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We feel powerless over so many things in the pandemic. But learning to practice better self-control can help.

By Elizabeth Bernstein Aug. 25, 2020 The Wall Street Journal [View Image]

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Zvi Band took out a blank piece of paper and drew a line down the middle. Then he made two lists.

On one side, he wrote down the things he can’t control: the length of the quarantine; whether he or someone he knows gets sick; whether his business suffers; if or when there will be a cure.

On the other side, he listed things he can control: how he spends his time and who he spends it with; how he cares for his wife and family; what he spends money on; the information he consumes; the food he eats; how well he follows safety precautions.

When he was done, Mr. Band ripped the page in half, crumpled up the list of things he can’t control, and threw it away. He taped up the list of things he can control next to his computer monitor.

“It reminds me to stay focused and that I am in command of my emotional state,” says the 36-year-old CEO of a software company in Washington, D.C.

Feel like everything right now is beyond your control? It’s not.

You can control yourself.

Self-control—the ability to manage your thoughts, feelings and actions to achieve a goal—is a necessary skill to master in the Covid-19 era. You can’t overcome a challenge—big or small—without being disciplined.

Yet many people are finding it harder to maintain their self-control these days. When we’re under extreme stress, our brain works overtime to regulate our emotions, attention and behavior. At the same time, we have more distractions, fewer options for stress relief and poorer sleep. All this taxes our mental resources, depleting our ability to stay motivated, experts say.

“You can think of self-control as bandwidth,” says Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies self-control. “And right now, it’s divided.”

The Ancient Greeks had a word for the lack of self-control: Akrasia—acting against one’s better judgment because of a weakness of will. It’s what happens when we succumb to a temptation that feels good in the moment, rather than doing something that would be good for us in the long run. During the pandemic, lack of self-control includes bingeing Netflix for hours instead of doing our work, succumbing to our emotions and snapping at loved ones (or strangers), and endlessly doomscrolling the news.

Times are hard. It’s natural to lapse sometimes. If you’ve felt your self-control slip recently, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s OK and even to be expected from time to time. Just try to do better going forward.

Research shows that people who practice self-control reap a host of benefits, including fewer physical and mental health problems and a longer lifespan; more success in school and work; a greater popularity with others, fewer arguments and better relationships, says Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, who has studied self-control for 30 years.

Everyone’s born with some ability to maintain self-control, experts say. But for some, it comes easier. People with the personality trait of conscientiousness may find self-control more manageable, as will people who have learned healthy coping skills. People who are naturally more reactive will probably find it harder.

The good news: Everyone can strengthen their self-control. “The Victorians called this building character,” says Dr. Baumeister, who is co-author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”

A just-published article reviewing the research on self-control commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic institution that funds scientific research, identifies two main ways to boost it. The first is to form better habits, such as turning off your cellphone when you need to work, shopping locally so you can walk to stores and get some exercise, or going to bed at the same time each night.

Next, reframe your thinking. Psychologists call this cognitive reappraisal. The idea is to broaden your perspective beyond the moment at hand.

Here are some techniques to help you do this.

Get some distance.

You can use language to put mental space between you and whatever temptation you’re struggling with, whether it’s a piece of cake or the yearning to yell at your kids. This is called “psychological distancing.”

The idea is to talk to yourself when you’re upset as another person would. Experts suggest using the third person point of view to insert distance. (“Elizabeth is stressed-out on deadline but is not going to melt down.”) Studies show that people who do this have less anxiety and perform better under stress.

Create an alter ego.

To strengthen your resolve, imagine you’re a different, more capable person. Need to have a difficult conversation you’d rather avoid? Imagine you’re an ace hostage negotiator. Want to up your tennis game or swim laps faster? Pretend you’re an Olympic athlete in the competition finals. (My dad taught me to do this when we raced sailboats: “The world’s watching, so let’s show them how we win!” he’d shout with glee at the starting line.)

You could also ask yourself what someone you admire would do in the same situation. My favorite? “What would Mr. Rogers do?”

Studies show that when small children pretend to be a favorite character—Batman, Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer or Rapunzel—they perform better on challenging tasks, both better regulating their emotions and managing their frustration.

Can this work for adults? Yes. “It allows you to take a step back and also channel someone who is more competent for the task,” says Amanda Grenell, a developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota who co-authored the research.

So go pick your superhero.

Time travel.

Recall a time in the past when you kept your resolve. Or think about past challenges in history that others have overcome.

Research shows it can also help to envision a future point in time—whether it’s in a week or a year—when things will be better. “You think: ‘Yes, it is a turbulent time. But it will get back to normal,’ ” says Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology and management and director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

Imagine your future self.

One of the reasons it is so hard to choose a future goal over immediate gratification is because it’s hard to relate to our future self, says Dr. Duckworth. She suggests visualizing yourself in the future the way you want to be, as a way to connect your current actions to your future goals. Then—this is important—you need to identify the obstacles that stand in the way.

Angela Hale, who owns a coaching business and is the single mother of a toddler, often imagines her future self when she feels irritable, overwhelmed or doubts herself.

One recent evening, as she rocked her daughter to sleep for the sixth time and tried not to lose her patience or panic about the work she still had to do, Ms. Hale closed her eyes and imagined herself a few years older. She visualized a beautiful home and a thriving business. And she pictured her daughter talking, laughing and running around. “This helped me see how temporary this time in her life is, and I melted instead of exploding,” says Ms. Hale, 35, who lives in Nevada City, Calif. “I suddenly felt so lucky to be there with her.”

Often when she imagines her future self, Ms. Hale asks for advice—about a relationship or a job or even what time to go to bed. Then she takes it.

“I know my future self well enough by now to know that she knows what’s best,” Ms. Hale says. “She didn’t get where she is by wasting energy on unavailable men, staying up all night watching old episodes of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or making poor financial choices. So neither will I.”

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