Self Control

I just finished a short lecture series from The Great Courses called Scientific Secrets for Self Control.  

These six lectures could have been 2 or 3 if Professor DeWall didn’t have 2-3 second pauses between each sentence and 3 or 4 redundant ways of saying the same thing over and over and over.  But that’s beside the point.  He started out talking about the primary theories about self control and how it works. He settles on the model I talked about here:

(Though he has a different name for it I can’t remember.) The basic idea is that SC is like a muscle.  It can be depleted of strength by getting over worked, but it can also be strengthened with practice.  Also like a muscle, you can fatigue it with something like weight-lifting, and then find you have trouble sweeping later.  In other words, things that wear out your SC “muscle” in one way, also affect every other sphere of life.  You might wear it out at work, then find you don’t have any left for resisting food, or being short with your spouse.  

DeWall talked about a lot of experiments where people were purposefully emotionally depleted.  Some ways of doing this are putting an off-limits delicious food item like a donut in front of a participant for a prolonged period of time, (control group gets radishes) making them do frustrating things, or even having them interact with someone who intentionally does not mirror ( ) the participant.  All of these things sap the self control “muscles”, and the tasks that they are then given are designed to see how that weakness manifests.

As a funny aside, a lot of the content I create at work ( ) is designed to hammer on that self control muscle hard.  One way to look at this is bad.  Because my work sucks the energy that a player COULD be putting toward improving their career, diet, love life, etc.  But the flip side is that it can also be a strengthening exercise, building up their self-control muscles.  I suppose it all comes down to the context of an individual’s life.  

DeWall recommended a couple of exercises to help build your self control, none of which I will be trying.  First he mentioned the role the glucose in the brain assists in SC, and so said breakfast was super important.  But I’ve found that it’s totally not.  Not for me at least.  Another one he recommended was using your non-dominant hand for manual tasks for 6 hours a day.  Uh… no.  The one question I’d love to ask him is why engage in that kind of a shenanigan to improve your self control instead of the obvious CURRENT problems every person ALREADY has and is continually failing at?  If the muscle metaphor holds, and I can’t currently curl 120 pounds, then why would I do some other random muscle building task instead of working on my curls?  Seems like those would wear me out and make it HARDER to get to my goal.

The thing I specifically want to improve my self control for right now is my food binges.  If I’m going around all day eating up my SC energy on using my left hand to sculpt and mouse and wipe or whatever, then won’t that make it MORE likely that I won’t have that strength to resist binging when the temptation strikes? This is where there’s some weird ambiguity that leaves me unsure of how to apply this course to my life.

When I was a kid I did this competition called Bible Quiz.  It involved memorizing big chunks of the Bible, and there was this weird phenomenon that seemed to apply to MOST kids.  Some parents had a rule that if a kid’s grades got too low, they needed to pull out of BQ because obviously they were spending too much time studying this other thing rather than their school work.  But what seemed to be the case most of the time, was that the more a kid worked on BQ the better their grades got.  And that makes sense when you consider the self control as a muscle that can be strengthened.  And it doesn’t make sense when you consider it a muscle that can be depleted.  

So maybe that’s the reasoning behind piling on exercises on someone who is already failing at self control in some area.  But it’s so counter-intuitive that I honestly don’t know if I want to try it.

But there is one take-away that I definitely do think will change my approach to life.  And that is simply the recognition that mental energy is a finite and valuable resource, and should be treated as such.  In my last blog on this subject ( ) I applied that to how I view others when they do or say something offensive or inconvenient to me.  I think it’s healthy to check my annoyance against the fact that said person has simply run out of SC energy.  I don’t know how much they have, or how much has already been spent, or even how much they are trying desperately to conserve for later because they have a particularly taxing situation or relationship in their life.

So now I’m thinking of self control energy is an important resource.  And all important resources should be budgeted if you want to maximize their utility. Visualizing my ‘energy tank’ of self control, I can more rationally decide where I want to spend that energy.  Do I want to play this frustrating video game, leaving me less energy to finish that sculpture project?  Do I want to put in those extra hours at work leaving me less energy to go on a walk with my wife?  It’s not that the answers to these questions become a formula, because sometimes the answer is that life changes, context changes, things get imbalanced and rebalanced all the time.  So sometimes I DO think it’s important enough to work overtime, but with this model I can more accurately and proactively budget the opportunity costs.

This is something most people recognize in the areas of time and money.  And I think most people also intuitively understand that they can wear out emotionally/intellectually.  But personally, I’ve never thought to treat emotional energy the same way I do my money and time.  I think because I’ve always been under the mistaken impression that when my self control fails, the solution is just to work harder to control myself next time.  But that’s like failing to fill up at a gas station on a long trip, running out of gas, and telling yourself next time you’ll just try harder not to run out of gas, rather than planning to stop as necessary to refuel. Probably because loss of self control is so closely tied to morality and the concept of free will.  Failing to budget your time or money well is generally not seen as a moral failing.  But losing self control is.  Especially if the loss includes hurting others in some way. And since moral failings are seen as something that the failing person needs to sort of… just stop doing… or be punished until the punishment outweighs the crime, there’s no strategy in place for that kind of thing.  

Well now that I think about it I’ll have to take it back.  In some areas of loss-of-self-control there are strategies.  Namely substance abuse and addiction have 12 step programs and such.  Oh, and I guess anger management is a thing.  Ok, so maybe I’m completely negating the paragraph above.  Maybe I’m so myopically applying my particular self-control challenge to this issue instead of thinking more broadly about it.  But since I’m not planning on starting a 12-step program for pastry binging, I’ve got to see if this model of budgeting my self-control fuel can help me to achieve my goals.  

And I do have a tentative plan.  Here it is.  Rather than try to bulldoze my way to my weight goal, (Which I’ve tried to do unsuccessfully now about 300 times) I’m going to look at how I can strategically work my way towards it while incorporating the reality of the ACTUAL strength of my self control muscles, rather than pretending that if I try hard enough they will be stronger this time.  I’ve recently discovered a new tool in my diet tool box that I think will be the key.  I can go for several consecutive days eating very few calories and no carbs.

But I always end up binging afterward.  Well ‘duh’ I hear you say.  “Anyone who deprives themselves so much is going to break after a while.” But here’s the important part: I ALSO always end up binging even if I eat a normal amount as well.  So whether I eat 800 calories/day all week, or 1,500/day all week, I still end up gorging myself with 2,000 - 5,000/day on the weekends, and then often into Monday as well.  It seems that it’s not the severity of the deprivation I impose on myself, but simply the fact that I impose ANY food deprivation at all!

So knowing that I can severely restrict my calories for several days in a row, and knowing that no matter what I always end up binging, I’m pretty sure I can swing this pattern from this annoying plateau into a positive trend simply by subtly shifting the balance.  I’m going to make a game out of it.  Here are the rules.  Eat what I like for 3 days, (which refills my self control tank) then go into deprivation mode UNTIL my weight is 2 pounds LESS than it was before I started the 3 day food orgy.  Oh, I guess that’s it.  There’s only one rule. If I’m doing my math right, I should be able to lose about 2 pounds a week that way.  (Depending on how many deprivation days it takes.)  At some point the deprivation periods will have to get longer and longer as the remaining fat becomes more stubborn.  But maybe I’ll be working my SC muscles so regularly that it will be possible to do what I can’t do now.  We’ll see.

It’s also important to note that a single life-goal does not exist in a vacuum.  My ability to do my diet plan may impede my ability to meet my creative goals or my relationship goals, etc. So I need to be monitoring these other areas to make sure I’m not sucking the life out of those due to a singular focus.


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