Many of us yearn for more self-control, whether it’s the restraint needed to resist sweets or the willpower required to finish a project. Either way, self-control is a primary ingredient for meeting our goals. 

Psychologists who study self-control, or as they refer to it, self-regulation, have made some interesting observations. While many of us tend to think of self-control and willpower as inherent character traits, they’re actually a little bit more complicated than that.  

We All Have a Limited Amount of Willpower

Exerting self-control takes willpower, and willpower takes up energy. Unfortunately, that energy depletes the more we use it. For example, in one study, individuals were presented with freshly-baked cookies and then asked to take a test. In a second group, participants were presented with cookies, but were told to resist them and eat radishes instead. Those who were allowed cookies were able to test for longer than those who were told to resist. In short, the second group had already used up their willpower avoiding the treats.   

Willpower Depletes Throughout the Day

We have more focus and energy earlier in the day, which means we tend to have better self-control during that time. This explains why we’re more likely to cave on our diet or lose patience with loved ones at night, especially if we’ve had a long and stressful day. Be mindful and don’t overestimate how much energy you’ll have to a complete a task later on.   

Making Decisions Affects Will Power 

The same energy used to exert self-control is the same energy used to make decisions. This means that making lots of tough decisions can lead us to have less control later on. The reverse is true as well: exerting too much willpower means we tend to make simplistic decisions afterwards. In your daily life, consider how much time you spend making small or unimportant decisions. All those choices might be taking away much needed energy! 

…And So Does Wellness  

Not surprisingly, hunger levels, stress, and sleep can all affect our willpower. The hungrier and more fatigued we are, the less likely we are to exhibit self-control. Giving yourself proper meals and proper rest will help you keep up the energy you need to regulate your behavior.   

Self-Control Might Be Related To Empathy

Scientists have discovered that the same parts of the brain used to exhibit empathy and selflessness are the same ones used to exercise restraint. Some have proposed that exerting self-control might be a form of exercising empathy for yourself: present-you shows restraint in the moment because it anticipates how future-you will feel. 

Some of these discoveries might be a little discouraging, but there’s no need to be discouraged! While willpower is considered a limited resource, scientists also liken it to a muscle: it can be strengthened with exercise. Stay tuned to learn how you can have more self-control.  

Further Reading: 
http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/self-control.aspx
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuronarrative/201312/19-reasons-why-willpower-fails-you-and-what-do-about-it
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/self-control-is-just-empathy-with-a-future-you/509726/