‘Self-control is an exhaustible resource’

Fast Company magazine recently conducted an interview on their website with Dan Heath, author of the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. In the video (which is also transcribed), Dan explains why changes in behavior are so difficult:

Psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource. And I don’t mean self-control only in the sense of turning down cookies or alcohol, I mean a broader sense of self-supervision—any time you’re paying close attention to your actions, like when you’re having a tough conversation or trying to stay focused on a paper you’re writing. This helps to explain why, after a long hard day at the office, we’re more likely to snap at our spouses or have one drink too many—we’ve depleted our self-control.

I also believe that self control is a behavior that needs to be practiced to be improved. In the book Mind in the Making, author Ellen Galinsky suggests many strategies for helping children develop and boost their self control and these strategies can be just as beneficial for adults. From my review of Galinsky’s book:

Try playing games that require concentration and paying attention (guessing games, “I Spy,” and puzzles), and games that involve rules that change (many strategy games do this). Listening to audio books and following along with the plot, setting up reward systems for finishing difficult tasks (delayed satisfaction), and getting plenty of rest are additional ways to improve focus.

For more tips on building up your energy to make a change and work on your self control, check out the following articles from the Unclutterer archives:

6 Comments for “‘Self-control is an exhaustible resource’”

  1. posted by Sean @ Bungalow a GoGo on

    Thanks for the tips. I just read an article in this month’s Wired Mag that states that memory retention decreases in proportion to the number of links contained in the posting. The mind wanders regardless of whether or not the links are clicked on. Weird.

  2. posted by Habithacker on

    There have been several articles on the difficulty of self control and maintaining habit recently (from a neuroscience perspective), and I think it’s also worthwhile to point out that the old adage of 21 days doth a habit make is no more than urban legend. I worry that those of us who tough it out for 21 days and then don’t make it feel discouraged. As Unclutterer repeatedly points out, it’s all a matter of slow, steady change.

    The links at the bottom of this article (even if they DO make my mind wander) are great.

  3. posted by DM on

    Interesting. Take a look at many elementary students today and you will see that self-control is lacking. I don’t believe parents are expecting kids to grow and mature in this area anymore and many are not training their children to strengthen their self-control.

  4. posted by Reader on

    I look forward to reading the info in the underlying links (I’m exercising self-control by putting that off because I’m only supposed to be taking a short break).

    It seems to me that self-control and focus may be different things. In any event, when I have trouble sticking with something it sometimes helps to do a “Procrastination Dash.” More recently, I’ve been trying a variation of that that called the “Pompodoro Technique.” I’ve been using the “Focus Booster” application with it.




  5. posted by Reader on


    Links at the bottom of blog posts always make me feel guilty. I know they’re optional, and that I may regret having clicked on them (there’s always something else I could read), but it’s hard to ignore them.

  6. posted by Open Loops 7/6/2010: Articles I Think Worth Passing Along | SimpleProductivityBlog.com on

    […] I couldn’t figure out why I was so much more prone to eating sweets when I was stressed. Now I have an idea: self control is a limited resource. From Unclutterer: “Self-control is an exhaustible resource” […]

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