A doctoral student who is working on her dissertation can resist, more than occasionally, the invitations from her roommates to go to the beach or to go out drinking, because those events will delay the work she must complete to finally attain her Ph.D. This example highlights the difference between self-control and self-regulation. When the young woman's intention to research her dissertation comes from her experiential memory, it will not harm her psychic health if she forgoes, even for a whole year, the pleasures her friends enjoy. Her feeling of satisfaction in creating what will be a fulfilling life as a Ph.D. will outweigh the disappointment of short-term sacrifices. If, on the other hand, completing her degree was based on nothing more than fulfilling the exhortations of her parents, she would have only self-control to drive her, and her emotional experiential memory would constantly rebel.
Forging a Plan
The best way to learn the difference between self-control and self-regulation, and to figure out how to harness them to your advantage, is to train yourself to be aware of your somatic markers. One tool is to keep a log for about four weeks. Carry a small notebook, and over the course of a normal day, record events that evoke negative or positive somatic markers. Note the time, date, event, type of somatic marker and some indication of why you think you felt that marker. For example:
Tuesday, June 14
6:45 a.m. Erika asks if I can pick up Timmy from day care this evening. Negative somatic marker (sinking feeling in stomach). Reason: time pressure because of my meeting with Mr. Lewis.
10:15 a.m. Dan comes into my office and invites me for coffee. Positive somatic marker (feeling of freedom). Reason: conversation might help me find a better way to solve the project analysis I'm struggling with.
This method will produce two kinds of information. First, it will identify recurring situations that you find annoying and that you can use self-control to adjust. But more so, it will give you an insight into the somatic markers that your emotional experiential memory taps into, which may be very different from those of the people around you.
A woman who wants to lose weight can imagine arriving at a party in a miniskirt, turning heads.
After four weeks of such bookkeeping, you will be aware of your somatic markers and find ways to use them. You should ask yourself: "How can I prevent situations that elicit negative somatic markers and increase the positive occurrences?" You could learn from your June 14 entry, for example, only to agree to pick up Timmy from day care when doing so does not conflict with a business appointment. In compensation, you could tell Erika you will bring Timmy to day care on certain other days.
A cautionary note: reconfiguring your daily life is a long-term project. Do not expect dramatic changes at once. But anyone can certainly find several points that could be attacked immediately. Begin with small changes, and then you can go for major alterations. Resolve to avoid snacks during the morning or to say yes to new assignments. Once you feel comfortable with these kinds of moves, you can consider a plan for grander prizes: permanent weight loss or a more rewarding career.
This article was originally published with the title Taking the Reins.