Tired, self-regulatory control depleted from an exhausting day that demanded non-stop self-control, we may give up and give in. Like a tired muscle, our willpower seems unable to do any more. However, with the right incentive we can exert our physical strength even with tired muscles. And, so it is with our willpower . . . it's about motivation, isn't it?
In my earlier posts (see Self-Regulation Failure Part 1 and Part 2), I summarized research that has established how our self-regulatory strength is like a muscle. When we exert self-regulatory effort on one task, there seems to be less available for subsequent tasks.
The thing is, subsequent research demonstrated that we could strengthen our willpower or self-regulatory ability by regular focus on self-regulation. More interestingly, even a boost of positive emotions or a focus on our values and goals through a self-affirmation process diminished the self-regulatory exhaustion.
What isn't clear is if positive emotions or a focus on values actually replenishes the depleted willpower resources or if it simply motivates us to make the effort despite the relative depletion.
The role of motivation
You'll recall that the basic paradigm for this research consists of an experiment where participants in the experimental group are required to self-regulate on a first task (e.g., resist a plate of cookies while hungry or suppress their emotional reaction while viewing a film), and this results in poorer self-regulatory performance on subsequent task. Interestingly, these self-regulatory impairments are eliminated or reduced when participants are highly motivated to self-regulate on the second task.
For example, when participants are paid for doing well on the second task or they are convinced that their performance will have social benefits, they perform well despite the apparent self-regulatory exhaustion from the first task.
The key thing about these findings is that it indicates that self-regulatory depletion may be reducing motivation. Given that depleted self-regulatory strength may leave us feeling like we won't succeed, "we're too tired to try," it may be that the reduced expectancy of success undermines our willingness to exert effort. It's not that we're so impaired that we can't respond. It's that we "don't feel like."
Sound familiar? "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." This is a common phrase we use to rationalize our procrastination. Perhaps it simply captures our perceptions of self-regulatory strength at the moment. Of course, it's a perception, and, I argue, at least partly an illusion. It's about our motivation, not about the reality of not being ability to muster the self-regulatory effort - Unwilling perhaps, not unable.
From this perspective, what we see is that we may fail to self-regulate because we acquiesce. In the case of procrastination, we find resisting the urge to do something else (an alternative intention) impossible to resist, so we give up and give in. Of course, during this internal self-regulatory struggle, we must restrain this impulse to leave the task at hand, our intended goal, in favor of the competing goal (one that is usual specious to our values and long-term goals).
Strategy for change
We all feel depleted throughout the day. We all have moments where we think, "I'm exhausted, I just can't do anymore" or "I'll feel more like this tomorrow." This is true, this is how we're feeling at the moment, however our success depends on us moving past these momentary feelings of depletion.
Given the role of motivation in self-regulatory failure, it is crucial to acknowledge the role of higher-order thought in this process, particularly the ability to transcend the feelings at the moment (mindfulness helps here) in order to focus on our overall goals and values. In the absence of cues to signal the need for self-regulation, we may give in to feel good, and stop trying.
It's exactly when we say to ourselves "I'll feel more like it tomorrow," that we have to stop, take a breath and think about why we intended to do the task today. Why is it important to us? What benefit is there in making the effort now? How will this help us achieve our goal?
From there, if we can just muster the volitional strength for one more step, that is to just get started, we will find that we had more self-regulatory strength in reserve than we realized. Our perception can fool us at times, and this self-deception can really be our own worst enemy.