It is that time of year again, Australia Day has passed and all the holiday glow has gone. Resolutions which seemed such a good idea when you are buoyed up with holiday energy suddenly seem a lot less realistic when faced with the realities of everyday life.
In my own little world, I don't feel on a larger scale that my goals are unrealistic or too difficult, but on a day by day, 'what should I do with my spare half an hour?' basis I'm finding it hard to sit down and write, do my blogging and keep up my ROW80 duties (sorry everyone for missing you the last week and a half!).
So, I wanted to look into one of the important factors in keeping any resolution or goal: self-control. I wanted to see what psychology had to say and if I could apply it to my situation now. And so I turned to a psychological paper that a friend recently sent to me that I think has a lot of interesting info and suggestions we could all be using for sticking with our resolutions.
(I did have a section on will-power and motivation in The Five Day Writer's Retreat that I recommend, but this is based on a different set of research.)
The article is by Baumeister, Roy F.; Bratslavsky, Ellen; Muraven, Mark; Tice, Dianne M., "Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 74(5), May 1998, 1252-1265.
Basically the study collects the data from lots of previous experiments and discusss the implications.
The experiments were looking at the phenomena known as 'ego depletion', that is impaired self-control. They looked at what happened when subjects were first asked to expend self-control (for example choosing to eat radishes instead of chocolate) before completing a different type of self control task (such as solving difficult anagram puzzles).
Why Do We Need Self Control?
According to the study, self control is needed to control impulses and stop us from gratifying immediate needs and desires, and ultimately leads to long-term achievements. Anything that is going to require effort or dedication over time is going to require self control. Also, a lack of self control leads to a number of significant behavioral and social problems including obesity, drug abuse, violent crime, gambling and personal debt, unplanned pregnancy, etc.
Basically, you really can't overestimate the importance and benefits of being able to control yourself. Even if we allow ourselves to let loose every now and again, it is our ability to get things done the rest of the time and overcome immediate urges that allows us to achieve what we want and be happy with what we have.
How Does Self Control Work?
Now there are different theories as to how it all works. One group of theories see it as capacity-based, suggesting self-control is a limited commodity. Use it on one thing and you will have less to spend on something else. If you spend the day resisting the chocolate sitting on the bench you will find it harder to do other unrelated tasks that require self-control.
One of these approaches is the strength model, which I rather like. It likens self-control to a muscle. Actions require strength and energy to be performed, and as muscles become tired after a while and cannot do as much so too self-control can be overworked and fatigued. The theory extends the metaphor to suggest that rest and proper recovery (taking on the necessary fuel) is how self-control is regenerated, just like muscles. An interesting thing about this model is that it suggests that regular training can increase your self-control capacity, just like muscle training makes you able to lift heavier weights for longer.
However, one problem with this model is the place of motivation within self-control. There is strong evidence that increased motivation can help overcome the fatigue, and there are debates as to why. I'm not going to go into these debates, as I think the important aspect for me is to remember that increasing motivation can help when I've depleted my self-control resources.
Where Does My Self Control Go?
Reading through the study I was struck by what they considered required self control. Some of the experiments used resisting tempting food, which I can totally understand. But some other experiments looked at suppressing emotions as an act of self-control. They had subjects watch an evocative movie while not being able to express their emotions, and found that this had a significant effect. This doesn't meant the suppressing emotions is bad, suppressing our anger so we don't punch people is something I fully support. But it is a drain on our reserves in the short term until we build up more strength. This reminded me that our rest and recovery needs to be somewhere we feel we can express ourselves freely.
Self control can be leaked out of us in lots of different ways. Even physical events such as a lack of food or a lack of sleep depletes the resources. Anyone who has gone shopping while hungry will know how difficult it is to resist temptation!
Where Does Self Control Come From?
Another thing that the study found was that there appears to be what they call a 'global self-control resource'. The effects of ego-depletion are felt across all different types of tasks, which suggests that there aren't separate stores for resisting food and ignoring the siren call of procrastination. Use it up and its gone, regardless of what you are trying to do. This really points to the need to prioritise, because you've only got so much to dole out. If you try to lose weight, go to the gym everyday, write your novel in a month, and be nice to that annoying next door neighbour all at the same time you are going to run out of your reserves very quickly.
What Does The Study Conclude?
The purpose of this particular study was to see if there was evidence in previous experiments to support the capacity-based hypothesis. Can self-control really be considered a limited commodity?
So what is the overall conclusion?
'Results revealed a significant effect of ego depletion on self-control task performance. Significant effect sizes were found for ego depletion on effort, perceived difficulty, negative affect, subjective fatigue, and blood glucose levels'. (Abstract)
It is interesting that there were subjective consequences (tasks felt harder) but also objective ones as well (blood glucose levels, keeping in mind that glucose is what keeps the brain happy and fed.) You need to realize that it's not all in your mind, using up your will power does make it actually harder to complete further tasks.
They also found that the expectation of further acts of self control made the effects even more noticeable. It's interesting to note that it wasn't the further acts themselves, just the expectation that these would happen. I totally relate to this. At the gym I can get myself through if I say 'just one more round, just need to finish this and you're done'. But if I know I'm not even halfway through, I completely fall apart.
But it's not all doom and gloom. They found that motivational incentives, training on self-control tasks, and 'glucose supplementation' (love that, basically - eat sugar, in the short term) resulted in better self control after the ego depletion.
So what have I taken away from all this?
First of all, I need to prioritise my self-control. At the moment I have limited stores, and I need to decide where I want it to go. With my new job I now have the added stress of quite a lot of emotional suppression, in that I've gone from living alone to being surrounded by 170 teenage girls who will irritate and pester me even when I'm not on duty. (As much as I love them all, regardless of who it is, other people require you to control yourself more than being by yourself).
Second, I need to actively plan my days off to maximize my recovery. I need to keep properly fueled, allow myself emotional release and to indulge in some temptations. A good comedy at the cinema with a bag of maltesers by myself where I can laugh out loud without worry about anyone else should do the trick :D
Third, I want to look at areas in my life I can reduce self-control leakages. How can I make the rest of my life easier so I don't waste this precious commodity? In the past this has meant getting a cleaning lady. One of the benefits of my new job is actually the reduction of annoyances in other areas. I am hoping that once I settle into the new job having my bills paid, my food cooked for me, and not having to travel to work will reduce a lot of my stress. But there are always extra little areas I can work on, even silly little things like getting a second set of sheets so I don't have to worry about trying to wash and dry them all in one day.
Fourth, I need to train my self control up over time instead of trying to do everything all at once. Small and steady increments is the way to go. In exercise they say that you should only increase your loading (weight/duration/speed whatever) by 10% at a time, never more than that.
So, New Goals:
I'm going to reduce the expectation down for the next few weeks, and just try to do a little bit of writing everyday to build up my self-control strength without overreaching, and only go to the gym 3 times a week (instead of feeling bad that I haven't made it 5 times).
I have been doing the 5/2 diet, which I really love, but right now writing and settling in is a much greater priority than losing weight. So I'm going to leave that until after my birthday in March.
I'm also going to make sure that I eat a healthy breakfast every morning so I'm fueled and ready for the day (much easier now that fresh cut up fruit, yogurt, and eggs appears before me from 7-8am!)
For the past week and a half (since I've been in Brisbane), I have got some things done. I've written up the cover letter and part of the proposal for 'A Little Bit Of Leaven' to send to agents, as well as continuing to edit it and am now half way through.
I also started formatting 'The Nice Guy's Guide To Online Dating Profiles' for print on demand, to be finished this week.
Reading wise I'm continuing with Anna Karenina and loving it. It's actually in two volumes, so to reduce my stress I've decided to count that as two books :D (It doesn't count as cheating when its a self imposed challenge). I finished the first volume within the time frame, so hope to finish it as a whole soon.
Finally, have found out that I don't have a weekend off near my birthday to fly down to Melbourne and do the book launch of After The Winter, so I'm putting that off until early April when school holidays starts. More on that later.
You might also have noticed in my page on Synopses that I've added the first chapters of some of the more polished drafts just for your enjoyment. Would love to hear your feedback!