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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".

yesno's picture


It sounds cheesy, but the process used by "Rational Recovery" to get people off booze and drugs works really well for kicking all kinds of bad habits. (It's not as good at getting you to do something, such as go running.)

I use the public domain version of their idea, which can be reduced down to CORE: Commit, Objectify, Respond, Enjoy.

You Commit to giving up the bad habit. (They say to do it just to yourself, but I find it's far more effective if you tell others, too. That outside accountability helps.)

When you find yourself craving it, you realize that it's not really the rational "you" that wants the bad thing. It's a base part of your brain that you need to control. You turn "you" want it into "it" wants it, objectifying the craving and turning it into an unwelcome intruder in your thoughts.

You Respond to the intruder, by saying "No. I'm in charge, buddy, not you." You reassert your rational, planning self's dominance over your desires.

And you make sure to Enjoy your lifestyle-- the increased sense of well-being and mastery that comes with your control. Never forget that.

Now, all this might be based on bogus psychology or neuroscience, but it works. Really well. And it doesn't involve some "turn yourself over to a higher power" mumbo-jumbo. If anything, it's a bit disturbingly Nietzschean.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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