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.


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.

Wait… Things Went RIGHT?

As often seems to be the case, the good people over at Lifehacker have provided inspirational fodder for this humble blog of mine, this time in the form of a referral to a blog post over at Psychology Today. It’s not a long post, but hey… who said they had to be long to be good? No seriously, who said that? Because Lord knows my posts tend to ramble on endlessly! HA!

*ahem* Anyway, onwards and upwards. The blog post looks into something that is simple, but interesting: While most people (myself most definitely included) seem to take an inordinate amount of angst-filled time hashing out why something went wrong, very few people will do the same about why something went right. If you have to give a PowerPoint presentation to the VP of your department and you just flop about like a fish on the dock, 999 people out of 1,000 will wail, gnash their teeth and spend endless hours rethinking why they blew it, why they should have done better, where they should be looking for their next job, etc. It’s an ugly little cycle, my friends, as I am sure anyone reading these words well knows. We’ve all been there. Less than good times.

But what about when it goes well? In thinking of myself, it seems pretty plain as to why I don’t think much about why it went well… I’m just too stoked to give it much thought. Let’s take lifting as an example. Suppose I just absolutely crushed a set of military presses for a personal record. Just absolutely smoked them. What would be my reaction shortly thereafter? Probably a battle cry followed by a little victory dance. No seriously… that’s what I do. I kid you not. There is also then a decent chance of following it up with a slightly larger-than-average meal to celebrate.

What’s missing from all of that? Not even a moment’s reflection as to what got me to that good spot. Don’t mistake me – the spontaneous moment of jubilation I engage in after the accomplishment is a great thing. Hell, I do this lifting thing because I love it, not out of some horrible sense of obligation. Ugh – how awful that would be. However, I am also missing out on that little sliver of analysis that might make those moments come along more regularly going forward. So what should I consider shortly after I bust out my funky dance moves?

Did I get good sleep the night before? What did I eat today? Was I stressed? Relaxed? How did I prep for the lift? Was I focused? Did I take enough time to warm-up? What has my lifting program been looking like up to that point? Had I incorporated any different exercises or rep schemes that might have borne fruit for me?

All those things should be considered in some way, shape or form. And guess what’s most remarkable about that list of questions above? Go ahead… give it a moment… I don’t mind… ready? It’s easy.

Not a damn thing is remarkable. Nothing. El zippo.

It’s all a matter of mindfulness to pause and consider all these good things. Also, it’s not as if the analysis would be unpleasant because you are focusing on why a good thing happened. I might not be a fancified PhD in psychology and such, but I am pretty confident that thinking over a good thing is a nice experience… but I’m kooky like that.


So celebrate and drink deep the cup of victory. You earned it and there are few moments as sweet as those. But even just a brief glimpse inward may be just the thing to keep those good times returning again and again and again… and wouldn’t that be a nice little treat?

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