Self-Control is an Exhaustible Resource

I am currently in the midst of reading the book Switch authored by Chip and Dan Heath. I am 12 pages in, and I felt compelled to put my thoughts down on paper. Simply put: the book is fascinating.

The first 12 pages discuss the idea of changing behavior, and why it’s so difficult for most people.

The Heath Brothers essentially call everyone schizophrenic, and with good cause. They divvy up the brain into two parts, with a useful analogy from another book: The Happiness Hypothesis, into the Emotional part (the elephant), and the Rational part (the rider).

The rider holds the reigns as he sits on top of the elephant. He appears to be leading the elephant, and dictating which direction that they both move. However, the rider is so small, and the elephant ultimately has control over which direction the two of them go. If the rider and the elephant get into a disagreement as to which way to go, he (the rider) is powerless to stop the gigantic elephant, and will ultimately lose every time.

So how does this analogy of a man riding an elephant relate to willpower? That’s a great question. Let’s talk about that.

Consider the following scenario.

Researchers asked college students to participate in an interesting study that tested will power.

2 groups of students walked into a room that smelled AMAZING (a prerequisite for participating in this study was that the students had to enter the room after not having eaten for several hours). In the middle of the room sat two bowls on a table.

The first bowl was filled with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

The second bowl was filled with radishes.

Group 1 could only eat the cookies.

Group 2 could only eat the radishes.

The researchers said “You have to eat only what is in your group’s bowl. You cannot eat out of the other groups bowl.”

Group 1 was all like: “That sounds fantastic.”

Group 2 was all like: “This is the worst study ever.”

The researchers were testing will power. They left the students alone for quite a while, and then they came back. Both groups had followed the rules: Group 1 only ate cookies. Group 2 only ate radishes.

Then, a new group of researchers did something very interesting. They came into the room, and presented a puzzle to each student in each group. The researchers were sly and said that “they wanted to see if college students were better at finishing this puzzle than high school students.” So, naturally the spry, cocky college students were eager to show up the imaginary high schoolers.

The puzzle was, by design, impossible to finish, but what the researchers wanted to see was:

Did the radish eating group that had to restrain themselves from eating the cookies perform differently from the group that had free reign on eating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and had to expend virtually zero self-control?

The answer was yes..

Group 2 (radish group) spent 8 minutes trying to figure out the puzzle before giving up.

Group 1 (cookie group) spend over 2x; 19 minutes, trying to figure out the puzzle before giving up.

Very interesting.

A quote from the initial pages of the book switch will wrap this discussion up:

“They ran out of self control. In studies like this one, psychologiests have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource. Similar to sets at a gym, your first repetition is easy. Your muscles are fresh. But with each additional repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can’t lift the weight anymore. The radish eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So, when their internal elephants (emotional side) started complaining about the puzzle task — it’s too hard, this isn’t fun, we aren’t good at this, we’re hungry–Their riders didn’t have enough strength to yank on the reigns for more than eight minutes. Meanwhile, the cookie eaters had a fresh, untaxed rider atop their elephant, and fought off the complaints of their elephant for 19 minutes. Self control is an exhaustible resource”

I’ll leave it at that. Think about this in your own life.

Have you ever slept in after hitting snooze 12 times, overeaten, procrastinated, tried to quit something and failed, missed a workout, said/did something that you regret after getting angry, abandoned a hobby because you didn’t have time?

I’m going to read about the 3 ways to control the rider and the elephant, and I’ll summarize that for you soon.

For now, eliminate the unnecessary laboring over reversible decisions.

Lay your clothes out the night before. Have your breakfast for the next morning predetermined. Minimize your options for eating out. If the decision is reversible, do not lament over the choice. Make the damn decision and move on. Save your will power and self control for the decisions that matter.

Until next time.


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