Do You Have More Self-Control Than You Think You Do?

by Anna Maltby

Greg DelvesGreg Delves
If it feels like you have no willpower at the end of a long, tiring day (pass the barbecue chips, right?!), think again, suggests an opinion piece recently published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The authors say that while self-control is harder for us in moments of fatigue, we still do have some. It's not that we can't control ourselves, but rather that we don't feel like it.


"When people are 'depleted' or fatigued, they experience a change in motivational priorities such that they attend to and work less for things they feel obliged to do and attend to and work more for things they want to do -- things they like doing," lead author Michael Inzlicht, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, told SELF.

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That's significant, Dr. Inzlicht says, because it's counter to both popular belief and what some psychologists have been preaching for some time now.

"The field of psychology in the past 10-15 years has characterized self-control as relying on some limited resource that runs out after use, with the suggestion that when it runs out, people can no longer control themselves," Dr. Inzlicht says. "The problem is that it has become increasingly apparent that this view is wrong. Self-control is not like brain-fuel that runs out after use."

So, what's the message? First, remind yourself that you have more self-control than you think!

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"Research shows that people who think self-control is limited tend to show less self-control when they are tired. This is a classic self-fulfilling prophecy," Dr. Inzlicht says.

And second, shift your goals -- whether eating healthier, exercising more or getting more sleep -- from "have-to" status to "want-to" status.

"When fatigued, people will shy away from obligations and goals they feel they ought to do and instead focus on goals that are inherently gratifying and enjoyable," Dr. Inzlicht says. "So if people can start conceiving of their goals as personally meaningful and enjoyable, they may be able to better resist temptation even when they are tired."

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