Self-control is usually only spoken about after the fact. After things get crazy, you might hear someone say, “Exercising self-control would have prevented [insert catastrophe].” In most cases, though, we simply don’t talk about it. We will attribute a loving family to luck, a rejuvenating relationship to character, or a successful career to time spent laboring. We explain these things in this manner because we are terrified of using the words self-control. Thus far, my life has presented an exemplar vantage point from which I can study this phenomena.
I never met my father. I grew up with my Mom and older brother, and he moved out when I was twelve. I don’t remember having a meal together as a family after age twelve, and I don’t remember there being any structure for when things happened in my home. Most of the time I ate whatever I felt like eating, whenever I felt like eating. I slept when I felt like sleeping, and I woke only when I thought missing something would be detrimental to my future (based on my own definition of “detrimental”).
The second semester of my senior year of High School was 94 days long. I missed my first-period class 46 of those days because I felt like staying up till 3AM, and 7:30AM just didn’t fit that schedule. I graduated 94th in my class of 414 with a GPA of 3.44, and managed to get a full-ride for four years of schooling from an essay writing contest. The contest required five 1,000 word essays on five different topics. Of course, I wrote all five of those essays in three hours the night before they were due. I’m not sharing these things to brag or establish credibility. I’m sharing them to show that I had no understanding, practice, or concept of self-control…at least through age eighteen.
Now half-way through my twenties, I’ve had prodigious amounts of time to learn that doing whatever I want, whenever I want, doesn’t work. This was hard to stomach initially, but now I can more readily accept that 99% of the problems I face exist because of my own choices or actions. Specifically, they exist because I don’t do what I set out to do, or because I choose to make an unwise decision, often valuing temporary pleasure over long-term gain. That realization sheds blinding light on what I lack in sufficient quantity; self-control.
A youth pastor when I was in middle school suggested choosing to skip a meal as a way to practice self-control. I definitely didn’t need his advice at the time (or so I thought), so I didn’t even try this until my early twenties. It turns out, it wasn’t only a way to practice. It showed me what self-control is, and how much of an uncharted territory it was to me.
I began to do this once a week, not eating lunch on Fridays, a day that I really want lunch because I’m tired by then, so I was proud of myself. Several months in, I saw nothing in my life was noticeably different, and I wanted to be someone different. I wanted to be someone who had self-control.
Through seeking wisdom and devouring every book I could find with “Self Control” or, “Will Power” in the title, I began to understand I need to make a point of exercising self-control daily. If it wasn’t practiced daily, it wouldn’t become a habit; it wouldn’t become the way I am.
I began devising a schedule with different ways to practice, seven days a week. Over the past two years this schedule has gone through about fifty revisions, and I’ve been working through the current version for the majority of this year.
- Monday: No personal projects. As a creative independent contractor, after the weekend I am very excited to enact my own ideas.
- Tuesday: No music in the car; pray instead. Producing music is my primary means of employment. When music is playing, whatever I am feeling is replaced by the emotions the music conveys. It can easily become a numbing escape from my reality, and I need to accept what is real.
- Wednesday: No carbonation. I’m not a health nut. I’m fit enough. But I’ll slowly sip on Pepsi Max all day while working.
- Thursday: No fiction. (Most difficult.) I love reading. It stretches my mind and imagination beyond what words can articulate. I read during every meal I eat alone. Reading also easily becomes an unhealthy escape for me.
- Friday: Only vegetables after breakfast. (Most physical.) I eat two bags of two-person servings of steamed vegetables for lunch, I don’t feel full, and I am starving two hours later. By Friday night, I just want to go to bed so I can get up and eat a real breakfast
- Saturday: Rest.
- Sunday: Prepare for the next week.
You’ll notice I said seven days, then listed rest and preparation as active means of practice. That’s how self-control works, in all practicality, like a muscle. A marathon runner doesn’t run seven days in a row. Their muscles would never have time to recover. They’d become fatigued, and eventually it would produce severe, long-term damage. Finding, practicing, and growing the self-control muscle functions in the same manner. It uses the same will-power as every other active task in our lives. Our will-power is limited in quantity, and replenishes through rest.
Preparation has proven equally as fruitful and required as rest. On Sundays, I make my breakfast for Monday through Friday and put it in sealed containers in the fridge. Yes, by Friday the toast on my five-egg sandwich is soggy, but the nutrients are still there. More importantly, it’s much more energizing, and better prepares me for the day than the cereal I would eat if I’d woken up Friday morning without having already made it. It also allows me to make one less decision on Friday, conserving will-power, and enabling greater self-control. I use this time of preparation for many things that may affect the upcoming week. I do laundry, check the upcoming week’s weather, and organize accordingly. I also use this time to decide what projects to focus on, and when, for work.
I can’t tell you a date or time that this “started working” or became effective. I do know that I’m not the same person I was two years ago. I’m not as frustrated, and my decisions aren’t as impulsive. Deliberate, growth-centric exercise of self-control has brought consistency, structure, and order to innumerable areas of my life. It’s also enabled me to become more of the person I want to be.
Don’t focus on how far you have to go, and remember that legalism has no place in growing self-control. If it is possible to exhibit a negative amount of self-control, I most certainly did. I’ve given up on the days practice hundreds of times. Today, I still occasionally forget or consciously choose to let go of the exercise. Then I remember I am only keeping myself from being who I want to be for even longer. I’ll pick up the exercise right where I left off and keep going. Self-control isn’t a term to be feared; it can be had. Discuss it, desire it, and encourage it. It isn’t the only requirement, but it is one of the most critical requirements for being a man.