“If you act right now — right this very instant, you can own this shimmering, heart-shaped pendant for the budget-busting price of $250. But you have to act this very moment,” a caffeinated TV blowhard shrieks into your television screen.
You cackle, questioning the (in)sanity of anyone spending $250 on a cheesy pendant. As the cackle disappears, you lean back and contemplate your own spending habits. You, self-described Mr. Thrift, just dropped $250 on a pair of must-have sneakers. The problem: Your exercise regimen consists of walking past the gym.
Credit card millionaire on a $30,000 budget? Impulse control bedevils all of us. Among your circle of friends, how many are saddled with credit card debt? The “next” temptation is particularly tempting for mental health consumers. We convince ourselves that the next purchase, next job, and next relationship will soothe our self-doubt.
In our instant gratification society, ‘right now’ has replaced ‘right.’ Once the intoxicating high fades, the anxiety and depression return with a snarling vengeance. And now we have spent $249.99 on a designer pair of jeans.
Blissful reprieve from the crushing anxiety? That will last a couple hours. The credit card debt from the latest, must-have purchase? That will last a couple years. And the head-shaking recriminations over a $249.99 pair of jeans?! Well, that will last indefinitely.
Willpower is a learned behavior. When stressed or anxious, we default to our automatic responses. We seek emotional comfort in the familiar and unhealthy. For me, that means bingeing on Metro Market cookies, Netflix, and the latest travel deal. For others, that means impulsive gambling or womanizing. The consequences can be devastating: familial strife, financial ruin, and career destruction.
Impulse control applies to more than readily acknowledged self-destructive behavior. Think of everyone’s favorite friend, Paul the People Pleaser. Greeting friends and acquaintances with a ready-made cheerfulness, Paul disarms with an easygoing smile and enthusiastic greeting. His agreeableness, however, comes at a cost. Unwilling or unable to say no, Paul sacrifices his time and financial stability. His inability to establish firm boundaries culminates in exploitative relationships and poor time management.
How do we manage our self-destructive tendencies? The five-minute rule is an effective mental trick. I delay the overpowering impulse for five minutes and then promise to reevaluate. When engaged in an unpleasant task (hello, studying for the bar exam!), I will impulsively jump on Twitter, Facebook, and MSNBC for a “quick search.” The quick search devolves into researching sports minutiae and discounted travel.
The five-minute rule provides a measure of accountability and flexibility. It affirms that you can resist your impulsive tendencies, regardless of how irresistible they feel. As you practice delayed gratification, your willpower grows. Feelings don’t require immediate action; observe them in a mindful, nonjudgmental way and then reset the timer for another five minutes.
We all have made regretful purchases to salve our emotional needs. I have a treasure trove of hiking backpacks collecting dust. You still have those ill-fitting designer jeans buried in your closet. Father Time doesn’t stop for you to squeeze into those size 4s or borrow your partner’s credit card to pay for designer denim. But it does slow to a standstill as the torrent of guilt consumes you.