conquer self control

You know how it goes- you’ve procrastinated as long as you possibly can and now, at 7pm, you sit down to finally write the blog, prepare the report, or outline the paper that has been hanging over your head all day.  As you sit down to write you feel panicked and exhausted; your self-control is out the window.

Not the best recipe for success!

This used to happen to me all the time.  In graduate school, I would often write papers that important people would read and judge me upon.  Those people decided on what opportunities came my way and my future job prospects would hinge on their good word.  So those papers mattered a lot.

Despite that pressure (or, perhaps, because of it)  I’d spend all day avoiding it before forcing myself to sit down and do the work.  I’d trick myself to get started (I’ll just write an outline!) and then before I knew it I would be working away with no resistance…but not for long.  I’m a morning person and at around 9pm my brain begins to shut down completely.  Since I began at 7, I’d be too tired to go on after only a couple of hours of work.

I was usually panicked enough to get right to work the following morning, but I wasn’t the most efficient worker, even then. When I completed a section, I would think “Oh I should check my email real quick and then I’ll get back to it.

That would, inevitably, take me down a rabbit hole, and I’d emerge at least 40 minutes later, confused and off track.  It would take me another 15 minutes to remember my train of thought and get back into the flow. For those of you who love math- that’s ALMOST AN HOUR lost to something unimportant in the middle of this important task.  I’m still annoyed at myself, all these years later.

It’s no wonder that the lamentation “This could be so much better with more time!” was playing on a loop in my head all day.

Here’s what’s weird:

  • I love to write. And psychology is my favorite thing to write about! There’s a reason I went to a soul-crushingly expensive graduate program in applied cognition!  (And it’s not the income potential ?)
  • I had the time!  It wasn’t like I was sitting around curing cancer all day and that’s why I couldn’t get to the paper earlier in the day. It was Netflix, Cheetos, email, and chit chat with my roommate.
  • I knew what I wanted to write. There were no papers that I wrote in graduate school that were beyond my capability or interest.  I loved all of them (I even enjoyed writing a paper for my neurophysiology class even though attending that class was an exercise in slow death)

So what gives?  WHY was it so, so hard to do what I was passionately interested in, wanted to do, and had time to do?

self-control

In a classic twist of fate, I found the answer in a paper I wrote in graduate school for my “Cognitive Psychology and Education” class. The theory is called Ego Fatigue with ego being another word for your capacity for self-control.  The theory says that every person has a certain amount of self-control granted to them at the beginning of each day.  Each time self-control is required during the day, you lose some of it.  If you do things that are automatic or routine, on the other hand, you don’t ding your self-control, allowing you to save it for other things.

In this post we’ll talk about the two biggest culprits for running down your self control: Decisions and Task Switching

Making Decisions

Anytime you need to make a decision (this or that?  Or, this or that or that or that or that?) your brain is weighing the likely outcomes and risks associated with each option. Every option weighed, every memory assessed, every variable considered takes self-control and reduces your overall capacity for self-control for the rest of the day.

Let’s start with something very concrete to nail down the basics. Let’s say you are opening your drawer to pick a shirt to wear and there is a green t-shirt, a blue dressy shirt, and a really nice but delicate sweater.  Your brain looks at these options and begins to consider:

  • What am I doing today?  I have a client meeting and a dinner with my husband.
  • Which of these isn’t appropriate for what I’m doing today? Out goes the green t-shirt.
  • Should I wear the sweater since it is so pretty and nice?  I could, but if I wear the sweater I would have to dry clean it and I’m kind of broke right now. ?.
  • Is there any reason not to wear the blue shirt?  No, it’s fine. The blue shirt comes out of the drawer.

Now, while processing your disappointment about the sweater (a process psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” which is another thing that depletes your ego) you work through the other decisions required to get dressed. What socks? What pants? What shoes?  As you can see, getting dressed requires a LOT of individual choices, each of which depletes your self-control, or ego.

In the example of writing that paper in graduate school, I spent all day repeating the decision “Should I work now?” and my fear drove me to say “No, not yet” making the same decision deplete me again and again, along with the cognitive dissonance caused by my disappointment in myself.

When I finally started to write the paper, every time I finished a section I was faced with the decision “What’s next?” When creating- whether its writing a blog or painting or any act of making something out of nothing-  there are an INFINITE number of things that could happen next, making the act of creation one of the most taxing tasks we can do in terms of self-control.

The studies on decisions always point to this important and inevitable truth: You make better decisions earlier in the day.

As your self-control depletes, your brain begins to feel less able to go deep into each decision and begins to take shortcuts.  You stop considering your options and take the easy route.  

The question becomes then, what do you want to sacrifice to your lowest quality decisions?  

Do you want to spend your best decisions on what shirt to wear? Or do you want to spend them on writing that important paper for your advisor (or the blog for your subscribers, or the report for your boss)?  

In the guide that goes with this post, I have some great insight for you about setting smart routines for your hardest work and some advice on how to structure your day better to make this whole thing less taxing! Don’t leave without snagging it!

practice self control

Task Switchingself-control-download

In the example of writing that paper I described that every time I was done with a section of the paper, I faced a decision- what next?  My brain (and yours!) is always trying to entice me with the easiest task because your brain’s #1 priority is energy efficiency.

  • Let’s check email!
  • Let’s hop on NYtimes.com and see what’s new in the world!
  • Let’s quickly send that text to change the time of my meeting!

You should resist this siren call if you can!

Not just because you’re on a deadline and need to get this done, but also because every single time you switch back and forth between tasks you lose some of your self-control!

There is a set of “settings” in your brain for each task. The “settings” for checking emails is different than the “settings” for writing the paper.  These “settings” include things like what you worry about and protect against, the way you manage your attention, and what you notice while doing the task. 

Every time you switch to another task, your brain switches settings. When you switch back to your original task, your brain switches settings again. Each time you move between settings, you lose some self-control.  As you can see, when you are working on something that is already cognitively taxing (writing, creating, etc), you are compounding the drain on your self-control when you take a “quick” break and check email.

In the immortal words of Caitlin Faas, my co-creator on this series, there is no “real quick” when it comes to your brain.

In short: stay focused, and avoid switching.

I have some great tips, tricks and tools for you in the guide that goes with this post to help you avoid this distraction trap.

Budget Your Self-Control

Next time you have a big creative task to do, remember to budget your self-control! Make the most important decisions early in the day when you’re at your peak and avoid constantly switching tasks to keep your brain on the track you want to be on. You are the boss of your self-control and now that you see how each and every decision and task switch depletes this valuable (and limited) resource, it’s up to you to be strategic. 

Don’t forget to grab the free download for actionable, concrete steps!

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost a million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.