It’s 6 a.m. Your alarm goes off and although you’re exhausted from a late night at the office, you convince yourself to put on your sneakers and go to the gym. Before you head out the door, you consider stopping at the new coffee shop your friends have been talking about but instead fill your Thermos from the pot in the kitchen. Traffic, work, presentations. Noon rolls around and you eat a homemade turkey sandwich while your colleagues order pad thai. By 3 p.m., you’re ready to zone out on the couch with a beer but do a little online shopping instead. Within 60 seconds you’ve entered your credit card details on an amazing Kickstarter campaign, effectively wiping out all the good, responsible decisions you’d made so far. Cue sad trombones and “wah” face emoji.
If you can’t relate to this sequence of events (or something like it), you deserve a medal. If you can relate, congratulations! You are human.
We are all challenged by our self-control. Self-control is the driving force that allows us to not only achieve goals, but surpass them. According to psychologist Roy Baumeister, who literally wrote the book on willpower, it is “the greatest human strength.” (His book is called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)
Self-control can be summed up by Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen’s famous Stanford marshmallow experiments. In this series of studies, performed during the 1960s and ’70s, children were seated face-to-face with a marshmallow and given a choice between eating the marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. Each child was then left alone for 15 minutes. Some gave into temptation and others closed their eyes, pulled their pigtails or whispered sweet nothings to the sugary treat in efforts to distract themselves. The real reason this experiment is so fascinating is because later research showed that the children who displayed self-control were better able to conquer stress in pursuing their goals during adulthood.
You might be asking, “If self-control is the greatest human strength and dictates how successful I’ll be in life, then (a) Why is it so hard to use and (b) how can I get better at using it?”
The answer is that self-control is like a muscle. It grows stronger and fatigues with exercise, just like all the other muscles in your body. When you exert self control, the muscle tires but it also strengthens with repeated use.
We refer to the overexertion of self-control as ego depletion. It’s what explains that 3 p.m. impulse to order the World’s Coolest Cooler. Ego depletion is the sum of multiple hard decisions. By 3 p.m. your self-control is too tired to restrain you from making the purchase (or eating the cake, or texting that ex). Self-control is crucial for making decisions around health, which usually requires short-term pain for long-term gain. The immediate satisfaction of the World’s Largest Jockstrap outweighs the distant satisfaction of larger savings.
The next time you make a spending decision you think you may regret, try this little experiment: Re-trace your steps and count all the tough decisions you made that day. You might see why your self-control is failing you. In the future, you may even learn to put your credit card away and take a nap instead.
Stephanie Bank is one of three resident Behavioural Economists working at Evree. Before joining Evree, she worked as a social architect at Ogilvy Change. Got a sticky situation and don’t know where to turn? Just ask us! We’d love to help. Send your questions to [email protected]