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Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation by Roy F. Baumeister and others


     The authors of Losing Control cover the sleazy suspects—gambling, alcohol, excessive debt—as well as the everyday suspects: Poor standards, poor monitoring, bad reasoning, procrastination, mismanagement, unwanted thoughts, impulses, attention, self-awareness, snowballing, overeating, and so on. Perhaps the bland and redundant writing style of Losing Control was a test of my willingness to maintain control of my attention.


     Baumeister and company argue that quitting is almost always intentional. Numerous reasons—boredom, mild fatigue, threatened self-esteem, lack of monitoring, environmental distractions, a discovery that the activity lacks value—are among the causes.


     To protect self-esteem, individuals often quit after minor criticism or failure feedback. Research suggests that individuals who are told an activity is challenging and failure no disgrace perform better than they otherwise would. Criticism should be a spur to reevaluate or do better. It should not be an automatic signal to quit.


     Unhelpful environments and unwanted thoughts have a major influence on lack of perseverance. We should find or construct supremely beneficial environments and learn to re-distract ourselves from unwanted thoughts. We avoid misguided activities to relieve anxiety. They write that anxiety leads to busyness even more than it leads to freezing. Keep harmful anxiety levels low and act carefully when they are high. The tendency to choose the first plausible alternative when over-stressed is usually worse than experiencing the stress itself.


Strategies, efforts and emotions operate in a paradoxical way. If you feel crappy and concentrate on strategies and efforts, you end up feeling better and accomplishing goals. If you feel crappy and let tasks, efforts and strategies be dictated by your turmoil, you accomplish little and you still feel lousy.


     Good habits gone bad are sometimes harder to break than habits that were always bad. It is tempting to believe the habit gone bad is still good. Over persistence and under persistence are errors heavily influenced by social popularity and unpopularity. The obvious lesson: Do not let social praises or attacks or rejections make decisions for you. Arguments are what matter. Live with rejection. Make rejection fun--not as fun as accomplishment--but fun enough. Rejection can strengthen the spirit and sense of being alive.



     Ruminating does not lead to accomplishments, but self-knowledge is valuable. Self-knowledge plus well-reasoned applications make a big difference. They cite Madonna as an example of a person having limited talent but excellent career effort and self-management.


     To find the motivational equivalent of war or sports, it is vital to know which conditions spur your best performances. Find or build those conditions when you need to produce. Sometimes you have to impose boot camp style improvements in your life and that sometimes is long before you hit the rockiest bottom. Some of the everyday junk we accept should be viewed as rocky near bottoms.


     Goal setting is critical. Both long-term and short-term goals matter and they should be neither too easy nor too difficult. Long-range goals give us roles, larger purposefulness, and the big results. If long-range goals are all we have, everyday life loses purpose and we may wander from the smaller tasks that lead to the accomplishment of long-term goals.


     Short-term goals should leave room for spontaneity. Overly detailed daily plans strangle the fun out of life. To do lists are better than schedules with every 15-minute block filled in. If a non-urgent task is becoming odious, temporarily switch to something else or find ways to make it less odious.


     If we set high goals and do not meet them, we should not use the failure as reason to become depressed and indolent. Using failures as motivation matters—a lot. There are no guarantees if you demand great things from yourself, but demanding more has a higher expected value than demanding little.


     The authors cover some ideas found in Baumeister’s other works. Those with high, stable self-esteem are best at self-management. Individuals with high, unstable self-esteem turn rotten in the face of ego threats. Failures and rejections are a necessary part of life. People with high, unstable self-esteem are unwilling to face this fact. Threats and stresses cause them to freeze, give up, over persevere, choose ill-reasoned goals, boast about trivial accomplishments and boast about things that never happened. Sometimes they become violent. Catharsis may make you feel good temporarily, but it increases long-term hostility. On the negative side, Losing Control lacks guidance of specific interventions to improve selves.


     We should transcend boredom. If a task is worth doing, we should adjust the environment to make it more fascinating and think about the task in ways that make it more intriguing. An important project unfinished is damn annoying.


     You can rid the purposelessness void by finding and pursuing great purposes or you can temporarily get rid of it using dubious tactics such as drugs, TV, radio, newspapers, busyness, vacuous self-help, manufactured problems, trivial hobbies, toys and shopping, immersion in pointless groups.


     As Peter Singer writes in How Are We to Live:

“When a warrior serves a transcendent cause, the body responds well to cold, heat, pain, hunger, lack of sleep. The person with warrior energy can work long hours, ignore fatigue, finish the Ph.D., endure obnoxious department heads, live sparsely like Ralph Nadar, write under a single light bulb for years as T.S. Eliot did, clean up shit and filth endlessly like Mother Teresa, endure contempt and disdain Sakharov did. A clawed hand takes the comfort-loving baby away, and an adult warrior inhabits the body.” 


     Taking risks and meeting challenges is a great reward. It is important to meet the goal, but it is also important to enjoy the process. If we pursue goals with merely the end in mind, the pursuit will be less fun. We should enjoy producing as we go along. Yet it is difficult for humans to be motivated by both means and ends at the same time. Recommended. Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009.

307p (H) 1994


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