Trouble Controlling Unwanted Behavior - Two Powerful Ways to Improve Self-control

            How often do we think of doing something that would be good for us, but procrastinate, or simply don’t do it?  Or, conversely, how often do we recognize the damage inherent in particular behaviors but persist in them anyway?  Even though missionaries generally have a reputation for being self-disciplined, they are not immune from this human tendency.  Whether it’s struggling to consistently get up on time, a missionary with obsessive thoughts that need to be managed, or someone who simply too often takes the easy way out; the need for self-discipline is a challenge for most missionaries.

            Fortunately, there are a number of things that can be done to improve self-discipline.  The two suggested here are often overlooked; but they can be particularly effective. First, it helps to remember in real time that I “want to” do this, not I “have to”.  Thinking about a task in terms of “have to” can rob us of natural motivation.  For example, suppose that someone put a gun to my head and forced me to put 30 pounds of equipment on my back and walk 20 miles.  I would likely hate every step of the way.  But if I chose to do the very same thing, it could be a pleasant outing.  Thinking that we have no choice can also encourage a feeling of rebellion.  And it can take away personal responsibility (it’s him/them forcing this, not me); along with any sense of personal accomplishment when a goal is achieved.

           Plus, thinking of a task in terms of “have to” just isn’t that motivating for most of us.  Sister Baxter wants to be an effective, obedient missionary.  As part of that, she very much wants to get up on time each morning.  Unfortunately, as her alarm goes off, she typically thinks something like, “Oh no, I have to get up. But I’m so tired. I need my rest. I’ll just relax here for a few more minutes.”  Too often it’s then an hour or more before she finally gets up.

           Apparently Sister Baxter didn’t have to get up on time after all; and thinking that she did was not very motivating. She would have been much more likely to get up if she had thought, “I’m so tired, but I really want to get up. I want to be obedient. I want to get on with my day”.  We sometimes focus on the action and not so much on the thought underlying the action.  In other words, we focus on what we intend to do or should do maybe in Sacrament Meeting or at some point during the day; but then at the point of decision, we don’t think in ways that support that goal.

           On one side of the equation, there were several good reasons why Sister Baxter wanted to sleep in.  The last thing she wanted was to forsake her warm, comfortable bed for the reality of her day.  She could also point to the need to be rested in order to function at her best later.  But at a deeper level, there were many good reasons why she wanted to get up.  She wanted the blessings dependent on obedience, getting up late interfered with study time and other important things, she wanted to set a good example for her companion, and so forth.  The probability of getting up on time depended in large part on which set of factors she was thinking at the time she actually made the decision to get out of bed.

           As a related point, along with thinking, “I want to get up”; Sister Baxter might have jumped out of bed before thinking about it too much at all.  This is even true if she had decided to get up provisionally, giving herself the option to return to bed in a few minutes.  Most self-disciplined people have learned to jump into tasks before they are fully motivated to do them.  If Sister Baxter had immediately gotten out of bed and got on with her day, it’s likely that she would have stayed up and found value in doing so.  Conversely, it’s obvious what is likely to happen if she waits in bed until she is motivated to get up.

          As a second important factor in self-discipline, it helps to do everything we can to protect ourselves from temptation. The Savior taught, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched....And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Mark 9:43-44, 47).

          Among other interpretations, it seems that these verses suggest the benefit in removing ourselves from those things that contribute to bad choices. Sister Baxter, for example, along with too often sleeping in, loved to flirt and she had been breaking mission rules by telephoning another Elder just to talk.  Flirting behavior had become a routine part of the way she relieved stress, built her self-confidence, and it had become part of her personality.  She was also finding a lot of comfort and enjoyment in spending time with the particular Elder in question.  These two missionaries had established a habit seeking each other out for extended talks whenever possible, including late night phone calls.  In essence, this behavior had become a part of Sister Baxter; like a hand, foot, or eye.  It would be painful to give any of this up; similar to losing an appendage.  As the Lord pointed out, however, the loss would be worth it if it provided an opportunity for something so much better; and/or avoided something so much worse.

           To become a better disciple, Sister Baxter needed to be willing to cut off these enjoyable aspects of her life.  She, of course, needed to be more than just willing.  She would actually have to make the required change.  This process could begin by giving up little things that contribute to the bigger problem.  For instance, she might give the cell phone to her companion—especially at night when she was tempted to call the Elder.  She might intentionally focus more of her time in missionary gatherings on the other Sister missionaries and not the Elders.  She could ask her companion for help in noticing when she was flirting.  This had become such a natural thing to do, she often wasn’t even aware that she was doing it.  Plus there is often a fine line between just being friendly and flirting behavior.  Along with doing her part, she could ask the Elder friend to help her by avoiding one-on-one contact during the remainder of their service.  Finally, and most importantly, she could confess the problem to her Mission President and seek his help; which might include a transfer to a situation involving less temptation.

           These two simple ideas can be quite powerful in improving our ability to do hard things in pursuit of important goals.  First, always think in terms of “want to”, not “have to” when making decisions.  Second, find as many practical ways as possible to remove yourself from sources of temptation.  It can sound heroic to withstand temptation in its face.  And it can be heroic; but not very wise, at least not in situations where we can remove our self from at least some of the factors tempting us.  As the Savior suggested, it works much better if we cut ourselves off from temptation in any and all ways possible.

Dr. Gary G. Taylor