A new study from the University of Toronto Scarborough shows that while people have a harder time controlling themselves when tired, it doesn’t mean they’ve exhausted all of their willpower. The key to boosting self-control is finding pleasure in the necessary activities of life.
“When people are fatigued they experience a change in motivational priorities such that they are less willing to work for the things they feel obliged to do and more willing to work for things they like to do,” says Michael Inzlicht, professor in the Department of Psychology at UTSC and affiliate faculty at U of T’s School of Public Policy and Governance.
Inzlicht defines self-control as the mental processes that allow people to override thoughts and emotions in order to adapt their behavior from one moment to the next. The prevailing view in psychology has been that self-control is a limited resource where repeated acts of restraint exhaust supply until individuals are left with little to no willpower at all.
While it’s true that people tend to lose their focus after performing specific tasks over a period of time, Inzlicht says that is the result of a shift in priorities and not an absence of self-control. In fact, there may be ways to avoid hours of being unproductive when one’s energy and focus are low.
The important thing is to convert tasks from “have-to’s” into “want-to’s,” says Inzlicht. When that fails, it’s worth planning for the unavoidable ups and downs in motivation by steering clear of temptations and taking mental breaks in order to refresh.
For individuals with busy personal and professional lives this may be easier said than done, but certainly not impossible, notes Inzlicht.
“If someone wants to eat healthier they should think of the enjoyment they can get from eating delicious nutritious foods. They should not frame their eating goal as something they feel obliged to do because their doctor or spouse told them to do so,” he says. “The key is finding a way to want and like the goal you are chasing, just like the person who loves to jog as a way to relax or take a break.”
The study, which was co-authored by Brandon Schmeichel at Texas A& M University and Neil Macrae at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, is available online and will appear in the upcoming edition of Trends in Cognitive Science.