The fine art of self-control
It’s been a long day. Maybe you had a full schedule at work or have been running to classes all day and now you still have to face chores or more meetings or homework. Naturally, you think, “I need caffeine” and stop into your neighborhood Starbucks. Here is where the internal struggle begins.Youknow you should get a small brewed coffee because of its low caloric value and of course, low price… But the extra-large mocha caramel latte looks sooo much better! And what’s a latte without a muffin, right? Now would be the time to use willpower, or as psychologist Roy Baumestier calls it, “the greatest human strength,” to make the best decision. An NPR (National Public Radio) story investigated this very issue. It finds that you not only use willpower when resisting something you want (the mega-sized latte and muffin as big as your face), but also when avoiding something you don’t want to do like a working on a project, studying for an exam, or job-hunting.
Using self-control leads to two outcomes: one long-term and one short-term. The immediate outcome results in exhaustion, because your brain’s energy is a limited resource, but in the long-term, it is like exercising a muscle that becomes stronger. The more you practice, the better you’ll be at resisting urges and cravings in the future and the less mental energy it will take. Plus, as it turns out, the decision making process that goes into avoiding something you don’t want to do, like a school projector looking for a job, actually drains more mental energy than just going ahead and doing it.
Cool fact: If you are connected to a faith, most religions have prayers and meditations included in their regular services that are designed to increase discipline and self-control. But even if you don’t observe a religion, there are other ways to practice these skills, like meditation. One study mentioned in the article even investigated how directing students to focus on maintaining good posture affected other task performance. Over the course of one week, students who consistently practiced good posture performed better than students who didn’t—even on tasks unrelated to posture! The reason? They were exercising their self-control to make sure they stood up straight and this strengthened their overall willpower.
So what’s the takeaway message here? Making choices is hard and willpower is a limited resource. If you are constantly in situations where you are battling with yourself, it can cause ego depletion. That’s psychobabble for exhausting your mental energy. But here’s the good news - as you increasingly resist temptations, like eating bad-for-you sweet treats, the stronger your willpower becomes and the less effort it will take to resist in the future. But since you only have so much willpower to spare, you should reserve it for emergencies. The best way to do that? It is the old “out of sight, out of mind” principle. It is easier to resist things that tempt you if they’re not staring you in the face. So, to resist that latte and muffin: JUST STAY AWAY!
For more on the NPR report, click here.