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The Gentle Art of Self-Control

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After somebody threw a flask of acid on the Mona Lisa in 1956, they put her behind bulletproof (and presumably acid-proof) glass. Same with Picasso’s Guernica, after a man spray-painted “Kill all lies” in giant red letters across the canvas.

I have always found it unbelievable that most very famous paintings have no physical barrier between them and the visitors. At MoMA in New York, I wandered around a small wall, turned, and was alarmed to discover Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, hardly more than an arm’s length away from my distracted, clumsy body.

The hundred-million-dollar painting is protected only by a line of tape on the floor about two feet from the wall, presumably marking the distance at which your communion with the painting becomes too intimate and the security guard must lean in and scold you.

The vast majority of famous artworks on display are protected only by similar lines of tape, shin-high string fences, or in more extreme cases, velvet ropes. Amazingly, these non-barriers are sufficient to keep the vast majority of gallery visitors from mucking with the world’s most valuable art. None of these boundaries could stop a determined vandal, but they do seem to prevent nearly 100% of the rest of us from getting inappropriately close. (The guards would quickly tackle you of course, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t allowed to tackle you before you start clawing at the artwork.) 

The truth is most people don’t want to muck things up, at least in a premeditated way. But when there are absolutely no boundaries, no lines to indicate when your proximity to some delicate thing becomes inappropriate, people will end up mucking things up. It’s just what we do.

The classic velvet rope fence, drooping between portable silver posts—the kind that shapes cinema queues, demarcates staff-only areas, and protects unattended wedding cakes—is the quintessential “polite barrier.” It’s so determined not to offend you that it’s actually made of velvet. It doesn’t want to imply bad intentions on your part, the way barbed wire or pointy wrought iron fences do. It only wants you to consider kindly moving alongside it rather than across it.

Velvet ropes can’t stop anyone physically, but somehow, they stop almost everyone psychologically. This is a useful principle for guiding one of the most important clumsy, wandering people in your life: yourself. You can use the guiding power of the velvet rope to gently shepherd yourself away from moments in your routine where short-term impulses sometimes undermine your bigger goals.

It’s strange when you think about it, but self-control isn’t a trivial matter. For some complex evolutionary reason, it is mysteriously difficult to get ourselves to do certain obviously helpful things, such as flossing, and get ourselves not to do unhelpful things, such as eating a cookie immediately after flossing. (The specific challenges vary from person to person.)

We do self-defeating things like this because we have conflicting desires. We want good teeth and we also want late-night cookies. Usually we understand which path is smarter and ultimately more rewarding, but getting ourselves to take that path, especially on a consistent basis, can seem like a real puzzle.

The usual impulse is to control ourselves, with force if necessary. We make sweeping declarations about how we’re going to behave from now on (usually starting next Monday). No more junk food on weekdays! No more internet before lunchtime! A new sheriff is in town!

Predictably, we rebel—at first by sneaking in glorious, naughty exceptions to our self-imposed laws, and then by abandoning the rules completely, once it’s clear that we can’t simultaneously be the legislator, the police, and the perpetrator.

More and more, when it comes to getting away from unhealthy habits, I’m using a velvet rope approach instead of a more forceful, “barbed wire” approach. I place some sort of gentle, symbolic barrier between myself and the thing I want to stop doing, and often it’s enough to break the momentum of an unfolding poor choice.

For example, one dumb thing I have a history of doing is drinking coffee in the late afternoon, despite the well-established risk of tossing and turning all night. Still, out of some stubborn, reptile-brain pattern, I’m frequently tempted to do it.

I have no doubts at all that if a tiny square of velvet ropes were to appear around my coffee grinder every day at 2pm, I would almost never make the wrong choice.

A similarly tiny, razor-wire fence would be too much. I’m not a monster; I just end up bargaining with bad impulses sometimes. A modest, velvet reminder to direct myself elsewhere is all that would be needed to keep me on a better path.

I don’t have tiny velvet ropes, so instead, after my post-lunch coffee, I immediately place the grinder’s removable plastic reservoir into the sink, to be washed with the dishes later. The fact that the piece is sitting in the sink, associating with unwashed cutlery, is enough to get me to move along.

A more forceful approach might backfire. If I surrendered my coffee paraphernalia to a neighbor every lunch hour, I’d quickly develop a ritual of going to a coffee shop right afterward. The velvet rope doesn’t alter your path by force. It guides, suggests, implies, reminds. It leaves the choice up to you, but makes that choice slightly easier. The key is that it’s still a choice—only when you’re still choosing can you call it self-control.

I could choose to step over the velvet rope, by washing the container and making coffee anyway. But even then, late-afternoon coffee drinking would still be an exceptional rather than normal choice, simply because of the small, surmountable obstacle that’s now in the way. When it’s perfectly easy to undermine yourself, you often will. When the self-defeating act becomes a little harder than perfectly easy, you probably won’t.

That’s all velvet ropes need to do: make it slightly harder than perfectly easy to go the wrong way. The key is identifying that juncture in time and space where the easiest thing is the inappropriate thing, and putting some tiny, gentle obstacle in the way.

What’s the thing you keep doing that you wish you didn’t? Can you put something in the way?

Once you know where you tend to veer into trouble, the flow can often be interrupted by a single symbolic barrier—a rubber band around your wallet, a paperweight on top of the cookie jar, a line of tape on the gallery floor.

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Photo by Igor Miske

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{ 65 Comments }

Solitary Diner October 8, 2017 at 11:31 pm

For me, my velvet rope is brushing my teeth. Once I’ve reached the point in my evening at which I want to stop eating for the day (usually right after supper), I will brush my teeth as a way of signalling to myself that it’s time to stop. It’s obviously very easy to keep snacking anyway, but this seems to be enough of a barrier to myself that I usually don’t.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:24 am

I didn’t think of that but I have definitely done this too. It is much easier to refrain from nightttime cookies if you know you’ll have to brush again.

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wren nesredna October 9, 2017 at 12:16 am

Hey man. I just feel really compelled to throw you an “attaboy!” because I really appreciate what you do. I’ve spent the last hour reading some of your articles (I love the writing; an easy flow and I like the recent dental hygiene nods), and have been enjoying it. This is another great story, the developed analogy (or anecdote?) about the “velvet” approach to safeguarding oneself is a simple, brilliant one. Definitely, keep it up! You are an inspiration.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:25 am

Hey thanks!

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Zoe October 9, 2017 at 2:16 am

That’s really interesting, I’d never thought about it like that.
My mind immediately went to social media and how accessible it is (and time-consuming)… and then I quickly realised it offers the perfect velvet barrier: log out of your account and disable the automatic connection. Having to log in manually each time would annoy me considerably.
Hmm… might have to consider that next time I feel I’m being unproductive.
Thank you for the article!

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:27 am

Another good one. I’ve been doing this too, and not just with social media. I forgot the joy of typing in your username and password at light speed

http://1000awesomethings.com/2009/12/17/611-typing-in-your-username-and-password-at-the-speed-of-light/

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Carys October 11, 2017 at 7:44 am

This is what I do for Facebook! About a year ago I changed my password to a long string of random letters, numbers, and symbols. I keep the password written on a piece of paper, and keep that piece of paper out of sight. If I want to log on, I have to dig out the paper and carefully type in the annoyingly long string. It’s an amazing deterrent – killed my Facebook addiction in days.

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kolya October 14, 2017 at 12:01 pm

did you ever think of giving up using this face/book instead of all that?

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Curtis M Michaels October 9, 2017 at 2:58 am

Once again you answer a prayer. I go to Facebook when I should be writing. I’m a freelance writer who could make considerably more income if I could change this habit.

Thanks to you I now have a velvet rope. To go to Facebook I now have to access the newly minted Social Media folder on my browser’s bookmark bar. That oughtta do it.

Thank you!

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:30 am

Perfect. As all online marketers know, an extra click or two is enough to kill a hot impulse. Let me know how it goes.

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Mairead October 9, 2017 at 3:19 am

For the first few hours of the day I will leave my phone upstairs so I can be fully present for my two very small boys. Phone calls, messages and emails can wait a couple of hours for a response!

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Rose October 9, 2017 at 8:18 am

I do this with the phone as well. I leave it to charge in the bathroom, so that I can have an uninterrupted evening.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:31 am

That’s the way it should be! I sometimes miss the days when nobody expected to be responded to immediately.

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Michael October 9, 2017 at 3:28 am

Fabulous article. I immediately put the loaf of freshly baked sourdough in the cupboard to cool. I’d have eaten half the loaf by bedtime otherwise.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:32 am

Mmmmmm sourdough

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Anna October 9, 2017 at 3:45 am

We only have a portable computer and i bought a lovely carpet bag the other day that is just the size of the computer. i will start the habit of putting it in after my morning computer session so that the unzipping of the bag makes me think twice. I didnt put it in today and i saw my computer on the sofa and just couldnt help but sit down and check my emails. Glad i did though because i love getting your articles. So beautifully written and always just what i need to hear. Ive said it before but reading your articles have literally changed my life….my house is amazingly organised and tidy (Kon mari, and fly ladys method….shining the sink), I am much more patient and kind with my kids because of reading the self developement books on your list, i have accomplished many goals and because of 43things you mentioned in an article and this led to me finding Zero waste and i now have only one liter bottle of rubbish per year… not to mention all the people i helped afterwards…. a big Knock on effect. Thanks again.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:39 am

Hi Anna. Wow, it makes me so happy to hear that. I love how ideas move between us like that and put down roots in our routines. What a beautiful thing.

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Burak Şahin October 9, 2017 at 4:32 am

Although I found this idea perfectly reasonable and solid, I am still left with a side issue/question:

I totally agree that fence helps protect the artwork but I think it is more about getting caught (and presumably being jailed for ruining the artwork) than the fence itself. I don’t deny the fence-effect here; rather, I am just suggesting that probably fence is a reminder for the prison (or getting caught). Sure, I would not (and most visitors would not) spoil any artwork even if there are no guards or fences around. But even if I wanted to spoil it, it would be the guard’s presence that could stop me than any lines/fences.

I know this sounds tangential to your main point but the implication of it is interesting: The line/fence may not directly translate into other areas of life because we may not have a guard/police over our actions even if the fence is present. Yes, it psychologically puts a reasonable barrier for self-control but I feel there is a bit more to it than that.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:41 am

Right, in the case of museums there is a strong deterrent effect on outright vandalism. But I can guarantee you if there were no guards or fences the artworks would slowly, if not quickly get ruined, as people touch, smudge, carve initials, take inappropriate selfies and so on.

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Burak Şahin October 9, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Yeah, there is that psychological effect too; I totally agree.

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Priscilla October 9, 2017 at 5:37 am

I need NEED to turn off all screens an hour before bedtime so I can fall asleep. Otherwise I toss and turn. I read through the comments and like Zoe’s suggestion of logging out of my accounts. It would be that much more bothersome to check messages “just one more time” if I had to log in to do so. (Thanks, Zoe!)

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:42 am

Logging out has been a huge help for me over the past year or so. I forgot how satisfying it is to type in a password.

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Austin Thompson October 9, 2017 at 5:54 am

Great article David! Having a little more self control can completely change someones life so I appreciate the velvet rope lesson here. I just need to figure out what fence I can make around the candy jar at work :)

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:43 am

Anything that can change your path. Whatever series of events brings you right in front of it, change some part.

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Vishal October 9, 2017 at 6:44 am

Lovely insight, David. It’s not about painting the Mona Lisa the first time you pick up the brush, but slowly learning to make strokes. Similarly, it’s about easing into replacing an unhealthy habit rather than stopping it all at once.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:45 am

The way in which the little “strokes” of our behavior are interconnected can really help, because often changing just one thing disrupts the connect-the-dots type mechanisms that have us doing things the way we shouldn’t. It changes all the incentives.

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Alissa October 9, 2017 at 6:50 am

Hi David, I’m curious if you’ve heard of or read about the Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin, a framework of identify how well people meet inner and outer expectations. In her view, your cues would work for some people, but some need more outer accountability. https://gretchenrubin.com/books/the-four-tendencies/intro/

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:45 am

I saw it in a bookstore the other day but I haven’t read it. Will check it out, thanks.

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Mrs. Picky Pincher October 9, 2017 at 8:24 am

I think sometimes we make it too easy for us to do things we know aren’t good. ;) It’s tough for me to stay off of social media, for example, because that is part of my full-time job (bleh). As far as my bad habits, I know I spend too much time mindlessly watching TV instead of doing something actually productive. And then, of course, I complain about not having enough time to get things done. :P

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:48 am

I have known people who drape a nice fabric over their TVs when not in use. It can improve a room and would provide a good velvet fence there. Sometimes we want to watch TV only because there is zero resistance to overcome in order to do it. If there was a tiny amount, we might not bother, because TV is often only *barely* worthwhile.

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Tonya October 9, 2017 at 8:44 am

Some things I’m good at doing with the imaginary velvet rope, like drinking. I like wine, and that bottle is just sitting there, but more than likely it doesn’t serve me well in that moment. Other things, however, need a jail cell like barrier. For me that’s snacky things, especially the ones at work. I remember hearing Gretchen Ruben once saying you are either an obtainer or moderator, but I think I’m actually both. One glass of wine. Find. One snack…down the rabbit hole I go!

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:53 am

For snacky things, someone suggested something earlier: extra toothbrushings. If you brushed your teeth after every snack, they would become less attractive.

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Tara C October 9, 2017 at 1:43 pm

That would be Abstainer vs. Moderator.

I have always been a Moderator but I am beginning to appreciate the value of being an Abstainer.

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John board October 9, 2017 at 9:17 am

What you have written about the current loss of self control into world of distrust and chaos is a fact in our present world.

The human has an immune system that is being breached continually by chemicals causing a chaos every person. Chemicals render people unstable
from birth to death. Antibiotics vaccines, medicines, sugar, GMO foods all contribute to this.

The answer lies i cleaning up our personal immune system so it is not being poisoned.

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:54 am

Hmm.. I would think this principle would work regardless of immune system status

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CARLA October 9, 2017 at 9:45 am

Good point. I think the opposite holds true…to get something done I must remove that rope and get in my own face so to speak. For example I can put off brushing the dogs, but if I put the implements out I am more inclined to get it done. Like having healthy food available and all prepped will sometimes keep me from grabbing that cookie! If I need to do something I have to figure out what the rope is and remove it!

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:55 am

That’s a good point… I didn’t realize it but I wrote about exactly the opposite effect in this post:

http://www.raptitude.com/2017/04/how-to-do-it-tomorrow-instead-of-never/

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Jeff S October 9, 2017 at 9:47 am

This was such a well articulated article, man. The metaphor of the velvet rope is fantastic and instantly called to mind similar situations in my life. The biggest thing I can do is move my cell
phone away from me when I’m doing work. If my phone is within arms reach I know it will
only be a matter of time before I’m browsing Reddit or Facebook. Simply putting it ten feet away does the trick usually, as that little extra effort, like you described in your coffee story, is often enough to get rid of the urge for the instantaneous dopamine rush. Thanks again for the article. The velvet rope metaphor is going to stick with me!

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David Cain October 9, 2017 at 9:56 am

Thanks Jeff. I’ve been doing that one for years — just putting the phone “over there”, requiring me to stand to get it. It turns out most of the occasions I want to use my phone, the desire is so weak that it isn’t even worth *crossing the room* for. That’s very telling!

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Michele Kendzie October 9, 2017 at 10:34 am

Makes sense! But it depends on the person and the situation. My “velvet rope” for late night potato chip snacking has to be that there are no potato chips in my house. And having brushed my teeth only occasionally prevents late night snacking.

However, I keep my phone close by all the time, but it doesn’t tempt me. I only read my email once a day, sometimes less than that. I only check Facebook when I have a little downtime (a few times a day) and I wish I would remember to check Instagram more often than the once a week or so I’m averaging lately. I like to keep my phone close by because I have teens to keep track of (we homeschool and I drive them around to activities a lot) and I use it for note taking and reminders and such.

Thanks for the always inspiring articles! (I’ve been reading you for several years.)

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David Cain October 12, 2017 at 9:07 am

I also do not keep chips in the house. The strange thing is I don’t like them all that much, I just want to eat them so that I’m no longer tempted to eat them.

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Gabrielle Bauer October 9, 2017 at 11:17 am

Your writing is a breath of fresh air in the dreck-laden online world. I find it interesting that temptations vary so much from person to person, but almost nobody is immune from temptation itself. Rich food is definitely a lure for me, while social media is not. I find it relatively uninteresting and never have to “pull myself away.” (My age could have something to do with this.) Anyway, bravo again!

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David Cain October 12, 2017 at 9:07 am

Thanks Gabrielle

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Kevi Sutter October 9, 2017 at 11:44 am

I can’t stop giggling over the fact that I have set off more alarms and been scolded by more guards in museums and galleries than most people. Despite lines of tape and velvet ropes, I simply can’t resist touching the 18th century writing desk or smelling the oil paint on the VanGogh. I take full advantage to freely hug cathedrals and once held my hand on an un-barricaded sarcophagus until my traveling partner lost patience. What can I say…I’m a toucher. Now I need to re-read this post to figure out how this rebelliousness is affecting me in other areas of my life.

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David Cain October 12, 2017 at 9:05 am

Haha… you are the reason for all the velvet ropes, but at least you’re not the reason for bulletproof glass.

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Peggy October 21, 2017 at 7:05 pm

My husband got in trouble for “petting” the big cat statue in a NYC museum… The guard must have a sore throat by the end of every day, because I heard him reprimand several people :)

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Ronan October 9, 2017 at 1:07 pm

Depends, barbed wires are sometimes fine. I plugged my router to a programmable timer, killing the internets everyday at 9PM. I sometimes manually disable the switching off (watching a movie online with friends, wanting to send the occasional email), but most of the time it works as expected, reminding my screen-addicted brain to go grab my guitar or a book, and go to sleep earlier.

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David Cain October 12, 2017 at 9:05 am

Barbed wire definitely has its place!

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Lindsay October 9, 2017 at 2:22 pm

Yup, the Nudge. My favorite type of nudge is clothing: I like to change out of my work clothes immediately when I get home, and I also have a hard time getting out of comfy clothes and into gym clothes. So on days when I’m scheduled to go to the gym in the evening, I change out of work clothes into gym clothes. Voila! A polite little nudge in the direction of actually going to the gym, since otherwise having gym clothes on would seem a bit… silly.

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David Cain October 12, 2017 at 9:06 am

Another similar one is food prep. If I’ve already cut up the broccoli, I’m much more likely to go ahead and get out the pot and steamer.

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gepee October 9, 2017 at 2:35 pm

Ha, I love this article and the comment section with so many ideas what our velvet ropes could be. Sometimes I lack creativity in this part, so it’s very helpful to read what others are doing.
I used to read in bed before sleeping … and then wake up in the middle of the night with the bedside lamp still on. When I turned it off, I was suddenly wide awake and not able to sleep at all … so after some time of tossing and turning I would switch on the light again, read some more, and wake up hours later with the light still on … not refreshed at all in the morning.
Recently I suddenly had the idea to put my bedside lamp into the cellar. I could still read with the ceiling light on, but no – all of a sudden I just go to bed and sleep

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Abhijeet Kumar October 9, 2017 at 7:19 pm

The velvet rope can just be an acknowledgement in some cases. But self control is a tricky business. For me, the last few things where I have wanted more self control is — writing long emails (:)), watching wildlife documentaries (especially the ones where it is all dramatized, as if using another species life to entertain our ego’s thirst for a story/drama).

Strangely, acknowledgment nearly works many times. The cost, it leads to feeling discomfort, and eventually some soul searching (why that desire?), and even more strange it can turn out to be a gold mine (some past experience, suppressing emotions, trauma, and sometimes it feels like a trauma/emotional suffering of an ancestor or the culture around me).

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Silke Stadler October 10, 2017 at 1:10 am

Hi David, that’s really well observed and was fun (and a revelation) to read. I will definitely keep your words in mind in regard to my own little struggles with self control. Thank you!
silke from Munich

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Jen October 10, 2017 at 2:02 pm

I put my WiFi on a timer about a month ago. Clicks on for a few hours in the late morning/early afternoon, and then again after dinner until 9:30 at night. It’s amazing how many times I’m on the Internet, it clicks off, and I think, “Oh, I could go down to the basement and flip the switch…nah, I should be doing something else anyway.”

I enjoy your posts, by the way.

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OnePercentDecisions October 10, 2017 at 3:49 pm

Great read and I love this concept! Making small decisions or in your case, small barriers are all that it often takes to make big changes in life. A few examples come to mind in my own life:

1. Like one of the folks above, I leave my phone upstairs when I get home to ensure quality time with my children.
2. Put my alarm clock across the room to ensure I get out of bed to work out in the morning.
3. Decide what I’m going to order before I get to the restaurant so I choose wisely when my guard is down.

There are so many of these that we can do to improve our lives. Thanks for the reminder.

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Rebecca October 10, 2017 at 9:50 pm

This was exquisitely written. You’re a very talented writer.

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Bhushan October 11, 2017 at 2:08 am

I used this same technique to get rid of my smoking habit. I stopped carrying cigarette packs with me to office. So each time I felt a craving I had to walk away from my office to some store and get that stick.
Slowly the trips started reducing and the habit is gone now.
Nice to see you put this phenomenon into words. I just did this on an impulse

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Ron October 11, 2017 at 6:06 pm

I had the exact same experience in MOMA w/ Van Gogh’s masterpiece, decades ago. Floored me to see it, and to see it so unprotected. Quite a statement about the general trustworthiness of the vast majority of people.

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LennStar October 12, 2017 at 10:36 am

Way to go to connect the velvet rope with coffee :D

If I had to guess I think it all comes down to decision fatigue.

If you walk into your kitchen and see the coffee (in your case), then you have to make a decision – to drink or not to drink!
Since you don’t want to waste your precious decision power, you “choose” the easiest way (since that is what the oldest part of your brain says) and drink. Not drinking would need some amount of power.

But with the rope in place, the situation is reversed:
The rope is (like pre-made food) a pre-made decision. The easiest way now is to do what the rope tells you. You now actually need decision power to go against the rope and such seldom do it.

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KG October 12, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Love this gentle approach to self control. It’s like setting a little anchor or cue for your mind to follow through.

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QCI October 12, 2017 at 1:34 pm

To prevent myself from gorging on sweet treats we often put them directly in the freezer. The extra step of going into the freezer and having to dethaw it is just enough to deter me.

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avinash October 15, 2017 at 5:05 am

Thanks for the post David. I got some insight on how Velvet rope works.
I am doing this for few months now. I have uninstalled facebook app from my mobile and have not “auto saved” the password of faceboook on desktop and mobile. So every time I want to check facebook I have to type password. This has made me to login facebook quite less than I used to do earlier. Its kind of “soft pain” to everytime type the password. :). Thanks a bunch. I am planning more velvet rope on habits I want to quit.

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Lorraine October 15, 2017 at 12:16 pm

I, too, laughed out loud at the flossing, then eating a cookie right after. I know that one all too well. And, I’m totally familiar with hesitating at the kitchen cabinet, and (usually, but not always) turning away, because I really don’t want to have to brush my teeth again. Who knew this was such a common experience? :D
I do brush my teeth right after supper to psych myself into not eating anything else for the rest of the night. It often actually works.

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Andre J Brown October 16, 2017 at 11:10 am

This was a great article that you wrote. I learned a lot about self control from it. You did a great job David!

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Miles Carter October 17, 2017 at 6:03 am

You brought up an interesting part about flossing vs eating a cookie afterwards. This article is fantastic for covering the cookie predicament, but still leaves me questioning how to get into the habit of flossing, considering I have a hard enough time remembering to brush my teeth twice a day. I *know* it is good for me in the long run, but it is (or, at least, I perceive it as) just such an inconvenience in my short term life. I can comfortably say my life is dominated by convenience whenever perfectionism isn’t at play. I think I know the problem though, I really just don’t *care* that much about myself. I care more about other people; it’s more important to me that they’re happy and healthy rather than myself. I’m not really sure where I was going with this but I’d love to see if you have any other articles concerning the issues I’ve presented. I’m 18 by the way :), found this through useful interweb.

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