A dozen years ago, in the midst of a prolonged and emotionally wrenching divorce, I dropped 40 pounds. You could say that stress was a factor, which indeed it was. Also factors: My focus was on legal proceedings, I was job searching, and I was helping my children through a seemingly incomprehensible time.
Food issues, long my nemesis, faded in importance.
You might say – I was distracted.
In an intriguing column about 84-year-old Walter Mischel, a researcher on self-control whose initial claim to fame traces back some 50 years, author Pamela Druckerman takes up Mr. Mischel’s latest insights on willpower. Her discussion with the gentleman who is also known as the Marshmallow Man arrives at the following conclusion, and one that speaks volumes: When we distract ourselves, constructively, we are less in need of immediate gratification.
Certainly, reflecting on my experience with losing weight, taking care of my children, my finances, and my legal status qualify as “constructive” activities.
Self-Control in the Face of Immediate Gratification
In “Learning How to Exert Self-Control,” Ms. Druckerman refers to the ‘Marshmallow Test’ on 5-year-olds that cemented Mr. Mischel’s place in willpower research and our understanding of the implications of self-control.
Looking at the preschoolers in question decades later, it turns out that children who were better at resisting temptation:
… were thinner, earned more advanced degrees, used less cocaine, and coped better with stress.
Ms. Druckerman goes on to explain Mr. Mischel’s viewpoint that adults can master the same methods these children used, which included looking away (from the marshmallows and cookies), or otherwise distracting themselves.
In other words, they succeeded via “constructive distraction.”
Applying “Distraction” to Losing Weight
I am considering my stunning failure to lose a pesky eight pounds, unceremoniously added to my small frame four months back. Naturally, I find myself revisiting the way I shed so much more 12 years ago. Stress played its role at that time, of course. But nor can I pretend that despite good intentions, positive self-talk, and soulful glimpses into my closet, I’ve accomplished little. Two pounds down, two put back on… three pounds down, three put back on.
So much for the desired objective. And yes, it could be worse.
In contrast, I routinely use television in the background when I’m working late at night. Generally, I choose a pleasantly familiar rerun as an effective means of distracting myself from a desire to sleep. This also enables me to feel less pressure to finish what I’m doing, while remaining focused on the task at hand. The net: I’m calmed and I get the job done.
I am recognizing my successful use of distraction in this latter example, and no such consideration in the former. Moreover, I use other (distraction) techniques during (unpleasant) dental cleanings and periods of (worrisome) waiting. In fact, constructive distraction works extremely well for me, when I undertake it. However, I was never conscious of it before. Nor had I a “name” for this practice, much less a thought in my head as to how helpful it might be.
Adult Willpower, Aging, Pursuing Our Passions
Will I be able to put this new-found awareness to work in the service of my goals, which extend well beyond one stone, much less my daily wardrobe options?
I would like to think so.
And this brings me to a thought on aging.
Over the course of the summer, stymied not only over my inability to knock off those pounds, but suffering an intense (and uncharacteristic) preoccupation with irrefutable signs of aging, I have found myself dwelling on where I am and what comes next. As a woman in a “looksist” society, I know I need to pick my battles.
Moody over deepening lines on my face (at times deeming them interesting) and the increased softening of my neck (no interest there), I have alternated between consternation and comfortable acceptance. Happily, in the past two weeks I ‘forgot’ to be annoyed with issues of age; I was far too engaged in professional tasks that swept me up in the satisfaction of their “doing.” I was, undeniably, constructively distracted.
Shifting Priorities, Living Fully, Pursuing Our Passions
And so I come to my own conclusion on the matter of aging “gracefully.” When I am busy living and learning, when I am focused on contributions and experiences, when I am looking forward (whether 24 hours or 24 months), the state of my skin is not on the radar. For that matter, neither is my waistline.
So how can I use constructive distraction in the service of my varied personal goals? Where might I benefit from its broader application? What other lessons might I learn from Mr. Mischel’s story, which is a fascinating one?
As I ponder those questions, I must mention Ms. Druckerman’s closing remarks on her subject. It seems that Mr. Mischel’s latest publication will soon be out, and he is preparing for a book tour. Ms. Druckerman writes of his need for a “burning goal,” which we might also think of as a passion for our pursuits. This is a concept that dovetails nicely with other Times columns on motivation. At 84, Mr. Mischel continues to set objectives and work to achieve them. Ms. Druckerman, rightfully, would like to emulate his approach. And whatever the fit of our jeans or the tautness of our necks, I can only imagine – so would the rest of us.
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