosen you up, but if you have a challenging task chaos will not help. I haven't come across an explanation for this, perhaps we use up a lot of mental energy trying to comprehend and find our way around mess and use up willpower keeping our cool. I've come to enjoy more tidiness in my home, I've also started making planting arrangements in the garden more monotonous, simple and orderly and I think this helps a lot, I also find it makes me feel good looking at it. Before I aimed for the avoidance of any pattern whatsoever in the garden to "rebel" against "straightness" but I think it made working harder and weeding and harvesting more messy and complicated.
5. Commune with nature. Possibly related to this is the finding that spending time with nature is good for self-control (2). I find spending time with nature seems to be good for my self-control, definitely my sanity. That would be somewhat tame natural situations that are not dangerous or deadly presumably (9). Perhaps the great beauty of natural ecosystems is a higher form of order so helps restore self control, perhaps getting away from the problems of society and seeing there is much more amazing stuff going on is another factor, I'm sure there are many.
6. Know your personality. Personality is a factor in self-control, some personality types have very high capacity for self-control, some very little, most are in the middle somewhere. Different personalities will be good at applying themselves to different activities and different self-control techniques will work for different personalities. Most psychologists now work with the five factor personality model (introversion-extroversion/ agreeableness-disagreeableness/ negative-positive emotionality/ open-closed minded/ high vs low conscientiousness). This model is not claimed to be completely perfect, some add the dark triad (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) vs empathy and other parameters. The relationship between self-regulation and personality is discussed in the paper 'Self-Regulation and the Five-Factor Model of Personality Traits' (3) a fascinating academic text.
Online personality tests may be useful in determining which self-control techniques are appropriate. For those very low in conscientiousness most self-control techniques probably won't help, only external assistance such as peer pressure offers much hope. If you are very "open" like me you may need to find ways of adding variety to tasks to stick at them (3). The possible combinations of personality traits is basically infinite so completely accurate predictions of what will work for you based on personality tests may never be possible, informed trial and error is necessary.
7. Framing is how you think about, look at or construe a task (5). There are many different ways of viewing the same task. This has been the single best technique for getting me weeding. I had a hunch I was unconsciously expecting gardening to be completely pleasant and nice, a romantic view of gardening, I didn't like the fact that I was having to compete with or fight some plants. So I simply said to myself "don't expect it to be pleasant or easy"... it worked, I was out there weeding, and it still works.
There is however evidence this goes against the grain of my personality in a big way placing a lot of strain on my self-control. I have become grumpy and even clumsy after using it a lot, completely out of character, (though admittedly for forcing myself into far more difficult tasks (for me) like meetings and parties not weeding) now I try not to overdo it.
8. Belief. Religious people usually show better self-control in experiments (1), most likely because they believe they are being watched by higher beings likely to reward or punish their actions, though they may also have greater social pressure and clearer moral codes than atheists. Conceivably genuinely religious people may be more humble (see 9) not so prone to believe we are the masters of the universe via science and technology.
Ironically science may have made the West less civilized by shaking belief in God. However, a number of Asian culture seem to do without religion and show exceptional self control, greater social pressure "loosing face" and an emphasis on humility may be their secret. For me Gaia (the biosphere as a whole) is probably the main "'god " that will reward or punish our actions as appropriate.
9. Humility. Egotism or very high self-esteem clearly reduces self-control to a potentially dangerous degree ( 188.8.131.52.) ( as with other threats to self-control, there is a time and place for limited egotism, in creativity or leadership for instance (10) although both these things are wildly overrated in the West at present in my opinion, in our hunger for novelty we seem to have forgotten the outcomes of creativity and leadership are just as likely to be catastrophic as miraculous. Also Brian Eno's remark "in the future everyone will be geniuses but the species will go extinct because there will be no waiters" sums up the direction we are heading, or trying to head, nicely. There would also be no gardeners but plenty of landscape designers) . Those presiding over social programs seem to have unintentionally promoted narcissism by trying to raise the self-esteem of the "underachieving" since the Sixties with disastrous consequences (1. 12. 13.). Similarly I suspect many businesses may have inadvertently ended up promoting narcissism because the impulsivity of narcissists makes them much easier to market to.
I suspect technological innovations giving us (at least the feeling and appearance of) ever more godlike powers goes to our head, and this is difficult or impossible to notice or question because "everyone" is doing it. I suspect technological power like being able to exchange data with anyone around the world, instantaneously with the slightest click makes me feel I'm way above mere mortal activities like gardening, certainly weeding!
Those of us interested in saving the world through the likes of self-sufficiency are also in danger of believing we are morally perfect and superior, which in the end is just another form of egotism with the usual reduction in self-control.
Presumably the counter-balance to this is to promote humility as most, if not all, enduring traditional societies have done. I have not actually come across self-regulation research directly promoting humility, but the final technique (10, below) helped. (Egotism is almost certainly an inescapable part of human nature. One might imagine it would be completely absent from an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society like the African !Kung people, but they "have evolved elaborate devices for puncturing the bubble of conceit and enforcing humility". Whether it's seeing oneself as very generous or very good at hunting they say "his pride will make him kill someone"(14). The difference seems to be we are increasingly encouraging arrogance as a virtue, calling it "self-esteem", they see it as an evil needing constant stamping out)*.
10. Know and Avoid Self-Control Threats. The most useful technique overall for me has actually been essentially the same as the one young children used in the famous willpower experiment known as the marshmallow test (2). Children were left in a room with a marshmallow and told if they didn't eat the marshmallow they would get two later on. The children who succeeded did so by finding a way of not looking at the marshmallow, they did not stare straight at it and resist the temptation to eat it as one might imagine someone with strong willpower would be able to do.
I discovered, entirely by accident, that this worked for me when I decided to move my art studio to my home and stop commuting by buses to a studio I'd had for years on the other side of the city. So now I was at home most of the time; without effort or thought I was suddenly out in the garden working, busy with all manner of projects, even weeding.
I think the city was like the marshmallow, as long as I was looking at it, experiencing its temptations, stressors and chaos, I was powerless, it was exhausting my willpower leaving me unable to garden. The interesting thing is I didn't realize going through the city was depleting my willpower because I liked going into town (and still do but less). The people and pigeons are fascinating, I find the general chaos and challenges of crowds entertaining and stimulating, up to a point, but disorder depletes willpower, it doesn't matter if you enjoy it or not. Walking past and through shops requires constant unconscious resisting of temptation which also depletes self-control (2), even if you love shopping. Traffic, inequality and expense would be more obvious negative stresses, at least for me.
Even city things that are normally regarded as signs of weak willpower such as observing the endless parade of sexually attractive people and frequenting bars may in some cases actually be seriously depleting willpower. You have to use willpower to resist doing something inappropriate or illegal when you look at seemingly countless potential sexual partners. Excessive alcohol consumption in a bar requires you "hold your piss" - New Zealand slang for keeping your self control, not acting like an idiot - or criminal - quite a feat of willpower I'd speculate. It is also almost unpatriotic not to drink excessively in many countries, at least some people may actually be using up limited willpower forcing themselves to do it.
It is interesting I was already using the marshmallow technique with my art studio, there was absolutely nothing to do there except art (I don't have a fancy phone). It did not surprise me that I did less art at home, no doubt because of all the distractions. I'm sure doing art was also taking a lot of willpower, doing less also almost certainly made it easier for me to garden.
What struck me about this realization was how humbling it was, it was clear to me how limited my self control capacity was. I couldn't do multiple superhuman tasks as I had hoped, I had to make sacrifices, big sacrifices in other areas to do what was most important to me. My ego was cut down to size and it felt right.
Ironically, although I now pull out weeds as soon as I see them as opposed to putting it off for weeks or even months, by which time they've become rampant, I decided in the end I was overrating weeding as a problem. The real benefit of delving into self control is I am spending more time in the garden doing a wide variety of things that mostly better suit my "open" personality such as obsessively trialing new species and approaches.
I actually found that when I thoroughly removed my most common weed (Tradescantia fluminensis, notorious here) from an area a fruit tree there died in a dry spell, it appears this "weed" was acting as a 'living mulch' holding in moisture. It also turns out to be edible ( 11) I now enjoy it often, as do some of my animals. This "weed" now seems quite valuable, just needing to be cut down to size regularly. So particular willpower goals are not always right and may need to be adjusted, they may even be overly ambitious because of the rampant egotism of our age.
I am now very aware of the self-control threats in my home, the TV, computer, radio and stereo, possibly even coffee, books, privacy, security and comfort. I noticed I worked all day in the garden when my computer died recently but I still rushed out to buy another one the next day. These threats will be my next challenge, not to eliminate them but to reduce their power, at least during the day. I might even try turning off the power to the house for some of the day so I can do more gardening and more art. There must have been a time when homes were centers of self-control and not addiction.
* Presumably the "happy medium" between egotism and humility; to have"average" overall self-esteem, is the way to be most of the time. The purpose of aiming for humility is presumably just to counterbalance our natural egotism, dragging self-esteem to what Aristotle defined as "the good"; the intermediate between extremes, or what Buddha might have called "the middle way".
Also believing you are humble can end up as an ego-trip, but that's another topic.
Self-Control Science References.
1. Willpower. Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength . Roy Baumeister & John Tierney 2011
2. The Willpower Instinct. How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It. Kelly McGonigal. 2012
3. Self-Regulation and the Five factor Model of Personality Traits. Robert McCrae & Corinna Lockenhoff pp145-168. Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation Edited by Rick H Hoyle 2014
4.Contantine Sedikides. Quoted Review. Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation Editied by Rick H Hoyle 2014
5. Framing: How you see things affects you more than you know. Noam Shpancer. www. psychologytoday.com 2010.
6. The Fix. How Addiction is Taking Over Your World. Damian Thompson. 2012
7. Shadow Work. Ivan Illich. 1981.
8. Tools for Conviviality. Ivan Illich. 1973.
9. The Wooing of Earth. New Perspectives on Man's use of Nature. Rene Dubos. 1980.
10. Emotional Vampires. Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry. Albert Bernstein. 2001. (Bernstein states egotism is a major, but not the only, source of creativity).
11. The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America. Nature's Green Feast. Francois Couplan. 1998.
12. The Narcissism Epidemic. Living in the Age of Entitlement. Jean Twenge &.K. Campbell. 2009.
13. Evil. Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Roy Baumeister. 1997.
14. Poilitics, sexual and non-sexual, in an egalitarian society. Richard Lee. Politics and History in Band Societies. 1982.
Other noted self-control books not referred to in text
Handbook of Self-regulation Ed K Vohs & R Baumeister 2011 (academic text)
How to Get Things Done D Allen 2001 (popular)
Changepower! Meg Selig 2010 (general reader)
Making Habits, Breaking Habits J Dean 2013 (general reader)
Possibly the best research and writing on self-control is yet to come, worth keeping an eye out.