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Why Change Is So Hard: Self-Control Is Exhaustible (fastcompany.com)
85 points by raphar on June 2, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 30 comments

As several others have pointed out, the study in this article, as described, is methodologically flawed. Regardless, what they were attempting to show has been established extensively by R. F. Baumeister of Florida State. A good review of the literature is available from Gailliot and Baumeister (2007): http://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=120307599830563549...

The abstract:

"Past research indicates that self-control relies on some sort of limited energy source. This review suggests that blood glucose is one important part of the energy source of self-control. Acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or insensitive). Restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control. Numerous self-control behaviors fit this pattern, including controlling attention, regulating emotions, quitting smoking, coping with stress, resisting impulsivity, and refraining from criminal and aggressive behavior. Alcohol reduces glucose throughout the brain and body and likewise impairs many forms of self-control. Furthermore, self-control failure is most likely during times of the day when glucose is used least effectively. Self-control thus appears highly susceptible to glucose. Self-control benefits numerous social and interpersonal processes. Glucose might therefore be related to a broad range of social behavior."

Interesting, but the experiment there seems to be flawed. Cookies have a lot more sugar/glucose than radishes and it changes your blood sugar levels a lot more, so you'd expect right after eating the people that ate cookies will have more energy to persist on the task.

It doesn't quite prove what they are trying to prove (that self control and change are exhausting). They should have tried it with something else that was tempting and that was not food.

There's another study (that I can't find right now, maybe someone will help me) in which self-control was measured by how long someone could keep their arm submerged in icy water.

Ones who had their discipline taxed before the exercise performed dramatically worse than those who hadn't.

So that one had nothing to do with food and showed similar results.

Yes, there are apparently lots of studies about this.

Where would summary of these result be found?

Well, here's a couple



Great find, thank you.

Good point. A simple fix would be to figure out what a normal score on the exercise would be without cookies. If it's the same as with cookies (or close), it's safe to conclude that it's the temptation of the cookies moreso than the sugar that makes the difference.

They might have actually done this.

Your second sentence sounds like you actually agree with the study. The people with heightened levels of blood sugar pursued the impossible task a lot longer than the people with lower levels of blood sugar. Determination in the face of frustration is an important part of self-control. It sounds like they've showed such determination is tied to blood glucose levels, which certainly do get depleted after difficult tasks.

I don't think that's what they were trying to show, nor do I think it is strongly shown by the study as presented.

There have been other studies that shows that sugar replenishes self control.

Be that as it may, it has little to do with the discussion at hand.

I like to think of my self-control as a muscle. Yes, it gets worn out and needs a lazy Sunday every once in a while as the study shows, but at the same time the more I exercise it, the stronger it gets.

QQ: Given this, how _is_ it possible to change as a person? For example, you read these rare stories of overweight guys really turning their lives around and becoming all out studs. How do they do something like that?

Self-control only applies to situations where your rational mind overrules irrational impulses. If eating righting and exercising requires self-control, it is because your mind has a deep conviction that it's actually best for you to eat a lot and not exercise. You've figured out the right strategy, but your faith in it is as shallow as your rational mind. At deeper levels, you're still deluded. However, you can deepen your convictions through carefully examined and honestly felt experience. For example, through regular exercise, you can learn to associate exercise with the good feelings and good results it produces. (It's interesting how neatly this meshes with the Buddhist belief that harmful behavior arises from delusion, and that delusion is maintained not only by ignorance but by compulsive doubt of what one rationally knows to be true.)

Unfortunately, your false beliefs (exercise is pointless, exercise will make me feel bad, ordering a pizza will make me feel good, I'm not the kind of quality person who exercises and eats right anyway) start to come back when you stop exercising and eating right. I don't believe you can ever completely eradicate them. An addict is always an addict. For some reason, early-imprinted delusions are always more comfortable than our learned wisdom, and we tend to revert to them under stress. So the fight is never-ending, though happily it demands less self-discipline as time passes.

Backed up by anything? As this seems a little like wishful thinking.

From what I've read, generally speaking weightloss from dieting/exercise is usually 1.5-2 stones then you put back on .5 stone. Some people then revert back to original weight as they adopt their previous lifestyle.

It's got little to do with beliefs and delusions, far more to do with treating losing weight as a temporary thing then reverting to a previous lifestyle, thinking all I have to do is eat a little less, drink a little less than I did once I'm x stone. They end the diet with 'and now I shall be good because I'm happy' without actually intending to change their original lifestyle. They never intended to keep up the diet indefinitely. So they never had a belief that a diet was how they should live the rest of their life, but made no serious attempt to change their lifestyle.

That's my impression of it anyway, having done this once to myself and now pondering on how I'm back to my original weight.

On a related note, I've certainly read of people saying that you can build up periods of concentration (e.g. in this instance it was writing), start slow with a couple of hours and build up every day and eventually you can work yourself up to long periods of time of concentration without noticing it. This is perhaps a habit changing method.

I don't know, I'm no expert, that's just my best guess.

Backed up with my own weight loss and fitness.

Anyone who thinks dieting is a temporary state is doomed; it's easy to categorize that as a delusion.

Your mind has a natural anxiety about breaking habits (it's rather superstitious) and also a natural aversion to putting effort into anything. That's why it's so easy to do something when you have enthusiasm for it and so hard once the enthusiasm wears off: enthusiasm is essentially excitement based on the belief that something will generate positive results. I don't know why enthusiasm seems to peak quickly and then die off, but I treat it as an opportunity to form new habits and to educate myself through experiences that would be difficult to bring about otherwise because of my natural laziness. Most long-lasting changes in my life are the residual effects of waves of enthusiasm that carried me for a while and then subsided. I've never been able to make changes strictly incrementally; it's always three steps forward and one step back (which I guess is that .5 stone you're talking about.)

I cannot think of any exercise that's more likely to build up one's self control over time than meditation. The ability to keep one's attention squarely on the meditation object (typically the breath) for as long as one wishes improves self control and focus immensely over time.

If you've never experienced it, the feeling of having zero thoughts in your head for an extended period of time is just absolutely stunning/amazing/whatever - worth experiencing like you wouldn't believe.

Very insightful, thanks!

It's easy. Run 10km each day directly before dinner for 2 weeks with someone else. Perhaps 10km is too much, but set a fixed distance up front (definitely not less than 5km).

The advantages are:

1) Doing something every day is easier. This eliminates the decision "will I run today?". Deciding yes requires more self control than doing it every day by default, because the choice has already been made.

2) Doing it for 2 weeks is low commitment, and sets a goal.

3) Doing it with someone else gives you outside pressure. This is good because you don't have to pressure yourself.

4) Running before dinner is good for two reasons. First you really don't want to run after you've eaten (hurts). Second, you don't have to remember it: your body will remind you (hunger: you want to eat so better get running).

Contrast this with: To lose weight I'm going to start running.

This is almost certainly going to fail. Now you have ask yourself the question "will I go running now?" at some point during the day. If this happens what will you tell yourself?

- I'm busy now; I will run later this day.

- My life is long; I will run tomorrow.

- The weather is bad now.

- I don't feel good today.

- During the run at 2km: I'm tired so I'm going to stop now.

Contrast this with: It's an hour before dinner. You don't even have to ask yourself whether you want to go running, because you already decided that you will. What are the excuses you can make up?

- You're not busy because you planned to run.

- You're only going to run for 2 weeks, you can do that.

- You don't want to lose the 2 week goal or the 3 days that you've been running already will have been for nothing.

- The other guy is ringing your doorbell/waiting for you, you can't say no to him.

- You don't stop after 2km because you said 10km. And the other guy is running next to you.

Eliminate decisions (do it every day, and 10km). Set a goal (2 weeks). Get pressure from other people so that you don't have to use up your own self control.

I think the key is not that you have to have good self control. The key is to avoid using it, and if you do have to use it try to make the right decision more preferable.

Oh, and two things specific to running/losing weight: you have a lower appetite after running (at least I do), and if you run you have another reason not to eat sweets/cookies/etc: you don't want to undo the hard work!

Good points. But it is harder to make yourself not do something, rather than to do something. You could set a daily time or long goal for something that you want to do, but not doing something requires constant vigil. Thats why it can be pretty exhausting.

Yes, that's true. Not eating something is much harder than running. You can apply the same principles to make it somewhat easier:

- Eliminate decisions by not buying bad stuff that tempts you.

- Do some kind of sport and calculate how many calories you burnt. One piece of chocolate can easily cost 30 minutes to burn, so this makes not eating it more preferable.

- Lose weight with someone else.

To generalise and confirm the other posters' answers - build yourself structure, and scale up gradually. Set small, visible, non-negotiable targets. It takes 10,000 hours to become deeply skilled at something - I try to keep that order of magnitude in mind when thinking about trying to make changes; we're all experts at living under our current way of life!

Obesity may directly be the result of physical or psychological problem. Even worse, issues like these can create a feedback loop. You feel worse, so you eat more, so you feel worse, so you eat more.

Problems like this may be obvious to outsiders, but completely invisible to the person experiencing it. By learning to recognize your situation and substitute behaviors to form new habits, you can change what you are without necessarily changing who you are.

Irrespective of the legitimacy of this study, it does make a lot of sense. You see a lot of people trying to turn their life around, especially around the new year. Eating healthier foods, doing more exercise, cutting back on alcohol or smoking. You see them a couple of weeks later and the stress levels caused by this amount of change is causing more damage than the unhealthy habits they are trying to break. You see them a month later and they are back to their old habits, and sometimes with a vengeance.

I've always advocated slow change. Choose one thing, and just make sure you are mindful of that. Practice this day to day. Don't say "I'll stick it out for three months and see how I go", just take it day to day. Then, a month down the track, see how that person who hasn't eaten fast food for the last thirty days feels about going to Macca's. Maybe, that person would rather have a home made sandwich, or maybe not, but just wait and see and stop telling yourself stories.

I've heard this from other studies, but this one seems less convincing. Couldn't just be "damn those scientists, they won't even give me cookies. My motivation for trying their task just dropped off a cliff"? At the very least, they could have checked by giving other participants money or no money for doing the task?

Are peoples' levels of gullibility also exhaustible, or do we have to define a whole swathe of human characteristics based on some students, radishes, and cookies?

All of these snippets are fascinating.

I can believe that this is a real phenomena.

But every discussion I've read so far seems like a snippet, a gloss, just a bit of information to get me to believe this but not enough for me to feel I understand what's happening.

What really qualifies as self control here? Refusing temptation? Concentrating on something? Not following habit? Suppose what I'm used-to is eating radishes but I how good cookies are good?

Does anyone have a reference for an article or book that really digs into this subject, give more than or two experiments, gives some quantification or theory or some kind of deeper understanding of this. I'm curious now but frustrated.

This is so true, I know from personal experience. So, since we all start with a fixed amount of self control, better save it for things that make more impact, which is a dynamically changing list from day to day. Example: If you'll be doing tons of boring development today, splurge on the lunch.

If it was possible to practise having more self-control, you should probably work on a training schedule.

Self Control is exhaustible, but variable schedule of reward will keep you going until you die! Hmmm.

Self-control is like a muscle?

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