A team of researchers out of the University of Waterloo in Canada recently conducted a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They looked at how personal narratives play a role in self-regulation skills.
The results showed that the more taxing we perceive a task to be, the more we view self-control as something that degrades over time. And the more likely we are to give in to temptations down the road.
The notion of continuously exerting effortful control when feeling mentally depleted is a familiar experience. The science tells us so: engaging in tasks that require self-regulation skills might actually reduce our performance in subsequent tasks.
Exercising control in your work performance from Monday to Friday empties the willpower tank, making it difficult to stave off temptations. Researchers call this phenomenon ‘ego depletion’.
Ego-depletion suggests that your willpower failings are inevitable and, ironically, beyond your control. But now there’s new research suggesting that you might have more control over your self-control than you think.
Capitalize on your emotions to hack self-regulation skills
The concept of ego-depletion stems from what psychologists term the ‘strength model of self-control’ which describes self-regulation as being dependent on a pre-set supply of finite energy. Proponents of the strength model view self-regulation as a limited resource, something that must be restored in order for you to continue chipping away at your strenuous goal pursuits.
The new research challenging ego-depletion says that exercising self-control is less about avoiding the bad (i.e., temptations), and more about approaching the good through shifts in perspective. How can you do this? One solution is to get more emotional.
Instead of trying to downplay the value of your temptations, you can capitalize on positive pro-social emotions to increase the value you place on your future rewards. Specifically, you can improve self-control by cultivating and strengthening the following three pro-social emotions: compassion, gratitude, and pride.
Using emotions to be more disciplined? Sounds counter intuitive. The science behind this emotion theory of self-control stems back to our evolutionary roots, when exercising self-discipline had nothing to do with saving money, dieting, or running a business.
Back in the day, the likelihood of our ancestors surviving depended solely on their social success. The more social ties, the better off they were in terms of survival and access to mates/resources. We evolved pro-social emotions as a way to ensure that we ended up in other people’s good books and as a way to ensure our continued success and survival.
Our modern-day selves are made up of the psychological vestiges from this evolutionary past. Meaning, if you strengthen these pro-social emotions, you will naturally improve your self-control.
It works like this:
- Feeling grateful for the relationships you’ve built helps you double your willingness to wait to receive a larger monetary reward in the future rather than a smaller, more immediate reward.
- Feeling compassion mimics the interpersonal dilemmas we face when we sacrifice small pleasures of the present moment in the interests of others.
- Feeling proud fosters the will to develop and master skills that make you admirable to your peers which can, in turn, help you adhere to your personal goal striving.
In short, cultivating these pro-social feel-good states serves as an emotion based mechanism to enhance self-control. Next time you find yourself face-to-face with the urge to fall off the wagon, try using one of the following tactics:
Reflect on your gratitude
When you place an imaginary ‘Do Not Touch’ sign on your personal temptations, they naturally become more important in your environment. Shifting your focus to be less about yourself and more about the people in your life can help make your work feel more meaningful.
Try this: keep a journal by your bedside that you can easily access as soon as you wake up in the morning. Commit five minutes a day to writing the names of three people you are currently grateful for in your life. At the end of each week, write a short ‘Thank You’ card to the three people you are most grateful for.
This simple act of gratitude will help shift your perspective from temptation avoidance to a more positive approach-oriented framing. In turn, you’ll find yourself less occupied with things you’re trying so hard to avoid and more so with people you appreciate in your life.
Relate with compassion
Next time you find yourself battling the itch to throw in the towel, try engaging in a positive social interaction.
Try this: commit to engaging in one lighthearted social interaction every day before noon. Some ways to do this include asking your spouse or roommate what they have planned for the day, or asking the cashier how their day is going as you grab your morning coffee.
Our social interactions don’t have to be deep and meaningful to be effective. Studies tell us that even the simple act of smiling at a stranger on the bus can help promote a mental state of compassion. This feel-good state of connectedness will in turn allow us to focus more on our long-term goals.
Celebrate your pride
Chipping away at a long-term goal can send your mind into autopilot, where you often find yourself so preoccupied with the end result, you forget to enjoy the ride. Make sure to congratulate yourself on the small wins along the way.
Try this: before bed, jot down a list of everything you did that day that helped you move the needle towards your goal(s). The simple act of taking the time to reflect on what you are currently doing to reach your goals can serve to remind you of how much you invest in them, giving you a healthy dose of pride in your work.
This sort of pride is what psychologists call authentic pride, which differs from its more arrogant version of hubristic pride. When you cultivate authentic pride, you reward yourself for your efforts, which signals a socially admirable trait to others: You catch their attention through genuine hard work and dedication. This, in turn, fuels your motivation.
Overall, these tactics fly in the face of the ego-depletion theory. They suggest that subtle shifts in perspective can keep our self-control reserves running high. The current new study lends further support to this idea.
The research reported here indicates that subjective perceptions of effort matter for our self-controlled behaviors. Specifically, when you “see” something as effortful, it’s likely that your self-control will suffer as a result. It’s further evidence that self-control is a matter of motivational mindset rather than a depletable resource. With any number of perspective changes at your disposal, the message is quite clear: your self-control will never fail.
The study: How perspective can shape your self-control
In a series of three studies, the researchers out of Waterloo set out to investigate just how our subjective perceptions of effort impact the sort of ‘theories’ we construct about self-control, and in turn, how these theories shape our ability to exert self-control in real life.
The first study looked at how our past experiences with self-control serve to shape our attitude towards it. One group of participants was asked to reflect on a time where self-control came easy to them, while the other group was asked to report a time where they had to really break a sweat in order to stay in line. All participants were then asked to complete a questionnaire designed to test their lay theories of self-control (e.g., is self-control a limited resource, yes or no?).
The second study took it a step further by assessing lay theories after having participants complete either a high or low effort self-control task. The high effort task asked participants to a read a passage and remove all “e”s and spaces and also changing all “a”s to “A”s. In the low effort condition, participants simply rewrote a passage word-for-word. Everyone then completed the same questionnaire as in Study 1 regarding their lay theories of self-control.
Finally, the third study looked at how people’s experience with effort on a day-to-day basis might affect their lay theories of self-control. Each participant was asked to perform an effortful task every day for two weeks straight. The researchers then measured the participants’ perceived effort and lay theories of self-control like before.
The results across all three studies are clear: There appears to be a link between perceived effort of self-control and the lay theory that self-control is a limited resource.
What these findings tell us is that the concept of ego-depletion falls short in its explanatory value. According to the study’s findings, it seems that our egos can only be depleted if we perceive tasks as relatively more difficult. While these findings aren’t overly positive, it’s the opposite interpretation that gives some hope: Self-control can be strengthened by shifts in what we deem as “effortful” versus not. This type of interpretation opens the door to a more flexible and adaptive version of self-control.
The current findings lend support to a more growth-oriented perspective of our self-control abilities. To increase your self-control, you start by shifting your mental state in order to ‘see’ certain tasks as less effortful. Indeed, studies suggest that by mentally framing a task as amusing or beneficial, we can reduce our perceived effort. According to the team of researchers, this might help promote a less limited perspective of self-control that can potentially be carried over to your future endeavors.
Recap on building self-regulation skills
This changing lens of self-control in psychology leaves a large margin for mindset when it comes to your ability to exert self-control, and helps alleviate the dooming thought that your self-control abilities are completely pre-determined (and depletable).
Engaging in activities that promote pro-social emotions can help utilize your evolutionary roots to tackle modern day goals. This offers just one example of utilizing an emotion-based perspective shift in order to improve self-regulation skills.