Working With Our Body to Maximize Self-Control

Lately, I have been thinking about self-control and how to capitalize on our strengths as individuals in order to form good habits and lasting change. We sometimes wonder why we fall in this cycle: desire to change or implement a habit—get on the bandwagon for a time—fall off shortly after.

Why can’t we just stick to it?

While obviously there is no single answer to this, I’ve learned some things about our ability to exercise self-control that have really helped. Often times when we learn something about our body and mind, we can make simple adjustments that make change a little easier.

Earlier this summer, I read Laura Vanderkam’s short ebook What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. In it, she points out that our ability to use self-control gets harder as the day goes on. We actually have more self-control in the morning when we get up than we do in the evening.

I have been pondering this in my own routines, but the pieces fell together in my mind as I was reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Brothers Chip and Dan Heath share some fascinating studies about self-control and the idea that we do run out of will-power.

Source

While I won’t go into the details of the studies (you can read the book for those), the results were interesting. People who had to exert a significant amount of self-control (like not eating when there was a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies near them) earlier in the day, actually gave up very quickly on difficult puzzles later on. Those that could eat the cookies, stuck to the puzzles significantly longer. The simple reason being: they were fresh on will-power.

Why does this matter? Because when we are trying to change things or implement helpful habits, it is good to know how our body functions. And I see this fatigue from using self-control in myself very often.

We get physically, emotionally, and mentally tired when using self-control.

  • This is why intentional down-time is key to productivity. (And why we should heed God’s instruction to take a day of rest each week.)
  • This is why kids who go from school, to soccer, to ballet, to music lessons are acting up at the end of the day. All day long they have been required to follow directions and exercise self-control. They need to have time to just run around and play with no instructions. (And as a music teacher who often got these kids at the end of the cycle, I know this is true.)
  • This is why New Year’s goals rarely last through February.
  • This is why most arguments and fights take place in the evening, not the morning.

Practical ways that we can use this knowledge about how our body works:

Money

Problem: the most common trip-up with people setting up a budget for the first time is to put every penny into something very useful and necessary. If you even last a month, that will be a miracle. You will be tiring yourself out using so much self-control, that sooner or later you’ll just throw the whole budget out.

Solution: Plan for a blow fund that doesn’t have to be accounted for. Pull it out in cash. Whether it is $10 or $100, it doesn’t matter. Knowing you have the money to spend on a coffee or something else that doesn’t have to be accounted for will help you stick to the rest of the budget.

Food:

Problem: whether on an actual diet or simply trying to make mindful changes, we tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality. (Sigh, I do this all the time.) We decide to go off sugar for a month. After about week two we lose our steam and eat a bowl of ice-cream. (And since self-control wanes throughout the day you can bet this will probably happen in the evening.) We’ve ruined it now, so we just forget about the diet change altogether.

Solution: When first setting out on changes like this, consider saying no to sugar for the week, but on the weekends treat yourself to a dessert. Also make sure you have healthy alternative snacks available. You’ll need those especially in the evenings when your self-control will be maxed out.

Children:

Problem: you have been noticing that the kids are acting up a lot. They need more structure. All gun-ho with your new plan, you schedule your day to the minute. This plan requires a lot of self-control both for you and your children. By the end of the day you are exhausted. Things fall apart, the schedule gets thrown out, and chaos resumes.

Solution: a schedule or routine is not the problem. It is probably having too much structured time. Consider alternating between high self-control actions, and low-maintenance or free time activities. Your most taxing things might be better in the morning, as well. You and your kids will be much more fresh throughout the day.

There are dozens more examples I could give, but I hope this gives you some ideas for working with, not against, your body.

Our body will tire of using self-control. Know yourself. For some, passing by a plate of cookies will not require self-control, but for others it will take every ounce of will power they have. Build in some relief so you don’t set yourself up for failure.

Have you noticed your ability to use self-control wane at certain times? Share some examples in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Steph says:

    Great post. It’s almost like we have a self-control bank and once we use up all the money (self-control) in the bank we are drawing on empty – here come the cookies. I have definitely noticed I have more self-control earlier in the day. I also think it’s interesting that we all have different areas of struggle with self-control. It’s really easy for me to stick to a budget but passing on food, not so much.

    • Johanna says:

      Yes, that’s so true. Which is why knowing what our particular struggles are and what is “easy” for us, helps in setting us up for success.

  2. Lots of great info here. Now that you mention it, I do find that most fights and disagreements happen at night, and often at the end of a long, tiring week.

  3. Excellent post, Johanna. We need to better understand how our bodies work best, before we can implement lasting change. It also helps tremendously to have some accountability! I am much better disciplined if I know someone will check up on me regarding whatever it is (exercise, drinking water, reading)!

  4. I really like this post, and may link to it in the fitness post I am writing today. What I have seen with fitness/diet is that your long term plan to be fit has to be sustainable. Cutting out all sugar or carbs will never work for the rest of your life. Limiting yourself to one sweet a day is sustainable. Anyway, very interesting thoughts.

    • Johanna says:

      I AGREE! I think this is why so many people “fail” when on a new venture to improve health and fitness. I’m very much looking forward to your post!

  5. Naomi says:

    Understanding/applying this could save parents and teachers a LOT of frustration! :)

    And, hence “the fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control” (something I’ve meditated on a LOT this year b/c I obviously needed it ;-) — evidence that we can’t produce it all on our own! So very, very thankful to know this is something we can grow in as we “walk by the Spirit!”

  6. I read this & was expecting you to also have a quote or example from the book Willpower – you’ve summarized some of it quite well! And you’ve got great examples of how to actually put that into practice.

  7. Elly says:

    That was a good read. Unfortunately, my terrible willpower struggle is first thing in the morning – getting up. I’m a terrible morning person, even going to bed at a good time, and I have to use every ounce of my will-power, not to by-pass a plate of cookies, but to throw back the covers and put my feet on the floor :( Any suggestions?

    Have I said I love your posts? It’s one of the highlights of my day :) By the way, we’re good friends of Tim and Ruth in France, we’ve seen them a couple times and they were at our place when Zacharie was about 8 months old! Do you happen to know them?

    • Johanna says:

      I wish there were a magic solution! What helps for me is to plan the night before exactly what I’m going to do (however simple, like drink a glass of water) in the morning. Otherwise, I’ll start “planning” in bed before I get up and then I’ll have a harder and harder time getting out of bed!

      And, yes, I know Tim and Ruth. Tim’s my brother. :)

  8. Great post!! I have stuck the longest to exercising when I do it first thing in the morning. As a teacher, I can see how as the day goes by, it gets harder and harder to teach.Especially during my last class, I have to plan lots of little breaks so the students don’t doze off. And, like you said in a previous post–it is so hard to clean the kitchen at the end of the day!! If it wasn’t for my dear husband, who cleans the kitchen in exchange for my planning and cooking the meals, the kitchen would be a mess!!

  9. Katrina Thennis says:

    Do you think exercising our will (self-control) makes it stronger? So that we cain gain more self-control?

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