Suppose you’re trying to lose weight. You grab all the potato chips in the house, and you throw them in the garbage can, thereby ridding yourself of the temptation. You can’t eat what’s not in the house, after all, so you just rid the house of potato chips and that takes care of the problem.
On one level, this isn’t bad advice. If you have trouble overcoming temptation, then the next best thing is eliminating temptation. All the diet gurus recommend doing this. And maybe all you need to overcome your temptation in the first place is to go a few weeks without indulging in it. After that, the thinking might go, your cravings will disappear and your mind will recalibrate to a potato-chip-free lifestyle. Here’s hoping.
The fact of the matter is, though, that throwing the potato chips out doesn’t solve the underlying impulse control problem. It might help you lose weight, and it might help your palette adjust to new norms, but it won’t help you overcome your urge to seek instant gratification over long-term happiness. The only way you can beat that problem is by teaching yourself to abstain from potato chips even though you want to eat them. You’ll have to practice mindful self-deprivation. It’s not the potato chips’ fault. It’s not the fault of the mere presence of temptation. It’s your fault. You’re in control. You’re steering the ship.
I was thinking about this in reaction to an interesting piece I read at OutsideOnline.com. In it, author Sam Robinson laments what the Strava app has done to his love for the solitude of running. Ordinarily, I would be inclined to agree. I, too, love the solitude I experience while running. Unlike Robinson, however, I do not allow my smartphone apps to interrupt that process. I don’t check my apps while I run. Even though they are social networks, I don’t allow the fact that people can see my stats to interrupt my thoughts as I run. Running has always been about solitude and meditation for me. Now smart phone app could ever change that.
But it’s not the app doing all this. That’s silly. If you’re so distracted by Strava that you can’t get a good long run in without feeling “connected,” then that’s a personal problem. If you can’t walk away from an internet argument, that’s a personal problem. If you can’t view Facebook without feeling bad about your life (as is true of many people who browse Facebook), that’s a personal problem.
We hear a lot about how technology is making our lives worse, but that’s a big of a ruse. What’s making our lives worse is our complete and utter lack of impulse control McDonald’s doesn’t make you fat, eating too much makes you fat. Facebook isn’t making you depressed, your jealous, envious narcissism is making you depressed. Strava isn’t taking away your solitude, your inability to forget about social networks for the 45 minutes required to get your run in is what’s taking away your solitude.
I write a lot about defense mechanisms on my blog, and this is one more to add to the pile. We lament the things we have trouble saying “no” to; we seldom lament our own inability to say no. Don’t focus on the objects, though, focus on your own shortcomings. You have to – that’s the only way to begin the hard mental work of change.