The Limits of Self-Control and How to Overcome Them

Erica Mouch, RD, LD, Arivale Coach
Erica Mouch
RD, LD, Arivale Coach

“If I only had more self-control, I could have just one bite of this piece of cake.”

“I would go to the gym, but I just don’t have the willpower to make myself go today.”

How often are you thinking these thoughts?

Frequently, we blame ourselves for our lack of willpower when it comes to avoiding tempting foods or sticking to a diet or workout. Although willpower – or self-control – is required in those situations, current research1,2 indicates there may be a limit to just how much self-control we can have. In other words, not being able to say no to that piece of candy may not be entirely in your hands.

Self-control is like a muscle

Self-control, according to growing research1,2,3, is like a muscle that can become tired from overuse. Another term for this is willpower depletion.

Think about how many decisions you have to make daily that require self-control: what to have for breakfast, how many cups of coffee to limit yourself to, how nice you should be to a colleague who isn’t holding up their end of the workload. And, that only gets us to 9 am!

With each decision, you’re exercising this self-control muscle and depleting it throughout the course of the day with each choice you make. When it comes to the choices that are supporting your health – diet and exercise choices – your self-control could be getting close to its limit.

The limits of self-control

Research indicates that being physically tired4 or sleep deprived may not be the reason your bucket of self-control gets dangerously close to dry.

Rather, some studies indicate your brain starts to function differently after making a series of decisions5,6. Other studies show that with each decision that requires self-control, your brain may be using more energy in the form of glucose – or blood sugar7,8. Depleting this energy level with a choice that requires willpower may leave your brain with less energy to draw on for the next tough decision.

Don’t lose hope

Does all of this mean that at some point we’ll give in and lose our self-control? No! The good news is there are a number of strategies to make sure we have self-control when we need it – once we understand its biological limits.

Research shows our mood, attitudes, personalities, and potentially our beliefs also impact self-control.9 If you believe you don’t have self-control, your willpower muscle may get weaker much sooner. So, be mindful of your self-talk. If you catch yourself thinking or saying, “I don’t have any willpower,” replace it with a more helpful thought like, “This may be hard, but I’ve done hard things before” or, “I have a lot of inner strength, and I can do this.”

Additionally, feeling obligated to exercise willpower to make changes can potentially drain your self-control bucket faster than if you are self-motivated and ready for change10. This is one reason why Arivale Coaches focus on your core motivation for change and your ultimate goal – or aspiration. It puts you in the driver’s seat and may support your willpower in the long run.

There’s another reason that identifying an aspiration at the beginning of a behavior-change journey is important: You can use your aspiration as a way to help reinforce your self-control when you start feeling it weaken. Ideally, your aspiration should be tied to your core values, which guide your behavior and are often tied to emotion, spirituality, or motivation and tend to remain constant as you grow and age. Research shows that if your self-control muscle is getting tired, thinking about your core values – such as family, honesty, or vitality – allows your mind to shift into a different mode of thinking that can help increase self-control11.

You have a few additional options that can make change easier by by-passing the need to exercise the self-control muscle quite so much.

  • Creating a supportive environment is one way12. If you have tempting food out on the counter in direct sight, you have to exercise a lot of self-control to avoid grabbing it. If you put fresh fruits and veggies on your counter instead and get rid of or hide the junk food, you’re reducing the number of times you must flex your self-control muscle. Similarly, putting the office candy bowl in a drawer or in an opaque, covered container could help reduce the number of times you have to use self-control to say “no.” This allows you to have to draw from your self-control bucket fewer times, saving it for when it might be the most useful, say when avoiding a free dessert at a restaurant or resisting another glass of wine.
  • Taking care of your basic physical needs – food, sleep and movement – is another way to make it easier to avoid temptation. Eating balanced, regular meals and snacks, while being mindful of total energy intake, can help to keep your willpower reserves up. Because exercising willpower depletes blood sugar, with regular meals your brain has some incoming energy to refuel and refresh with for your next act of self-control. Getting adequate sleep and making time to move your body in ways that you enjoy also helps give you the mental reserves to stick to your goals.
  • Avoid trying to make too many changes at once. This essentially spreads your self-control too thin and is one way to quickly empty your willpower bucket. If you focus on one change at a time until it becomes a habit, it will require less self-control to maintain and then allow you to start adding additional behaviors to focus on13,14.
  • Lastly, research shows simply exercising your self-control muscle – ­having to make choices that require willpower – can strengthen your overall self-control7,15. When you do choose to go to the gym after a long day, even though you don’t feel like it, congratulate yourself knowing that you just added another drop of self-control to your bucket for another day or another decision.

Using some of these tactics to increase the limit of your self-control – focusing on your aspiration, controlling your environment, and adjusting your beliefs about your own willpower for the better – will be beneficial as you work toward your health and wellbeing goals.

References

  1. Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin,126, 247-259.
  2. Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
  3. Muraven, M. (2012). Ego-depletion: theory and evidence. In R.M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of MotivationOxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Vohs, K., et al. (2011). Ego depletion is not just fatigue: evidence from a total sleep deprivation experiment. Social Psychological and Personality Science,2, 166-173.
  5. Inzlicht, M., & Gutsell, J. (2007). Running on empty: neural signals for self-control failure. Psychological Science,18, 933-937.
  6. Wagner, D., et al (2013). Self-regulatory depletion enhances neural responses to rewards and impairs top-down control. Psychological Science, 24, 2262-2271.
  7. Gailliot, M., et al. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,92, 325-336.
  8. Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., . . . Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325-336.
  9. Martijn, C., et al. (2002). Getting a grip on ourselves: challenging expectancies about loss of energy after self-control. Social Cognition,20, 441-460.
  10. Muraven, M., et al. (2008). Helpful self-control: autonomy support, vitality, and depletion.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,44, 573-585.
  11. Schmeichel, BJ & Vohs, K. (2009) Self-affirmation and self-control: affirming values counteracts ego depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 770-782.
  12. Painter, J., et al. (2002). How visibility and convenience influence candy consumption. Appetite,38, 237-238.
  13. Muraven, M. et al. (1999). Longitudinal improvement of self-regulation through practice: building self-control strength through repeated exercise. Journal of Social Psychology,139, 446-457.
  14. Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2006). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology,11, 717-733.
  15. Baumeister, R., et al. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: how interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality,74, 1773-1801.