43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Self-control running low?

Why is it so hard to say no? Why the heck do I find myself doing things I don't really want to do?

In the newsroom where I ostensibly work, I sit right next to that table - the one the people from other publications call "the table of perpetual indulgence." It usually features baked goods and junk food - great vats of candy, tubs of animal crackers, a living sea of bite-sized 3 Musketeers and Special Dark bars. It is, put simply, bad for me to be sitting here. I'm always walking off to the printer then realizing that somehow I've wound up in the opposite direction, lifting syrup-filled brownies toward my mouth. Well, I think I just found out the reason why.

Canadian researchers Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer N. Gutsell recently published a study about self-control in the journal Psychological Science. They hooked 40 people up to EEGs and had them watch animal snuff films - "a disturbing wildlife documentary" is how that summary puts it. Half of them were asked not to show any emotion, while the other half weren't given any instructions. They just had to watch.

Then, both groups were given a fast-paced color-matching test - one that depended on a certain level of willpower to complete. The emotionally suppressed group flunked. Whatever kind of fuel willpower burns, they'd run out of it.

The researchers conclude: "People have a limited amount of self-control, and tasks requiring controlled, willful action quickly deplete this central resource. Exerting self-control on one task impairs performance on subsequent tasks requiring the same resource."

So if I want to get anything done, I'd better marshal my reserves carefully. There's a more cheerful note, however. You can get more self-control by practicing, and by thinking things through.

As summarized in that article....

Though we have a shallow and finite reserve of willpower, self-control can improve over time, much like a muscle can be trained. The trick is knowing how to train your will. Simply slowing down and thinking clearly about an impulse (rather than reflexively giving in or denying it) can build self-control, says Inzlicht.

Setting specific self-control goals also works the control muscle.

Small goals, I guess. I suppose even reading these words right here is a step in the right direction.

If you've got academic access, here's the full text of the study "Running on Empty: Neural Signals for Self-Control Failure".

About grant

grant's picture


grant lives in a palatial suburban estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, surrounded by chickens, dogs, cats, children and semi-animate piles of clutter. Older, irregular writings on various topics can be found at Flying Fists, although lately he spends more time trying to get people to join him recording songs of discovery (and reading the latest weird science headlines) at The Guild of Scientific Troubadours.

He is an Aquarius, a vayu/kapha body type with a tendency to stagnant liver heat, and remembers when the internet was just a bunch of UFO enthusiasts and HAM radio nuts dialing up to local BBSes to post on something called FIDOnet.

His day job is writing about unexplained phenomena for Sun, a magazine that has yet to catch up with FIDOnet's amazing technological breakthrough, but can be found on dead trees in supermarkets nationwide.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »