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 everyday suspects: Poor standards, poor monitoring, bad
reasoning, procrastination, mismanagement, unwanted thoughts, impulses,
attention, self-awareness, snowballing, overeating, and so on. The bland and
redundant writing style of Losing Control was sometimes 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
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. Find or construct supremely beneficial environments
and learn to re-distract ourselves from unwanted thoughts. 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 paradoxical ways. If you feel crappy and concentrate on strategies
and efforts, you end up feeling better and accomplishing goals. If you feel
crappy, then let tasks, efforts, and strategies be dictated by your turmoil, you
accomplish little and often still feel rotten.
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. 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 big differences. They cite Madonna as an example of a person having
limited talent but excellent career and self-management.
To find the motivational equivalents 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
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,
purposefulness, and big results. If long-range goals are all we have,
everyday life loses purpose. We 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 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 make some feel good temporarily, but 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.
Peter Singer wrote 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 like
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 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.
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 April, 2023.
307p (H) 1994