Part Two:  "Beating Impulsiveness”
          “How can I stop my impulsiveness?”
This simple question reflects a complicated battle with a powerful enemy. The question also implies a personal desire to gain vital self-control. Unfortunately, many people drive along the highway of life with impairments caused by impulsiveness. Their impulsive patterns throw up obstacles in their roadway that too often result in breakdowns or collisions. Health, employment, relationships—all are at risk and under siege by the tyrannical Impulsiveness who wants to control and rule our lives.  Repeated failures to stop the impulsive pattern confirm the difficulty of the warfare they’ve been battling. Impaired by impulsiveness people can sink to a level at which they feel despaired regarding improvement. Thus, the question is crucial and even critical:  “How can I stop my impulsiveness?” Or, put differently, “How can I look before I leap?” 

Importance of High Self-control

Since impulsiveness leads to significant impairment in multiple areas of life, we would do well to decrease its power and its impact. Basically, we accomplish that goal when we increase our personal self-control. High self-control means low impulsivity. Effective self-control is essential to healthy living and, in contrast to the descriptions of impairment already discussed in Part One, leads to better personal health, employment success, and relationship well-being.
The healthy and successful life journey is a trip driven on the Self-control Highway. Our goal is to keep our “car” (that is, our life) in the middle of the highway and out of the ditches that parallel the roadway. If we veer off in one direction we hit the “shoulder of delay” and we begin to “put off” actions that need to be taken. If we continue further off this side of the road, we wind up in the “ditch of procrastination.” Driving in this ditch often results in a lifestyle of do-nothingness, and we’re likely to have a major collision, get totally stuck in the mud, or drown in the water-filled ditch. On the other hand, we can veer in the opposite direction and hit the “shoulder of spontaneity” that leads to the “ditch of impulsiveness.” As a quality spontaneity is often seen as positive and desirable by people who tend to be adventurous, curious, and free-flowing. Impulsiveness is actually spontaneity taken to an excess. Driving in that ditch is also very risky and potentially life-threatening. In fact, driving in either ditch impairs our progress along the highway of life and hinders us in reaching our destination, whether we’re heading toward personal health, employment success, or relationship well-being. We need to get out of the ditches by learning to practice effective self-control, and we need to maintain a healthy balance of self-control as we journey safely and successfully toward our journey’s end.
                                                                       DITCH         SHOULDER    ROADWAY   SHOULDER        DITCH  
                                                             (Impulsivity)     (Spontaneity)    Self-Control       (Delay)        (Procrastination)

In view of the importance of self-control let’s explore several tools and techniques that can help us to increase our ability to practice effective self-control.
Improvement toward Increased Self-control

Our basic goal is to decrease our impulsiveness, or as one person recommended, “Let’s lower our IQ—our Impulsiveness Quotient.” This process is accomplished as we increase our personal self-control.  Self-control and impulsiveness are mutually exclusively; they do not co-exist. We can work toward improvement during three moments of time: during, after, and before the moment (or the action under consideration).
First, we can try to improve while we are actually in the moment. We recognize that we’re in the process of committing an impulsive action, and we try to slow ourselves down so we can think about consequences. This slowing-down effort while in the moment is very desirable but hard to accomplish if we are prone toward high levels of impulsiveness. However, every bit of progress is welcomed!
Secondly, we work for improvement after the moment, that is, after we’ve committed the action. We review carefully what happened and try to learn from our mistake. We study the sequence of our thinking, particularly our failure to consider consequences. Then we determine to consider consequences the next time to prevent a repeated mistake. Making notes and reviewing them daily can help us to retrain our brains to think consequences. Unfortunately, we’re too often like the young cowboy in the Old West who was about to be hanged for stealing a horse. The sheriff asked him if he had anything to say before dying. The young man pondered his situation and then said, “Well, sheriff, I guess this hanging is really gonna teach me a good lesson.” A correct assessment but a bit late for practical usage! Unfortunately, some impulsive actions do not allow the opportunity for future changes of behavior. But as a rule we do have the benefit of learning from our mistakes. The painful consequences we may be suffering can serve as an effective instructor!
Thirdly, we work for improvement before the moment. This work begins with the recognition of our impulsive pattern and our need for self-control. We make a deep commitment toward improvement, and we start serious work on finding and using solutions. We select a qualified counselor or therapist and we work hard in therapy to increase our self-control. We purchase (and read!) one or two good books on the subject. We use our spirituality as much as we can to guide and encourage us in our efforts. Through these activities we strive to retrain our thinking, our reactions, and our actions so that we can slow ourselves down sufficiently to allow for the consideration of consequences. This retraining will help us preventively (that is, before the moment) to think about the consequences associated with the action we’re about to take. Admittedly, we could consider the consequences and choose to commit the action anyway, as if to say “it’s worth the price I’ll pay.” A thought-out, premeditated action may invite pain and suffering, but at least the suffering is not due to impulsiveness.
As we explore the process of retraining ourselves to “think consequences,” let’s consider several tools and techniques that could be of benefit to you. These ideas are not presented in any particular order or priority; they’re given for you to pick and choose which ones you might want to try in your own retraining program. I’ve used all of them in adapted ways with many adults, teenagers, and kids to encourage them to become more self-controlled and, therefore, less impulsive.
(1). Price Tags:  Thinking Consequences!  

Over the years I’ve presented to many therapy clients two or three standard price tags with the letters T.C. written on them, preferably in the color of ink that is the favorite color of the client. I explain that the letters mean “Think Consequences,” and I encourage the client to hang the price tags in obvious places so that he can see them on a daily basis as a personal reminder to keep consequences in mind. Several people said that they hung their tags from the rearview mirror in their cars, while others hung the tags in their bedroom or bathroom. One young adult reported that the price tag hanging from his car’s mirror kept him on several occasions from stopping at a local package store where he had customarily purchased his liquor. One pre-teen indicated that he wanted to make additional “T.C.” signs or labels and place them on his notebooks so he could have reminders throughout the school day. These “T.C.” tags can play an important role in training our brains to slow down and to consider the potential consequences of our actions.
(2). Games:  Learning through Play!

Many games that are currently available to us can be used quite effectively to decrease impulsiveness through the practice of self-control. I’ve used the well-known game of “Pick-up Sticks” many times to help kids consider the issue of consequences. The child is told to put both hands behind his back and to keep them there while I drop and scatter the sticks. Before he releases his hands he is to look over the pile of sticks to get the “big picture.” Specifically, he tries to spot those sticks that can be removed easily without causing other sticks to move. Only then is he allowed to slowly release his hands and carefully attempt to remove one stick. Before each attempt he is told to describe the consequences of touching the stick in question. Bit by bit and play by play he learns to slow his actions down and to think consequences.
Many video games (such as car races) are built on speed. Kids usually want to begin at the fastest speed possible, creating crashes and losing lives. To discourage impulsiveness they’re instructed to start slowly and gradually build up speed as they learn competence. Their driving coach (that is, Dad or Mom) can ask them to explain why they crashed when then did and how they could prevent such crashes in the future. Positive learning occurs as skill increases.
As parents we can use all types of enjoyable games to help us train our children to be more self-controlled. Kids tend to learn better when they’re enjoying the process—and parents are less stressed as well! Adults can also use games effectively for the same purpose of self-control development.  Chess is certainly one game in which the consideration of consequences is definitely essential to success. Other games can be similarly helpful. In all of these training games that we choose for our kids or for ourselves as adults, the goal is simply “Think Consequences!” Expressed differently, the continuing theme remains the same:  “Look before you leap!”
(3).The Delay Tactic:  Buying some Time!

I have a personal delay policy that helps me to be less impulsive, particularly in regard to spending money on major purchases. My policy states that I have an automatic 24-hour waiting period between the decision to buy an item and the actual purchase of the item. I’ve learned from experience that the delay often resulted in a choice to cancel the purchase decision. Essentially, I’m buying time for myself so that I can think through a decision. The delay helps me with increased self-control and obviously discourages impulse-spending.
I also use this delay policy for other types of major decisions. The delay is not intended to avoid or escape something, but it’s rather just my way of slowing things down a bit. Most major decisions don’t have to be made instantly; taking some “time to think it over” is usually a sign of wisdom.
For the most part we are not well-trained to delay our gratification—in any area of life! We want what we want and we want it now. Our culture encourages this notion of instant gratification. “Get it now! There’s no time to wait!” We would do well to learn to delay our gratification purposely, thereby training ourselves toward greater self-control. The opportunities are endless through which we could say “No!” to our urges, even if a “Yes!” might be okay. For example, suppose that I’m looking at a Snickers candy bar and I’d really like to eat it (the whole thing) right now. The flesh is screaming, “Go for it!” but my mind says, “Stop! Delay fifteen minutes. Then you can eat it if you still want it.” Then, hopefully, when the fifteen minutes have elapsed, the urge to consume the calorie-filled candy will have subsided. The experience teaches my body not to expect to get everything it wants instantly. The delay policy helps me to train my mind and body to be more self-controlled. The more I practice the policy in “small” struggles, the more effectively I’ll be able to use the delay tactic in “big” struggles. The slogan “Just say no” may be hard to practice, but it is definitely a tool to be tried. Sometimes delay can mean deliverance from our impulsive urges.
(4). Distraction:  Focusing on Something Else!

The urge is very strong to engage in a certain negative action. I really want to do it. I’m hanging onto a thread trying not to give in to the tempting urge. To help with resistance I decide to use my Distraction Tool. I purposely refocus my attention to another activity, preferably one that requires a change of scenery. I get away from the “urge site” and busy myself with the new activity. Hopefully, this distraction will allow the urge to subside and I can effectively resist it. The basic hope is “this, too, shall pass.” The effective use of distraction can decrease my tendencies toward impulsiveness and will improve my self-control.
(5). Pretend Practice:  Playing the What-if Game!

I like the “What if?” game. In fact, I’ve recommended it to numerous parents who were struggling with impulsive children. The game is a “before the moment” approach to increased consideration of consequences. The activity takes about 10-15 minutes a day with the child. The goal is to present at least three pretend scenarios to the child and the child is to describe the consequences if the pretend action were actually taken.
For example, Dad says to Johnny, “See your little sister playing there with her building blocks. You could walk over there and kick them all down. Pretend for a moment that you were to do that. What would happen? What if you kicked her blocks down?” Dad allows Johnny to think through the potential consequences and then says, “Tell me what the consequences would be.”  Dad reinforces Johnny’s correct responses and coaches him as needed to consider other negative consequences. Then Dad asks, “Okay, Johnny, what if you choose not to knock her blocks down. What is the consequence of your good behavior? What will happen if you show respect to your sister and her toys?” Again, Dad allows Johnny to consider the scenario and to come up with possibilities.  The father and son continue the pretend game with two other real-life scenarios. A variation could be that Johnny gets to pose the third “what if” scenario to Dad (“Okay, Dad, what would happen if….”). Either way Johnny is working on the skill of “thinking consequences,” a skill necessary for increased self-control. 
The Pretend Practice approach could be used creatively during typical daytime activities. Mom is driving Johnny to soccer practice. On the way she gets behind a slow-moving car and has to slow down. Johnny gets impatient. “Mom, I’m gonna be late. Hurry up!” Mom begins to feel the time pressure. She could try to pass the slower car but her vision of the road ahead is not good. Passing would be very risky.  She decides to present this situation to her son:  “What if I decide to pass that slow car anyway without being able to see what’s coming? What might happen?” Mom doesn’t want to scare Johnny, but she uses the situation to train her son to connect action with consequences. Similar situations occur in life and provide good “real-life” opportunities for raising the “What if?” question to encourage our children to consider consequences. As a result, Johnny’s self-control is improved.
(6). Cost Analysis:  Listing the Results!

Another tool that can discourage impulsiveness is Cost Analysis. Simply put, you write out a list of specific positive benefits of self-control and a second list of negative consequences related to impulsiveness. After making the list you analyze the results to determine the cost involved in an impulsive lifestyle in contrast to the benefits of self-control. This analysis can be reviewed daily or periodically to reinforce one’s awareness of the high price tag of impulsiveness and to strengthen the desire for self-control.
(7). Recitation:  Reinforcing Self-control!

Many people have found that recitation is a helpful tool for increasing self-control.  They will write down special sayings, personal affirmations, or relevant Scriptures that discourage impulsiveness and promote self-control. They take three-to-five minutes each morning and read over their list of items, trying to reinforce them in their brains and committing to growth toward better management of their urges and impulses.
(8). Medication:  Using Medical Assistance!

For some people medication is a helpful resource for effective impulse management. In my opinion medication by itself usually falls short, but in conjunction with other self-control tools it could serve a useful purpose. Individuals diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) usually struggle with impulsiveness along with issues of inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Medication, whether stimulant or non-stimulant, may increase the person’s ability to focus more clearly or to be more attentive when needed. This increased clarity of thought can enable a person to slow down the thinking enough to be able to consider potential consequences before negative actions are taken.
(9). Music:  Singing for Self-control!

Too many contemporary songs seem to promote impulsive actions rather than self-control. However, you may know of a song that you really like that could be a useful tool for you. It might become a theme song for you regarding self-control. You could sing the song to yourself or even out loud during times when you’re tempted to do something impulsive and to ignore consequences. One young man reported that he liked to sing a particular song in times of temptation and stress because the song reminded him to keep his head, that is, to remember to “look before you leap.” Music could be a helpful tool in your anti-impulsiveness toolbox.
(10). Decision Cards:  Choosing Consequences!

Another tool that I’ve used with many kids involves what I call decision cards. Here’s how it works. I’ll ask the child if he is right-handed or left-handed and what colors he likes best and dislikes the most. With that information I’ll take two 3x5 cards and write on each one a simple choice message. On one card I’ll use the child’s favorite color and write “I choose to do the right thing and the positive consequences that will result.” I usually place a big “+” sign by the word “positive.” On the other card I’ll write in the child’s disliked color “I choose to do the wrong thing and the negative consequences that will result.” And I usually place a large minus sign by the word “negative.” After preparing the cards I tell the child that he has a decision to make within a thirty-second time frame. Then I place the positive consequences card in the child’s hand that he prefers to use (usually the right hand) and the negative consequences card in the non-preferred hand. I make up a scenario about an action he could take (like breaking something in my office), and I present his two basic choices and the consequences for each choice. He is told not to give any type of answer until a timer sounds. When I’m sure that he understands the decision and the process, I start the timer for thirty seconds. He looks at his two cards and considers his choice. The timer sounds and I ask for his decision. Then we discuss the process and the reasons for his choice.
This Decision Card activity can be used daily with made-up (but real-life) scenarios to help the impulsive child to slow down and to think through consequences. The cards can also be used when the child has an actual choice to make about something in day-to-day life. As you’ve probably already detected, I try to encourage the child to make the right choice through the use of his preferred color and placing the positive card in his preferred-use hand. The cards reinforce the idea that the choice is literally in his hands; he can make choices that will determine the outcome and that will probably affect his standard of living. He’s not a helpless victim living at the mercy of his environment. He is empowered to make better choices. The repeated usage of the Decision Cards will promote positive self-control.

The tools or techniques described above are provided for your consideration as you try to improve your ability to manage your impulsiveness. Perhaps they will trigger some creative thinking within you and you’ll generate other possible resources. If you find or develop something that really seems to help, please let me know so I can add the idea to the list given above.
Concluding thoughts . . .

Traveling on the Impulsiveness Highway carries a high price tag in terms of breakdowns and collisions. The negative pattern invites health problems, relationship damage, employment stress, and legal issues. It generates uncertainty and insecurity for everyone involved as they wait fearfully for the next impulsive action to occur. Living with impulsiveness or living with an impulsive person is a lifestyle filled with anxiety and apprehension. The battle with impulsiveness is often filled with personal injury and life-altering changes. If you’ve been fighting this frustrating battle and you’d prefer a better way to travel through life, then it’s time to make a commitment to reroute yourself toward a journey on the Self-control Highway.

The development of effective self-control is an important part of the maturing process, whether we’re in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. Our travels along the highway of life are much safer and more successful when self-control is a key part of our driving skills. Reaching our destination is much more likely when we’ve been able to resist risky impulsiveness and to practice productive self-control.
I wish you the best in your growth toward greater self-control. And I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.

To view a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses self-control and impulsiveness, click on the image to the right or click here.

Resources:  If you’re looking for other good materials about impulsiveness and self-control, check out the list of books on this website. From the Home page tab Resources click on List of Categories, then the Mental Health category, and then scroll down to the section about Self-control and Impulsiveness. Or, to go to the Mental Health page you can just click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)

             (Mental Health #1307) 


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