Out of Control

I’ve been addicted, for longer than I can recall, to a dangerous and life threatening activity. This post is about how I’m giving it up.

I’m going cold turkey on self control.

I’ve often had a very unhealthy relationship with… myself. That is to say, I’ve seen myself as being at war with myself, letting myself down, beating myself up, trying to make myself be something I’m not. I would force myself to do things I didn’t want to do or, as it may well be, I didn’t want to do things because I was forcing myself to do them.

Agency is a big deal. Humans love to have freedom of choice. We hate to be controlled. Yet time and again we remove agency from others, undermine the personal freedom of those around us. At work we plaster things with the word “mandatory” when a simply please would do. We offer bribes to our children instead of allowing them to choose the right thing. And, worst of all, we do it to ourselves.

I have lots of rules for myself. Lots of shoulds and musts. Lots of alwayses and absolutelys. These have been collected over many years. What does that mean? It seems to suggest that I don’t trust myself. I feel that I need to be bound up with rules or else I’ll make bad choices. But what if I’m wrong. What if I’m taking away my own freedom, my own autonomy, and thus deadening my passions? And is it really working anyway? Honestly… not really.

I haven’t learned to play the piano or taken French lessons. I don’t go running every day. I’m not the perfect person that I would be if I followed all my rules. And, in fact, this failure to be the person I want to force myself to be makes me unhappy, stressed and resentful. This addiction to self control, to rules and the use of force against myself, is not only ineffective but genuinely harmful.

So I have decided to call a ceasefire in this war against myself and, instead, enter into a more constructive relationship. From now on, instead of force, I intend to use diplomacy.

At the weekend, for instance, I sat down with my wife and we discussed the difference between the lives we want to lead and the lives we tend to lead. I’ll post more on this later this week, but the difference is stark. And by laying out clearly what we actually would choose, if we were choosing properly, we were able to make some changes. In the past we have tried to change things by banning ourselves from, for instance, watching too much TV. Force! Now, instead, we have had a proper conversation with ourselves, as it were. I’ve asked myself what I want, offered myself options, made positive choices.

And the most powerful single choice I’ve made is this: I no longer work between 11am and 2pm. Yes, I now take a three hour break in the middle of the day. This one may be a bit strange so I’ll explain.

Ever since I started to work for myself I have had to deal with my distractions during the day without anyone else looking over my shoulder. Instead I became that person. I became my own spy, my own judge. Far from being removed from overbearing bosses, I became the worst boss of all. But what exactly was I fighting against and why did I so often lose?

As it turns out, between 11 and 2 I’m not particularly energetic. During that time I’m more likely to be distracted. Conversely I’m super focused first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon and early evening. So instead of using force, instead of fighting with myself, I have negotiated a solution. There’s a part of me that wants to read a book, go for a walk, play a computer game or whatever else. That part of me gets in the way if I don’t give him what he wants. And those needs and desires are not unreasonable! So rather than fight them, see them as personal failing, I’ve given the part of me that wants that three hours in the middle of the day to do whatever he wants to do.

The amazing thing is that as soon as I did that I felt more focused on my work. Right now I sit happily writing and working and the part of me that wants to listen to that podcast while playing Crash Lands on the iPad is content and quiet. He knows his time is coming.

By giving up self control and replacing it with internal cooperation, I’ve released a great deal of stress, removed barriers to my focus and relieved myself of the full time job of self judgement and condemnation. I am finally free of me. It’s wonderful.