Drew Dyck says he wrote a book about self-control because he needed to.
“People write books either because they’ve mastered the topic or because they desperately need to, and I certainly fall into that latter camp,” says Dyck, an author of numerous books whose work has appeared in USA Today, CNN.com, and Christianity Today.
His latest, Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science (Moody), releases—quite appropriately—today.
For anyone who has made New Year’s resolutions—even if you’ve failed at them again and again, as the author has—this might be just the encouragement you need.
ORBITER: Why did you write this book?
Drew Dyck: When I started researching the topic of self-control, I had no plans to write a book. I was just reading for personal use. Like a lot of people, I was just frustrated by my lack of self-control. Every year, my New Year’s resolutions alerted me to the fact that I was not making much progress in some areas of my life. I’d make the same resolutions every year, which of course isn’t a good pattern. It means you’re not ever making progress.
So I started reading up on the topic, books on willpower and habits and self-control, and found a lot of the literature really intriguing and helpful.
Your book mentions your 44-year-old brother’s heart attack, and how that was a wake-up call.
Yes. He recovered, but it made me realize I’d have to get serious about my health. So I decided that I was going to radically change my lifestyle, and I did . . . for about three weeks. I reverted to my old ways of eating poorly and being sedentary. It was just amazing to me, the disconnect that we can have between our knowledge and our behavior. I’m convinced that eating poorly would be dangerous for me, and yet for some reason I was unable to translate that into action.
Later, my brother asked me if I was any more “spiritual” than I was 20 years ago. I started talking about all the knowledge I had accumulated, that I had graduated from seminary, that I was a regular church attender. But I couldn’t say that I actually was any more spiritual. It made me realize that if we’re not intentional about it, our knowledge of God doesn’t translate into loving or serving others better, or becoming less selfish or more like Jesus. That was another disturbing disconnect in my own life.
You wrote about an ancient Jewish sect, the Therapeutae, who had apparently mastered self-control.
Philo described their extraordinary lives of devotion and piety. He wrote, “Having first laid down self-control as a foundation for the soul, they build the other virtues on it.” That line jumped off the page for me; I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly it!”
Self-control is not just one more virtue, or something that’s optional for a good life. It’s a foundational virtue because without it, all those other virtues—generosity, selflessness, kindness—are impossible, because they demand that we suspend our own desires in order to do what’s right. realized that, man, if I want to make progress in my life, I need more self-control.
Fuller Seminary’s Thrive Center puts it really well. They call self-control “an instrumental virtue. It facilitates the acquisition/development of other virtues: joy, gratitude, generosity.” I think that’s true.
If so, why are we so reluctant to pursue self-control?
Unfortunately, “self-control” has kind of fallen on hard times. When I bring up the topic, some people kind of wince. It’s like, they know they need more self-control, but they don’t really want to think about.
Other people view it as sort of an optional thing, like, “We don’t need more self-control.” I think the big virtue of our age is self-expression: “You don’t restrain yourself; that sounds repressive and Victorian. You have to release your innermost thoughts and feelings and desires.” While there is certainly merit to express yourself, I think we’ve overplayed that culturally, and we have relegated self-control to the margin—or neglected it completely.
But the truth is that without self-control, you don’t learn to restrain your desires, and you can’t cultivate those other virtues. Ultimately—and this is the big thing—self-control enables you to experience freedom in your life, right? Let’s say your spending is out of control. Eventually you’re going to have crushing consumer debt, and you’ll have to work longer and harder to pay it off, and you lose your freedom. That applies to just about every area of your life.
Many books about self-control come from either a religious standpoint or from a scientific perspective. Yours approaches the topic from both angles.
Well, it wasn’t easy. While I have some training in theology from seminary, I don’t have any formal training in science. So that was a stretch for me. It involved talking to people with training—psychologists, sociologists, neurologists. I thought if I either just focused on the theological side or the scientific side, I’d be really hobbled, because you really do need both.
I thought it was crucial to incorporate science because it really matters, particularly understanding how our brains work, understanding willpower and habit forming. There have been fascinating findings in recent years about how exactly those things work.
I’m the kind of Christian who believes the maxim that all truth is God’s truth. So the sciences are not out of bounds.
What were some of the eureka moments for you while looking into the science?
The first was the research about willpower. A landmark study by Roy Baumeister found that willpower is a finite resource, that it can be depleted, and often rather quickly. That’s a foundational insight because when you’re trying to control yourself or to start a new behavior, you have to be remember you have a limited reserve of willpower. So then the game becomes, How do I conserve willpower, and how do I grow it? A lot of studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle—the more you exercise it, the more it grows.
A lot of research on habit formation indicates that habits have three distinct parts—a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is a trigger, an external signal that prompts your brain to go into an automatic mode. The cue initiates a routine, the behavior you perform. Finally, there’s the reward, some kind of payoff that reinforces the behavior.
It’s helpful to think about how you can intentionally initiate new healthy habits and get rid of old unhealthy ones, especially when you understand what constitutes a habit. The best research on that indicates it takes about 66 days to form a habit.
What did you learn about the intersection of theology and science?
I also saw a lot of interesting corollaries between Christian theology and science.
Researchers talk about the “What-The-Hell Effect.” Basically, that’s when someone messes up their diet, for instance, then for the rest of the day, they just binge. I’ve done that so many times. We have this tendency, once we feel like we’ve already messed up, just to go full bore, engaging in more bad behavior.
Then I thought about theology and about the importance of grace and forgiveness in the Christian tradition. Psychologically, grace and forgiveness give us a fresh start. Researchers talk about the “Fresh-Start Effect.” People tend to do better on their resolutions at the beginning of the new year because they have that fresh start. As Christians, when we get forgiveness from God, there’s a “Fresh-Start Effect.” So it’s not guilt that creates the behavior, but the opposite—that feeling of forgiveness that actually spurs more virtuous behavior.
How can we develop willpower?
Two strategies to keep in mind about willpower: One is to preserve it, and the other is to grow it. All kind of things diminish our reserves of willpower—resisting temptation, interpersonal conflict, lack of sleep, making decisions. In my own life, I noticed that that after a day of hard work, I could be a bit of a jerk with my family. My wife said, “I feel like we get the leftovers.” I realized I was spending a lot of willpower throughout the day. I don’t necessarily know what the answer is. Maybe it’s to take a break and replenish your willpower before you’re engaging with your family.
As for building willpower, it’s incredible how quickly you can build it. Studies show that using your non-dominant hand for a short period of time increases your willpower—as do learning a new language and doing other uncomfortable things. I want to stop here and credit Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit and an interview with Bradley Wright, a UConn sociologist, because these are certainly not my ideas.
The best way to use willpower—because it’s finite—is to use it to initiate new habits in your life, right? Because a habit by definition is something that is automatic, something done with little or no effort. So once you have a new behavior in your life, you don’t have to extend all that willpower each time you do it.
For instance, take people who wake up and run a few miles every morning. They’re not waking up and saying, “Oh my goodness, I got to motivate myself. OK, here I go. Slap myself in the face.” No. They just go out and run because it’s a habit, and therefore they’ve freed up more willpower to work on new habits.
John Ortberg said, “Habits eat willpower for breakfast.” In other words, when you go into a situation where you’re tempted, nine times out of 10 you’re going to default to your habits. You go to a restaurant and you plan to eat well and order a salad, but you end up ordering a burger and dessert because that’s your habit. Even though you might have some willpower, habits win every time. So we need to develop good ones.
Does your book have anything to say to non-religious people?
Yes, if they’re open to that. Studies show that religion and its activities are incredibly helpful in boosting self-control. Researchers say that can happen through what they call “sanctified goals.” Religious people have a tendency to attach spiritual significance to their endeavors, right? What that does, in the language of the academic community, is it increases goal striving.
People pursue “sanctified goals” much differently than other goals, and have higher success rates of reaching them. I read a New York Times article by an atheist who said, “If I’m going to reach my New Year’s resolutions, perhaps I should consider starting to go to church,” even though he didn’t believe in God. The same with prayer and meditation; we know that meditating or praying for even five minutes a day dramatically increases your self-control. Prayer is what researchers call a keystone habit—a habit that not only increases your self-control for a particular behavior, but also influences you to make healthy choices in other areas as well.
Well, is it working for you?
Too bad we’re doing this interview over the phone. I could show you my abs! (laughs) But seriously, yes, it’s made a difference, and I say this as someone who is naturally lazy. I’ve always struggled to develop self-control. It’s not like I’ve become some world-class triathlete, but I’ve seen real progress.
I have implemented some of these practices in my life, and I really have started small. For instance, I wanted to pray and read my Bible every day, but I started with just 10 minutes a day. It was really encouraging to see how when I made those habits—the same time every day, the same length of time—they became more or less automatic.
I’ve also dropped about 20 pounds so far. I started a routine of going for a little jog every day. Again, no big great thing, but I have seen a difference. It’s been helpful to keep in mind the science on habits and how important it is to be consistent.
So, yeah, I’ve seen some progress. I’m certainly no Superman, but I look forward to making more progress. I’m still fairly new to this, but it’s very encouraging so far.