Self-Control is a Limited Resource
“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” — Charles C. Noble
Self control is like a muscle. You can build it. But, just like a muscle, it has limits, and you can also exhaust it. If you know how self-control works, and if you know key strategies, you can improve your self-control.
In the post, Science of Procrastination: Researchers Tackle Willpower and our Ability to Control it, Cal Newport shares lessons learned in self-control from Dr. Roy Baumeister. Dr. Baumeister has studied self-control for more than a decade. Back in the 90’s, Baumeister proposed that He proposed that self-control might depend on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.
Ego depletion is the term coined for this “state of diminished resources following exertion of self-control.”
After a While, Your Tanks Will Run Empty
Cal summarizes the results from the studies by Bauminster and others:
“No matter what angle they attacked it from, the same conclusion arose: Self-control is a limited resource. After a while, your tanks will run empty, like a marathoner’s muscles failing in the 20th mile. This cannot be avoided.”
Key Strategies for Improving Ego Depletion
According to Bauminster and others, here are the keys to coping with ego depletion:
- “Just as exercise can make muscles stronger, there are signs that regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength.”
- “When people expect to have to exert self-control later, they will curtail current performance more severely.”
- “People can exert self-control despite ego depletion if the stakes are high enough.”
Cal shares a few additional tips: Stay in a positive emotion, have a plan of steps before you start your task, use incentives, and replenish your glucose.
Ultimately, you can boil this down to building your willpower through practice, and limiting how much and how often you need to use your willpower. You can structure your day to support you better by reducing friction in your common activities. For example, you might stick your shoes by your bed so you can just hop out of bed for your morning jog and start your day, in a friction-free way.
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