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
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:

  1. “Just as exercise can make muscles stronger, there are signs that regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength.”
  2. “When people expect to have to exert self-control later, they will curtail current performance more severely.”
  3. “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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Photo by mangpages.


  1. Hi JD,

    Self control is like a muscle that we need to build. When I think of self control my first thought is think before you speak. Many times we do not use will power to control our words.

    I do believe that self control does start when we are small children. When we are taught at a young age self control it is much easier as adults to use this muscle correctly. Taking a child for example throwing a fit, they are taught this is not the way to express yourself. They learn that when there ego gets in the way, a fit is not going to change the situation, but make it worse.

    I do agree that we can make our day run much smoother by reducing the friction with those small things. An example for me is I have one place I put my car keys. I always know where they are, so I do not cause myself friction or distress. Thank you for the reminders, so life can run smoother by using self control and willpower.

  2. I’d like to see this combined with some of Marcus Buckingham’s strengths theories. If someone is engaging their strengths how much better is their self-control? This is just my curiosity after reading this.

    If one takes an attitude of being responsible for everything in one’s life, then self-control becomes a rather big deal in terms of keeping things ordered correctly. I’d think the key is depending on how much resistance one encounters would determine how much self-control is needed since if things are going beautifully, is there any need to exert self-control?


  3. Thanks for sharing this insight JD. This quite fascinating. I had never thought of Self-Control in terms of a limited resource that can be depleted. I think of my days as a weight lifter… overuse led to fatigue and burnout. But a proper regime of exertion and rest built a solid foundation that had me feeling vigorous, healthy and energetic.

  4. Very good one!
    I have mastered two simple practices to keep me calm – positive thinking and future focus. For the first one I start with wearing a smile forcefully, then positveness flows naturally. For the future thinking I reject everything related to past and switch to “what’s next” mode.
    This simple technique helps me to keep in control. And I was known for my impulsiveness in the past. not any more… at least not that much 😉

  5. @ Debbie — Beautiful perspective and I like your examples. Thinking before we speak is a very practical way to practice our discipline. The force multiplier there is that discplined words would naturally enforce a disciplined mind.

    @ JB — In my experience, spending time in strengths makes it way easier to practice self-control, because of the positive state, and the energy renewal. It’s like an upward trajectory vs. a spiral down. I think the key insight is to avoid eating away at your will and instead structure for success.

    Self-discipline really is just course-correction, so the more you’re on course, the less you need it … and that’s the power of habits.

    @ Rob — That’s the beauty of resistance … it makes us stronger.

    I think weights are a perfect example and it makes me think of two flavors of resistance:
    1. When you push the weights on path, the resistance helps you grow.
    2. When you push the weights sideways, you wear out, and it’s just counter-productive.

    @ Alik — I like how your smiles leads the way. Nobody’s perfect, and perfection is over-rated. Progress is the powerful part. The little wins add up.

  6. J.D. Pretty interesting and good to know that you can strengthen your willpower. It makes perfect sense, but I hadn’t really ever thought about it before. It is so easy to become complacent with things about ourselves, but the reality is that we can learn and get better at everything … that really is the point.

  7. @ Sibyl — Today, it really struck me how to achieve great things, it’s always a combo of passion, purpose, and persistence. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. With will on our side, we can get better at everything, including will itself.

  8. Hi JD .. Self-control is something most people find so difficult – listening is another necessity in life .. and Alik’s ‘positive thinking’ and ‘future focus’- easy to remember as we hit a bump ..

    We stand apart if we can learn self-control … and set an example for ourselves as well as others ..

    Thanks – Hilary

  9. Will is a power hence the name JD. Just ask people who have survived an ordeal or illness or got through a terrible disaster. The will to live is the will an individual has naturally inbuilt within them and when the moment arrives so does the will. We only need to direct ourself and the will becomes as powerful as the dreams and goals they are creating. Where’s there’s a will, there’s a person finding a way.

  10. @ Hilary — I like your distinction on how self-control helps us stand apart.

    @ John — I’m always amazed by what we’re capable of when we put our minds to it. Will is truly a force multiplier.

  11. Great piece, JD. This principle has been exhibited in another study I became familiar with recently: a group of subjects who were working on logic exercises were tempted with a plate of freshly baked cookies. They discovered that this group depleted their self-control faster (from both resisting the cookies and working on the challenging exercises) than the group not tempted by cookies.

    Yum! 🙂

  12. @ Dave — Thank you. I remember that study too and it was actually surprising how such a small tempting, distraction could eat away at us.

    Maybe the trick is just eat the cookies, and end the temptation 😉

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