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Willpower, Self-Control Can Be Learned

Willpower, Self-Control Can Be LearnedI’m a little astounded by how quickly some people are willing to just throw up their hands and, rather than learning how to gain more willpower and self-control in their life, use technology tools as a substitute for learning those skills. Or how some suggest how we seem to be at the mercy of social networking sites, which have some sort of undeniable power over us, our choices and our behaviors.

I’m talking about the article in today’s Boston Globe from Tracy Jan bemoaning how college students nowadays are “tangled in an endless web of distractions.” The article reads like college students are saying, “The Internet and Facebook are just too darned addicting, I can’t help myself!”

It’s gotten so bad that some college professors — even at the venerable technology university, MIT — are outright banning laptops in class. Oh, the tragedy!

Except none of this is new. Or news.

I remember college and when I was on my own for the first time in my life. It’s a very freeing experience, and it requires you to learn a lot about living your own life on your own, without needing to depend on others or your parents any more. It means often making dumb decisions and choices, and then learning from those dumb decisions. Sure, you can go out all night partying, but it’s going to be hard to make the 8:30 class the next morning. Do it often enough, and suddenly you’re in deep academic doo-doo.

You do these things, and then you learn from them. Everything you experience in college has potentially something to teach us, if only we’re listening.

You can go back to 2006 to find the last spate of news articles about the tragedy of professors who are banning laptops from their classroom. You can find numerous research studies as well on the topic, most of which show that the way most students use laptops in the classroom are distracting and reinforce inattention. Students who use laptops in classrooms tend to enjoy worse grades than if they didn’t pull out their laptop or smartphone (see, for instance, Fried 2008).

And it helps students feel more connected with each other — you know, sort of the point of going to college in the first place:

Since the ban, students are making eye contact and listening to each other more, Jones said.

[Jane Smith], a doctoral student in Jones’s class, said she was guilty of multitasking during class because she has too much work to complete and not enough time. But she supports the idea of unwiring classrooms because “it’s more important to have people really participating in class.’’

“If we don’t have our laptops to retreat to, we feel more encouraged to talk to each other,’’ she said. “It’s frustrating when you put a lot of work into a class presentation, and you know your classmates are looking at their e-mails.’’

However, I’m a big believer in the value of Darwinism in situations such as this. Why impose forced learning on students who value their connectedness and multitasking abilities (even if they are mostly imagined and deluding themselves)? Their grades will suffer, and they will either get the message loud and clear. Or they won’t, and scratch their heads as to why they’re not really learning anything in class and getting poor grades.

You Can Learn to Improve Your Self-Control

I’m also a big believer of learning skills in your life that you currently lack. We think that we’re supposed to naturally pick up these skills in life and growing up, but in many cases, that simply doesn’t happen. Social skills, study skills, relationship building skills, parenting skills. These are things that you may intrinsically know or, for some, naturally pick up through the course of life.

But if you don’t know them, there’s no shame in learning them at any point in your life. If you have a problem with self-control or willpower, do something about it. Sure, you can use a technology tool — as the article describes one student doing — to restrict your access to the Internet or certain websites. That’s a sign of self-awareness and lack of control in one’s life.

But you can also learn the skills necessary to make such tools unnecessary. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit down at your computer, do the work you need to, without even thinking once about logging into Facebook or Twitter? You can learn how to do that — all it takes is some education, some practice, and voila! You know have greater self-control.

Instead of colleges worrying about how laptop use in the classroom is affecting their students (and banning them or some such nonsense), they should be looking on how to best help students learn the skills necessary to better manage their technology use. Technology is not appropriate for every situation, every meeting, every conversation. In fact — as I recently wrote — it can be a social hindrance or a sign of rude behavior.

Perhaps Technology & Your Life 101 should be a new required course for freshmen, to explain that while there may be a natural impulse to pull out your laptop or iPhone every time you sit down, there’s no need to actually do so. It could teach some of these self-control and willpower skills I’m talking about. You can also always read a book to help yourself, such as The Willpower Instinct by Dr. Kelly McGonigal.

There’s this false belief that increasingly younger adults seem chained to — that you need to know what your friends are doing all the time. That there’s some value in being so “connected” to another group of individuals. The truth is, yes, sometimes that’s the case. But it’s also the case that there’s value to alone time — to disconnectedness. To learning that it’s not only okay to be by yourself, it gives you some time to reflect, think, and understand.

I love technology and my iPhone and my laptop — I love it all. And while I generally care what my friends are doing (or more precisely, how they’re doing), I don’t care in comparing it to what I’m doing in this exact moment in time. It doesn’t matter, it won’t make me happier and it won’t give my life any more value at this moment.

These choices we make — they’re difficult. It’s easier to be distracted, to stay unfocused. But you can learn to make them, and keep making them, because you will ultimately learn more, stay “in the moment” (distractedness is the enemy of mindfulness), and be more authentic in your own life.

Read the full article: Colleges worry about always-plugged-in students

Willpower, Self-Control Can Be Learned

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on April 24, 2011.

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John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2019). Willpower, Self-Control Can Be Learned. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
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Last updated: 22 Jul 2019 (Originally: 24 Apr 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 Jul 2019
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