I do not understand what I do.
For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do.
These words penned by Paul have long felt like my own. I want to wake up early and work out or skip a glass of wine on weekday evenings or stay up late to get another chapter of the next book written. I truly do. And I plan to do it.
I hit snooze. Or pour a glass of wine. Or watch an episode of mindless t.v. after the kids are down.
What I hate to do (or at least know better).
I was reading a tremendously insightful article on the airplane last week dissecting this very issue. An interesting set of research on how our self-control works, or could work better, and why it matters to our faith.
What does the research show?
One study shows you can use your self-control up over the course of the day – which should make us mindful of what we spend our reserves on. This is consistent with what my friend Brandy wrote about here: That ole ‘Hersey bar’ of willpower!
How do we make it better?
For one, we should be on the lookout for when our willpower is missing. You know, when you blow up at your kid for some minor infraction you’d normally laugh about? Or when you reach for that Reese’s peanut butter cup late at night? (Not that I’d have any experience with those things…)
Another sure fire way to make it better is to go to bed! The research shows your self-control regenerates. So if you’ve worn through all your reserves by the end of the day, Go to Bed! You’ll have a fresh stockpile of self-control in the morning after a good night’s rest.
But even more interesting than research on self-control’s ability to replenish is research showing self-control has the ability to build like a muscle. This really resonated.
Normally, we go in, guns blazing, and say we’re going to work out or eat healthy or never lose our temper. Then we fail. These changes are hard and, all too often, when we fail we just give up.
What if instead, the author suggests, we did one small thing at a time and let the self-control build over time in a particular area?
Instead of committing to go to the gym five days a week, you commit to doing five sit ups every morning before leaving for work. That’s one additional minute out of your day. You won’t lose 20 pounds with five sit ups, but you begin to build a new habit (self-control muscle). Then, you add five push ups two weeks later after sticking with the first habit. Then, you add five jumping jacks or double your push ups and sit ups. Six months from your start date, you’re doing a half hour of kick boxing on weekdays after the muscle slowly grew.
This simple “trick” applies for any habit. Sleep. Writing. Eating.
Start slow. In this time of instant gratification, slow habit building and self-control muscle growth can be frustrating. But the success rate is much higher.
What does any of this have to do with faith?
The authors remind us of how the two are inextricably linked:
The idea that we are to substitute one response for another, regulating our desires and impulses, lies behind every biblical command to obey when we are tempted. We want to worry, but we are to pray. We want to curse, but we are to bless. We want to hate, but we are to love.
Training our self-control muscle, in every aspect of our life, supports plenty of Biblical teachings. In Galatians, we’re reminded self-control is actually a fruit of the spirit. Numerous passages remind Christians to exercise self-control (see, even the Bible treats it as a work out!).
The article closes with a quote from N.T. Wright who describes the development of self-control as a virtue:
Virtue is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices requiring effort and concentration to do something which is good and right, but which doesn’t come naturally. And then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required automatically. Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature.
Wise and courageous decisions can become a habit.
That’s a muscle worth building.