Monday, February 21, 2011

Self-control is a muscle we need to flex.

Here's what I've been thinking about for awhile now.
Baumeister is a thoughtful psychologist who studies will power. Right there, that blows me away. Will power has always felt to me like something I either have or I don't. It occurs on a whim. It makes me either good or bad. And I'm not alone with that - how many times have my patients or families told me that they have been "good" or have been "bad"? Will power has always felt so, well, moralistic. So I'm very grateful and in awe of anyone who can think enough around the concept of will power to not only mull it over in a coffee house sort of way but to actually study it. Clarity is such a good thing.

Baumeister describes will power or self-regulation as "an important personality process by which people seek to exert control over their thoughts, their feelings, their impulses and appetites, and their task performances". A personality process? People who have high levels of self-control are more popular and successful in life which is as good a reason as any to study such a concept. This ability to alter your response to be in line with ideals, moral values, social norms, laws and other standards is an important key to your successful life. It is possibly the most important element of your personality. Because if your self-regulation is powerful enough then you can overcome your neuroses, previous bad habits and past experiences to do the right thing now. Well, put like that then you would think everybody would've been studying it and not letting us flounder around blaming ourselves for so long.

Self-regulation, according to Baumeister, becomes stronger the more you use it in the same way that a muscle becomes stronger with exercise. Exercising your self-regulation "muscle" could be through any regular activity where self-regulation is exerted. Baumeister studies have used tracking food eaten, improving posture, money management and study programs as specific exercises to explore his strength model theory of self-regulation. After participating in these self-regulation exercises for 2 weeks to 2 months, participants perform much better on unrelated laboratory studies of self-control than they did prior to their training.

Also like a muscle that becomes stronger over time as you use it, Baumeister theorizes that self-regulation can become fatigued like a muscle that has been overworked. This is called "ego depletion" and it leads to less self-regulation when you've been worn out from using a lot of self-regulation. Think about being really focused on meeting a deadline and ignoring all distractions. Once the deadline is met, how easy is it to have a treat or extra calories even though you have been trying to stick within a daily calorie goal? Very easy - with all your self-regulation muscle fatigued by focusing on the deadline the ego depletion occurs and you don't have any willpower left to control your behavior further.

So, in sum: practice self-control in small ways and frequently to build that muscle; be strategic when you have a lot going on so that you can have the will power for what is most important for you.

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