Yes, You Can Do It! Self-Control May Be an Infinite Resource

New research suggests that self-control may not be a depletable resource.

Posted Jul 31, 2016

Source: phloxii/Shutterstock

Over the past two decades, numerous studies have reported evidence supporting the notion that someone’s capacity to practice self-control is a finite and depletable resource.

For years, the consensus among many motivational experts has been that using excessive self-control wears you down over time and makes it difficult for someone to exert self-control on subsequent tasks. Although this may be partially true, researchers are beginning to think the original findings on self-control depletion are dubious. 

Personally, as an athlete and activist, I’ve always refused to drink the Kool-Aid of the so-called “ego-depletion effect,” which is a hypothesis that individuals are less capable of practicing self-control after prior exertion of self-control. One reason I’ve avoided giving the ego-depletion effect much air time is based on my strong bias as a coach against promoting the idea that self-control is a depletable resource. I believe this explanatory style is counterproductive. 

Like any placebo effect, if you believe that your self-control is depletable, it might create a self-fulfilling prophecy that could make you like a spineless jellyfish. Therefore, I’ve been excited in recent months to see a trickle of research begin to stream out that challenges the empirical evidence supporting the “ego-depletion effect” and potentially debunking the myth that self-control is a depletable resource.

For example, a February 2016 study, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,” was published in the journal PLOS One.

The researchers of this study concluded that, contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, many study participants did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task. The authors stated,

“These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon, though more research is needed that uses large sample sizes, considers moderator variables, and pre-registers prior to data collection.”

This week, a new meta-analysis was published which dovetails with this research and reports that self-control may actually be an infinite resource. The July 2016 research replication project, involved 24 labs and over 2,100 participants around the globe. Although more research is needed, this study failed to reproduce findings from previous research which suggested that self-control is a depletable resource.

The new findings are published in a series of articles including, "A Multilab Preregistered Replication of the Ego-Depletion Effect" as part of a Registered Replication Report in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science

Keep On Going: Don't Ever Give Up

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I refused to believe in the ego-depletion effect. Why? Because, in order to break a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles in 24 hours or win the Triple Ironman (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run done nonstop) three years in a row, I had to believe that my self-control was an infinite resource that sprung eternal.

J. Howard Miller/Public Doman
Source: J. Howard Miller/Public Doman

In many ways, the foundation of The Athlete’s Way philosophy and mindset is based on my pre-race motto, “I can. And I will.” Over the years, having an innate belief that I could keep going physically and mentally—even when the chips were down or it seemed like there was no more gas in the tank—created a type of prophylaxis against the ego-depletion effect both on and off the court. I believe that everybody is capable of tapping into an endless well of self-control without feeling totally depleted.

Beyond the world of sports, having self-control is associated with positive outcomes such as: better overall psychological and physical health, more cohesive personal relationships, higher rates of success in the workplace and at school, lower incidence of crime and substance abuse, etc. On the flip side, a lack of self-control can wreak havoc on your personal and professional well-being.

Self-Control Doesn’t Have to Take Tremendous Willpower

Understanding the mechanisms that drive self-control can lead to better self-regulation and outcomes. Through life experience, I've learned that in order to create a pragmatic framework for conceptualizing various types of self-control, I needed to create three silos or 'bins' to categorize three different types of self-control that I face every day.

First, there is the self-control to avoid bad habits or self-destructive behaviors like eating junk food or drinking too much, which are based on restraint and temperance. Second, there are the proactive lifestyle choices and daily tasks such as exercising regularly, staying on top of monotonous chores, flossing, etc. that can take some oomph to accomplish daily.

Lastly, there is the self-control of emotional regulation and maintaining equanimity—especially when something, or someone, makes my blood boil. For this, I generally just take few deep breaths and then deconstruct the situation using theory of mind. 

Each of these types of self-control requires slightly different explanatory styles and re-framing of the circumstances. After years of practice, I've found that self-control becomes more and more like an infinite well that I can tap into as a way to avoid the ego-depletion effect. 

Along these lines, I also banish the concept of self-control or willpower being some type of sisyphean act that is draining my energy or takes a lot of effort. Of course, there are a few hideously boring and tedious things that I have to do every day. But, in those situations, I don’t overthink the mundane self-control tasks. I put the blinders down and click into a mindless work-horse mode that gets the job done without becoming mentally taxing. These self-control techniques work for me. Maybe they'll work for you, too?

Conclusion: "Love What You Do. Pour Your Heart Into It, and You'll Be Rewarded"

Self-control is usually equated with resisting temptation, doing the right thing, and avoiding bad habits. But, I believe the more important aspects of self-control should be about our societal tendency to become hopeless, cynical, and jaded. How can we do this? Obviously, I don't have a simple, concrete answer... but a good place to start is to consciously harness your energies in ways that optimize your full human potential and make you feel alive. 

Maya Angelou once said, "Life likes to be taken by the label and told, 'I'm with you kid. Let's go.'" Although it might sound idealistic, I believe each of us has the power to make self-control an infinite resource by pouring your heart into something you love and striving to succeed for reasons that go beyond your ego. Inherently, being motivated by something bigger than yourself, is a surefire way to negate the power of the ego-depletion effect.

Ultimately, my adult life experience has shown me that having a raison d'être based in Erik Erikson’s concept of generativity—which implies channeling your passion and energies into endeavors that might somehow make the world a better place for future generations—is like rocket fuel that makes self-control seem infinite. Hopefully, these findings will inspire you to seize the day and tap into your own infinite reservoir of self-control and avoid the dreadful ego-depletion effect.

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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