Self-Control Wears You Out


Change is Hard Because Self-Control Wears You Out

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” — Maria Robinson

When you have to think your way through things, you wear yourself out.

This is why routines and going into automatic pilot serve you.

You don’t have to think your way through the basics and you can focus your thinking on higher level things up the stack.  Imagine if every day you had to think your way through brushing your teeth, making breakfast, getting dressed … etc.

Spend Your Thinking Budget Wisely

You effectively rob Peter to pay Paul, when you spend your thinking on things.  That’s why focus and what you direct your attention to and what you choose to turn into thoughtful decisions or mindful actions is so important.  In other words, you have a “thinking budget” to spend throughout the day, that ideally you spend on what matters most, based on what you want to accomplish.

Air Force pilots understand the danger of their pilot’s burning up their attention.  If pilots get overwhelmed, they shut down, compartmentalize, or channelize.  They reduce task saturation and overwhelm through checklists and simple visual cues and reminders.

This is also why change is so tough.  Anytime you’re breaking a routine or changing a habit, you have to monitor and correct your behavior, and think your way through things.  This is the pain of  moving from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence.  Eventually, you’re body will know just what to do, but in the early stages it’s a lot of course correction and mindful, deliberate action.  It’s like when you drive for miles and don’t realize how far you’ve gone.

In the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Dan Heath and Chip Heath write about how change is hard because self-control wears you out.

Self-Control is an Exhaustible Resource

Managing yourself takes effort and you actually drain yourself in the process.

Via Switch:

“… psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource.  It’s like doing bench presses at the gym.  The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh.  But with each additional repetition, your muscles get more and more exhausted, until you can’t lift the bar again.”

Self-Control as Self-Supervision

Self-control isn’t just resisting something you want.  It also applies to monitoring and correcting your actions, thoughts, and behavior.

Via Switch:

“We don’t mean the narrow sense of the word, as in the willpower needed to fight vice (smokes, cookies, alcohol).  We’re talking about a broader-kind of self-supervision.  Think of the way your mind works when you’re giving negative feedback to an employee, or assembling a new bookshelf, or learning a new dance.  You are careful and deliberate with your words or movements.  It feels like there’s a supervisor on duty.  That’s self-control too.“

Self-Control is Draining, Automatic Pilot is Easy

Mindless activity is easy.  We know just what to do.  It’s when we break the auto-pilot that things get tough.

Via Switch:

“Contrast that with all the situations in which your behavior doesn’t feel “supervised” — for instance, the sensation while you’re driving that you can’t remember the last few miles of the road, or the easy, unthinking way you take a shower or make your morning coffee.  Much of our daily behavior, in fact, is more automatic than supervised, and that’s a good thing because the supervised behavior is the hard stuff.  It’s draining.”

Change is Hard Because People Wear Themselves Out

People aren’t lazy or resistant to change.  They simply get worn out.

Via Switch:

“And when people exhaust their self-control, what they’re exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure.  In other words, they’re exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change.  So when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that’s flat wrong.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Change is hard because people wear themselves out.“

The Experiment: Resisting Cookies Wore the Students Out

Dan and Chip share the story of an experiment that highlights how resisting temptation wears you out mentally.  I’ll summarize here.

In the experiment, students were told not to eat for 3 hours before-hand.  The room was filled with the smell of fresh-baked cookies. Half the students were told to eat 2 or 3 cookies and some candies, but no radishes.  Resist the radishes.  The other half of students were told to eat at least 2 or 3 radishes, but no cookies.  Resist the cookies.

As you can guess, the radish-eaters had a tough time resisting the cookies and this wore them out mentally.  This showed up when the students were tested right after, by working on unsolvable puzzles (but the students didn’t know the problems were unsolvable.)

To bottom line it, the “untempted” students (the cookie-eaters) spent 19 minutes on the task, and 34 attempts on the impossible problem. The cookie-eaters were fresh and untaxed.  On the other hand, the radish-eaters gave up after only 8 minutes and made 19 attempts.

They had worn out their persistence fighting their temptation.

Imagine that … worn out, simply by resisting some fresh baked cookies.

Now that I know this, I spend less cycles on things that I think are trivial.  I just let them go. I don’t want to waste my “thought budget” on the lesser decisions that get in the way of the more important things.  I also structure myself for success using checklists and visual cues where I can, so I don’t have to spend energy thinking about things that I can effectively turn into routines.

Photo by bubibi.


  1. yeah, tell me about this… changing is draining, indeed. Man, it’s much easier to stay in my comfort zone than developing something new that i am not familiar with. But the idea of having new knowledge or skill or result in the end pushes me forward… with a little help from my friends 😉

  2. Hi JD,

    To be candid, I have never really understood people’s resistance to change. As a result, I am fascinated with how people are so reluctant to change and so this post was intriguing.

    Change is a wonderful and beautiful thing because stagnation is the equivalent of death. A person does not grow or become wiser if they remain stuck in their comfort zones.

    Life is constantly in motion and to be stuck due to a fear of change is a waste of not only time but of the blessing of being alive.

  3. @ Alik — You always push the envelope and pave the way for others. I would almost think you feed off change 😉

    @ Nadia — I agree — life’s not static. It’s a cycle of ups and down, growth and decline, expansion and contraction. I’m a fan of the four seasons and I like the season metaphor for life too. That said, as much as I like when it changes to Fall, I can’t help but hold on to my Summer days just a little longer.

  4. Lots of great stuff here.

    In my experience, it’s not that people don’t like change. It’s they don’t enjoy the pain associated with change. Everything here explains why the pain is so painful. This helps us understand the pain.

    Also of note that the MOTIVATION behind change is equally important. If the change is motivated by shame, then it is very tiring because shame is actually de-motivating. For example if I want to lose 50 lbs (my current goal) because I am shamed of my body, then self-control is very taxing as you put it here.

    But if my motivations behind the change are Life-based, then self-control takes on a whole new meaning because it is driven by a different source. If I want to lose weight because I love my family and want to be there for them in health, then there can almost be a limitless tank to draw from.

    There are however limits to everything in terms of motivation. I find this very helpful to break things down and this will definitely benefit the people I mentor.

    Thanks again.


  5. Hi JD,
    It becomes clear..That the absurd man is the one who never changes. Dan and Chip are talking about our build -in schizophrenia…-a deeply weird
    thing, but we don’t think much about it,because we are so used to it.When we kick off a new diet,we toss the Cheetohs and Oreos out of the pantry,because our rational side knows that when our emotional side gets a craving, there is no hope of self-control. The only opinion is to remove the temptation altogether.
    The unavoidable conclusion is this: Your brain isn’t of one mind.
    The oldest habit in the world for resisting change is to complain that unless the remedy to the disease can be universally applied it should not be applied at all. But you must begin from somewhere….It is probably true to say that the largest scope for change still lies n men’s attitude to women, and in women’s attitude to themselves.
    Mentioning the the Air Force pilots understanding of danger,their ability to reduce..overwhelming checklists to simple visual cues and reminders it is most interesting to know what is done in Crisis Intervention.A crisis is,literally, a turning point – usually a moment
    of danger or suspense. In this case we have to learn to deal with
    “Interactive Complexity “. In such crises, our research shows that the ones who survived,where the ones that did not follow the checklists prescribed by the plane experts,but followed their
    gut feeling and intuition creatively,in order to land the plane successfully.
    Why change? – Drucker stated,-“The organizations likely to suffer the most are those with delusion that tomorrow will be like yesterday.”
    Before discussing what organizations need to do to become Change Leaders, it is useful to review the errors that organizations frequently make that hinder the success of their change efforts :
    1.Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency: Opportunities are lost because the organizations fail to establish a sense of urgency as to why the change is needed.
    2.Not Creating a Powerful Enough and Guiding Coalition:Organizations
    fail to assemble a group with enough power and prestige to lead the change effort, which also may not have top management’s commitment and full support.
    3.Lacking a vision:Organizations fail to create a Vision for the future to help direct the change effort.For example what will be different after the change ?What will be preserved? What are the strategy and objectives for achieving the Vision?
    4. Under-communicating the Vision: Organizations fail to communicate
    a Vision for the future. What will the organization look like as a result of the change? The Vision has to be presented as an opportunity
    -not a threat.
    5.Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision:Systems,policies,or structures that seriously undermine the Vision are not dealt or removed.
    6.Not Systematically Planning and Creating Short-Term Wins:Individuals
    are are not recognized or rewarded for performance improvement as a result of their change efforts.

    7.Declaring Victory Too Soon: Organizations fail to monitor the progress of their change efforts and evaluate results.Often victory
    is declared when the change has not been totally implemented.
    8.Not Anchoring Changes in the Organization’s Culture: Organizations
    fail to have employees accept the change as the way things will be done from then on, and as a result they revert to their old familiar ways of doing things.
    Having reviewed why and what organizations can change,what and what not to change, and the errors organizations frequently make when initializing change, the following are Drucker’s observations on how organizations can become “Change Leaders” in the fullest sense. Drucker cited the folksinger requirements within the organizational needs:
    1.Policies to make the future
    2.Systematic methods to look for and anticipate change
    3.To know the right way to introduce change
    4.Policies to balance change and continuity

    W poos! I must have learned something from Good Old Peter?

  6. @ Ed — Beautiful insights and I like your point on shame as a de-motivator. Finding your mojo through aspirational goals is inspiring, especially if you fully believe you’re on your path and you decided you will change your lot in life. Then you are unstoppable.

    @ Michael — Peter is the man! That is a great set of pitfalls for change and you certainly learned a lot. I’m a fan of knowing the anti-patterns, and I think we usually learn more from the anti-patterns, then the successes (what’s the saying, when we succeed we party, when we fail we ponder? 🙂 … That’s exactly the key with the pilots, and the counter-intuitive insight … it’s easier for them to depart from the checklists, because they have the checklists. They free up their thinking to put their attention where it’s needed most. I learned this from doing security and performance inspections for software. The tickler lists gives me plenty of reminders, and keeps me from getting overwhelmed, so I can use my intuition and gut to find the key issues that I might miss if I was task saturated.

  7. J.D. –

    This is a post about letting go and that is a topic I love. Maintaining our endless habits and self-control is totally exhausting. It takes so much work to try and be what we think society and others want us to be. It is so much easier just to BE ourself. That is effortless. Breaking habits gets hard because we’ve invested so much energy and time into them. We’re like hopeless addicts crawling back to things we no are no good for us. I think your rational approach will definitely appeal to some – give up on the things that are not important – it is neat intersection with the deeper idea of just letting go. Thanks for a multi-faceted post – very interesting.


  8. Hi JD .. thanks I like this idea .. the fact that established patterns save us thinking time – leaving us free to concentrate on the things that matter, equally to move on if we’re not accomplishing for a while – the thought process will come back and resolve itself probably.

    I’m sort of starting again .. and am almost ready to do so – so I need to develop those routines now, which will save me time later on & free up my brain and mind to be creative and build more knowledge – giving me a clearer head to progress with.

    Thanks – have a good weekend .. Hilary

  9. This post reminds me of a saying – Today is the first moment of rest of your life.

    Basically change is tough bcoz people dont wanna come out of their comfort zones.

    he he nice story, I was just imagining how those kids would be feeling while resisting cookies… 🙂

  10. […] Change is Hard Because Self-Control Wears You Out – Sources of Insight […]

  11. @ Phil — You reminded me that I need to do a deeper post on letting go. Letting go is truly an art and science. Thank you.

    @ Hilary — That’s the heart of it — established patterns save us think time. Periodic reviews help us check our results and change if we need to. Thank you.

    @ Raj — That’s one of my favorite quotes. I think I saw it in a Hallmark store and it stuck with me for life.

  12. Great post, JD! I think that some people are afraid of change because their past mistakes or future expectations hinder them from moving toward their goal. I think that to achieve change, an individual should first identify his underlying values: what are his passions? Being aware of what his underlying values are makes an individual more open to changes.

  13. @ Kat — You’re right, it’s easy for the past to get in the way of the future. Co-creating the future is a way out. Thank you.

  14. Things rings true with me as I am changing to improve my health.

    I started forcing myself to get up in the morning and swim, bike and walk. I’m now 6 weeks into walking and biking and 4 weeks into swimming.

    What’s interesting is during the week when I have to get up and go to work, waking up and getting to the gym is automatic. It just happens.

    The weekends are different. If I don’t wake up and automatically “go” then I start procrastinating and then the afternoon comes and the day is shot.

    I really like to “automatic” mode becuase it just happens.

    The weekends are drainging because I have to police myself. I’ve found myself looking forward to the work week so there’s less stress in my routine.

    Weird, but true.

  15. […] Change is Hard Because Self-Control Wears You Out – Sources of Insight via @buffyjhamilton – a good look at why change is so […]

  16. I’m in the middle of “Switch…” right now and would like to thank each of you for your comments. I think the book is excellent and will help both in my personal life as well as with regard to my business. But, I’m certain by providing clarity your comments will become more valuable.

    Thank you…

  17. […] and the ability to focus on wellness when no many other things are pulling me in other directions. This article summarized it perfectly; change is hard because it wears you […]

  18. […] a change eventually if they don’t want to get left behind. However, all change comes with discomfort and that’s exactly why they sometimes choose to stick with what they […]

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