The Self Control “Button”

What would you say – if I were to ask you – In the last one week have you  procrastinated on your key tasks? 

or, have exercised lesser than what was good for you? 

In case you have then, console yourself that you are not alone.. We all have many desires of ourselves in the long term, but in the short term most of us tend to do very different things.

For instance, have you texted while driving?

You know its dangerous. Accidents happen. It is not as if you start weighing  the pros and cons and then take a rational decison to take the call.

The mobile rings and you impulsively reach for the phone.

What if you had a mechanism – to help you bypass these impulses. What if there was a switch to turn off your temptations and prevent you from doing something bad for yourself?

There is one such mechanism available – Lets give it a name – “The Red Button”.

Let me share an experiment with you. This was an experiment conducted at the MIT in 1974. The experiment involved a Rat and a Pigeon. In many ways it is considered to be a path breaking .

In the experiment a Rat & a pigeon were taught that pressing a green button would mean receivingone pellet of food after one second and a purple button would mean 10 pellets after 10 seconds. During the trials with varying sequences of purple and green buttons – both the rat and the pigeon went for the green button i.e .. they went for “instant gratification” losing out on the much larger reward of 10 pellets of food.

This was much like what we do. We start out on our long term rewards but come across something tempting and go for “instant gratification”.


In a modified version of the experiment a Red Button was provided as an option. The Red Button turned “off” the Green Button. Effectively this was a mechanism to turn off temptation and instant gratification. Both the Rat and the Pigeon – used this option often to prevent themselves from getting tempted.

That was a path breaking experiment with two very optimistic takeaways for us – 

  • If the the Rat and pigeon can do it maybe we can do it too.
  • And the second is that It is all about designing the Red Button. A bypass mechanism to prevent ourselves from getting tempted.

When we are faced with distractions and temptations with no tools to overcome them we are likely to fail much like the rats and pigeons.  But, if we have a mechanism to prevent ourselves from getting tempted  – our self control contracts – our Red Button – maybe we can keep the distractions in check.

Let me share with you an example , that of guy called Demosthenes.

Demosthenes is considered to be the greatest orator of his time-He used to live in ancient Greece. But when he was in his early years – he used to get railed for the weakness of his voice and bad delivery.He literally got chased from the podium. He decided it was time to improve himself with practice and hard work.  For this – He built an underground study for himself( he was quite rich) for this specific purpose and shaved off just one side of his head – his self control contract – the “Red Button” to prevent himself from coming out even if he desired to do so.  Thus he spent months cultivating his voice and speaking ability.And he went on to become a great Speaker.

Each one of us faces self control challenges in some way unique to us, be it Procrastination, or too much time on Facebook, could be anything.

Without a bye pass mechanism we are likely to fail much like the Rat and the Pigeon The key lies in introducing our own self control contracts – our Red Buttons.

Here are a few examples of Red Buttons( avialble off the shelf) to overcome some typical self control challenges people face –

Clocky the Alarm Clock

Clocky the alarm clock – Mornings it doesn’t just ring an alarm – it also runs around on wheels. So you are forced out of the bed to search and turn it off.

Website viewership Monitor

This website prevents you from spending too much time on facebook or any other website you frequent .

If you happen to come across any such stuff that can help prevent temptation – at office or personally feel free to share. Incase you have any ideas on how to overcome your own self control challenges – I invite you to share them here..

This post is based on a very thought provoking TED Talk by Dan Ariely an expert on Human Behavior.  


2 thoughts on “The Self Control “Button”

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