Self-Control: There’s Only So Much To Go ‘Round

I used to be a fairly neat person when it came to how I kept my personal living space.  Nothing was ever left out.  Everything had its place.  I’m not going to say it was to the level of US Army basic training orderly, but it was pretty darn good.  Ahh… those were the days!

Fast-forward to 2010.  As I gaze across the space that is my condo, those days of borderline military precision are loooooong gone.  It’s not like my place is dirty and grimy – far from it.  But tidy?  Neat?  Umm… no.  No, my friend, it is not.  Oh sure, if friends are coming over, I kick myself into gear and the place is spic-and-span in no time at all.  Hell, that seems reason enough to invite people over to my house, especially my female friends.  Every dude on the planet will go a little bit extra for the women in his life than the men when it comes to the cleaning routine.  It’s just science… err… or something.

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All of this navel-gazing today over my cleaning habits today stems from a pretty interesting piece I read on the Fast Company web site by Dan Heath called “Why Change Is So Hard: Self-Control is Exhaustible“.  The piece is about how in a psychology experiment, 2 groups of students come into a lab where there is a bowl of chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes.  Some students are allowed to eat the cookies, but no radishes.  The other group is allowed to eat radishes, but no cookies.  The researchers then leave the room which is basically an opportunity for Team Radish to sneak some cookies… but none of them do.  Keep this in mind.

A bit later, the two groups are then asked to work on a logic puzzle and seek to solve it.  The catch?  It can’t be solved.  Damn scientists with their game-playing and whatnot.  Figures.

Ahh… but here is the interesting part.  The chocolate chip cookie group?  They gave up on trying the puzzle after 19 minutes.  Not bad right?  The radishes group?  Well, they lasted a mere 8 minutes with about half as many attempts as Team Cookie Deliciousness (and yes, I am making up these names as I go along) at solving the puzzle before throwing in the towel.

The conclusion of the study was simple: Self-control is actually a finite resource.  Team Cookie Deliciousness didn’t have to exercise any self-control prior to the puzzle because… let’s be honest… who’s really fighting an insatiable urge to chomp down on radishes and ignore cookies?  Team Radish did have to exercise it and thus had less resources to persist at the unsolvable puzzle.

The easy thing would be to use all of this as an incredibly convenient excuse to give myself a pass on the pile of clean laundry sitting on the floor just 10 feet away from me, but that’s not my intent.  Instead, I think this study serves as a valuable reminder as as self-check for what you have going on in your own life.  If you find certain things slipping that normally wouldn’t slip, think about why.  If you feel lazier than usual, what’s changed?  What is it that’s taxing upon your own personal reserves and what are you going to do about it?

For me, it’s a stark reminder of the effects of stress in my life.  I run a little more tightly wound than most and that necessitates self-awareness about what is causing my stress and (more importantly) what the heck I plan on doing about it.

So fear not, my friends!  That pile of laundry you continuously neglect to fold and put away?  Or those bills you just seem to keep putting off another day?  Or the cookies you cannot resist?  Perhaps it’s time to consider all of these things anew as something beyond mere failures or weakness in your willpower.  Perhaps they are the signs to stop and consider what thief in your life is sapping that self-control you need to manage yourself each day.

One man’s shortcoming can be turned into your personal guidepost.  Embrace it as such.

2 thoughts on “Self-Control: There’s Only So Much To Go ‘Round”

  1. I loved that Fast Company article too. It really explains a lot about why it’s hard to change habits and why we’re so much less productive when we’re stressed out. There is only so much we can process and deal with at any given time. Sometimes you need to cut yourself some slack when times are temporarily stressful. Sometimes you need to make changes in your life to free up enough brain power to do the things you really want to do. I tend to err on the side of cutting myself slack rather than doing the hard work of changing things around. But lately I’m getting better at that I think. I hope anyway!

  2. Did the study account at all for how the sugar/cocca in the cookies may have aided in solving the problems? Just curious. A nutritionist somewhere sometime said something about chocolate being brain food. Since I can’t remember the specifics, I think it may be a lame duck since I had a 17 pounds of chocolate today.

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