You may live with one. You may even be the type yourself. My little brother is a snooze bar person. Most days of the week at 5 a.m. his alarm would buzz, whereupon he groaned and groggily slapped it into silence. This process would repeat for nine-minute increments for the next two hours. One day, I had to ask “Josh, how come you don’t just set the alarm for 7 a.m.?”
His answer, I believe, reveals something particularly sublime about human nature. “It gives you time to find the energy,” he said.
Indeed, we ourselves all know that as humans we don’t always have the energy to make ourselves do the things we don’t want to do.
Psychology defines the impulse that allows us to do those activities we would rather not as self-control. Waking up for class, geology homework or changing our 2 percent lattes to skim. If we wish to engage in these activities without actively wishing to do them, we must tap into our pool of self-discipline resources.
So, how do we effectively use our cognitive ability of self-discipline without wearing ourselves out? Thankfully, psychology has the answer. Both researchers and my little brother have found that self-control is limited, but only scientists know how to navigate its narrow straits.
Ego depletion occurs when our willpower has been overused or overextended, at which point our efforts may backfire. According to an April 2008 edition of The New York Times, willpower “is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals.”
A study by Roy Baumeister and colleagues describes how Baumeister presented two experimental groups with a choice, one of just radishes and the other of radishes and cookies, and then had the two groups pump hand flexors. The group that had no choice and only radishes squeezed the flexors a significantly larger number of times than the group that did not. In choosing between the radishes and cookies, participants depleted their willpower, making it less available in the subsequent task.
Perhaps the best explanation of all of these pitfalls of the human psyche and how to sidestep them come from Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel. During his time at Harvard University in the 1970s, Mischel conducted a study on decision-making in toddlers. The choice was seemingly simple, they could have one marshmallow now, or, if they waited for 15 minutes while the researcher stepped out of the room, they could have two when he got back. Two-thirds of the toddlers ate the marshmallow before Mischel returned.
However, for the third that didn’t, something remarkable emerged in the data. Little more than a decade later, when these toddlers were teenagers and applying to college, those who could wait 15 minutes had SAT’s separated by 230 points from those who lapsed after 30 seconds. The grade point averages, the standardized test scores, the tier of the institution they got accepted into, all were correlated with their ability to delay gratification.
How do we build our ability to self-control and delay? A May 2009 edition of The New Yorker compares free will to a muscle, borrowing Roy Baumeister’s idea from the radishes vs. cookies study. Self-control will improve with repeated use, and it will also depend on who your friends are. There is a strong relationship between the ability to self-control and whether you hang out with others who already can, according to a January 2010 post on Medical News Today.
As with most things about conformity, like tends to breed like, and this situation is probably no exception. The 2009 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports having a well-envisioned long-term goal is among the best ways to combat lapses in self-control.
Perhaps we can return, if only briefly, to how Mischel’s participants navigated these narrow mental straits. Some sang songs to themselves, others would tell Mischel they imagined the marshmallow as a cloud, still more told themselves stories or danced. They ignored the marshmallow entirely, devoting their attention elsewhere, saving themselves the energy.
As we have seen, ego depletion proves our self-control flimsy, ironic reversal with its dreaded white bears is sadistic, and perhaps, even with all the ability to improve ourselves, we’ve not trained enough to conquer our Facebook addiction or our desire for that Krispy Kreme. Perhaps we can’t bring ourselves to pump the hand flexor of life once more or hit the snooze bar one time less. Maybe our salvation involves just a little imagination and effortful distraction. That’s not an alarm clock, it’s a chance to fight your demons. Wake up to it.