Brain Pickings

The Psychology of Self-Control

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“Everyone’s self-control is a limited resource; it’s like muscle strength: the more we use it, the less remains in the tank, until we replenish it with rest.”

Ever since psychology godfather William James first expounded the crucial role of habit in how we live and who we become, modern psychology has sought to figure out how we can rewire our bad habits, maximize our willpower, and use habits to optimize our productivity. And yet, if the market for self-help books and to-do apps and productivity tools is any indication, a great many of us still struggle with either understanding the psychology of habit and willpower or applying it to what really matters. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick (public library), psychologist Jeremy Dean illuminates an important common misconception about how willpower shapes our habits and behaviors:

People naturally vary in the amount of self-control they have, so some will find it more difficult than others to break a habit. But everyone’s self-control is a limited resource; it’s like muscle strength: the more we use it, the less remains in the tank, until we replenish it with rest. In one study of self-control, participants first had to resist the temptation to eat chocolate (they had a radish instead); then they were given a frustrating task to do. The test was to see how long they would persist. Radish-eaters only persisted on the task for about 8 minutes, while those who had gorged on chocolate kept going for 19 minutes. The mere act of exerting willpower saps the strength for future attempts. These sorts of findings have been repeated again and again using different circumstances.

We face these sorts of willpower-depleting events all day long. When someone jostles you in the street and you resist the urge to shout at them, or when you feel exhausted at work but push on with your email: these all take their toll. The worse the day, the more the willpower muscle is exerted, the more we rely on autopilot, which means increased performance of habits. It’s crucial to respect the fact that self-control is a limited resource and you are likely to overestimate its strength. Recognizing when your levels of self-control are low means you can make specific plans for those times.

Fortunately, Dean points out that there are a number of strategies we can use to counter our depleted willpower. One of the key ones is pre-commitment — a way of “restricting the choices of your future self” by removing the stimuli that you know would trigger your bad habits. Doing that while your self-control is high, and your willpower reservoir full, protects you from succumbing once it dips low.

The rest of Making Habits, Breaking Habits, while erring on the self-helpy side at times, does distill a number of compelling findings from psychology labs into surprisingly useful insights on making everyday life not only more livable but also more joyful.

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