Did You Know Self Control Is A Limited Resource?

6. the choice

I don’t know about you, but I grew up believing that I could do almost anything (including lose weight) if only I brought enough “Willpower” (aka “self-control”) to the task.

I held this belief for a really long time.  Every time I failed or faltered on any goal, any personal change effort, I considered that I wasn’t strong enough, good enough, or talented enough at “building” my willpower.

A few years ago I first came across the notion that self control is not at all an unlimited resource you can tap into any time, but rather a finite one.  A wave of relief washed over me.   I still forget a lot of the time that I need to consider “self-control” or “willpower” a limited resource, but when I remember it really helps me to be kinder to myself & to reduce the stress in my life (because I make the expectations for my behavior a bit more realistic).

Willpower, self -control, ego depletion

The scientific term for using up one’s willpower or self-control is “ego depletion”.

In the book I’ve been studying on change, Switch, the authors tell a story about how self control is an exhaustible resource.   They explain an experiment that was run that showed that people who resisted cookies for a while had less persistence in math tests than people who’d been encouraged to eat the cookies.  Their willpower against the cookies was fine, but it made them weaker in subsequent bouts of self control.

In my experience, life stress makes weight loss harder

When I think about my own life experiences I often live through areas of self control as adding stress to my life (which is why this blog is about my quest for “low stress” weight loss).  I’ve had that reaction to household organization, to keeping a budget, to keeping up with routines at work.  When my life is less structured I tend to have that less – in that way the current job is good for me, because there is huge variety from day to day, week to week in both my physical environment and also in my responsibilities.  For me part of that variety leads to new challenges (which I enjoy) and fewer routines (which in general, I don’t enjoy).

Limited Self-Control & Weight Loss

I’ve had this over-exertion of self control in the weight loss arena quite a bit.  It usually culminates in a rebellion of some kind (usually going off plan for a while), and it’s been at it’s highest when I’ve done intense exercise programs and strict dieting at the same time – but either one of those is enough to push my self-control muscles to the max.

Using My Self-Control Where It Matters Most

Most of my self-control efforts go to the things that are really important in my life – my marriage, my stepson, my mindset.

I guess being married in some ways pushes my self control.  I wouldn’t have expected that – my marriage is strong, and we’ve already been through a lot together.  But in my relationship I try to be the best version of me.  I try not to let every last worry and insecurity show (not easy for me).  In daily life, I try to be nicer, more upbeat, more giving to my husband (and stepson).  Sometimes these behaviors comes naturally and easily, sometimes I put extra effort into acting that way, and maybe that’s part of the reason that I now feel I don’t have the mental capacity to be stressed out by my weight loss efforts anymore.

On the mindset side, I make special efforts to enjoy my life.  I try to enhance my happiness, and to not let the small things get to me.  I work to appreciate life daily.  I record daily pleasures a few times every month.  I stop and smell flowers, I admire Fall leaves, I enjoy the sun on my face.  For a Type-A personality that slowing down to appreciate life still requires effort, and while it’s gotten a lot easier with practice, I’d be lying if I said it was second nature now.  I do feel like the emphasis on enhancing my enjoyment of life and appreciating things seems to add to my self control resources.  It’s a topic I’d like to know more about…

Sometimes, Self Control is Comforting

When my life is really out of control at times I’ve found great comfort in exercising control over my weight loss efforts.  Diet and exercise can be one of the few things you can actually maintain some control over when things in your life are a mess (lost job, marital problems, illness, infertility, etc).  At times I’ve found control to be a source of stability and strength, but the times when that’s true tend not to be very good times in my life – and I greatly prefer when self-control is in the “exhaustible resource” category.

Budget Your Self Control Wisely

Right now my priorities for self control are

1) Emotional stability & an optimistic outlook on life (life has been stressful for me recently)

2) Nurture my marriage (and control my neediness…)

3) Exercise regularly

While I’d like to add more efforts on the weight loss front, when I see these priorities I realize that my self control is pretty well used up most of the time.    Adding more right now feels like it will weaken the overall good structure, and the truth is my mental health & my marriage are both more important to me than the number on that scale right now…

I actually use a lot of self control daily in my “regular” eating habits (last weekend’s trip to Italy was an exception).   Recently I posted on how sometimes I actually list the things I don’t eat to make myself more aware (and proud) of good choices when I’m on the road.  Most of the time the better choices are easy and don’t feel like they add stress to my life.  I guess because I was formulating this post today’s getting back on track with healthy eating was a bit more challenging than usual (and I cut myself a bit more slack as well…)

Some resources

As I was researching this post, I came across a few good resources :

  • The website of the Roy Baumeister, the author of that radish study and some of his research – which has given me quite a few more ideas to think about, but basically led me to believe the psychological science suggests my thinking is on the right track…
  • Switch, by Chip & Dan Heath covers this topic briefly (and is a good read on changing yourself & your habits)
  • A New York Times article from 2008 on willpower as an exhaustible resource

Creative Commons License photo credit: simplyshutterbug

So where do you want to spend your limited self control?


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