Over seven feet of snow have fallen here in central New England, and it has all arrived in just over a month’s time. Some people complain bitterly and threaten to move to Florida rather than continue to shovel Greenland, while others show off their newly firmed shoveling biceps as they laugh at the weather. And then there is the stoic crowd who just say, “Whatever,” as they make their way through winter. Just the same, “I can’t take it anymore,” is a commonly heard refrain.
“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”
~ William James
The need for seemingly endless snow removal has gotten me interested in self-regulation and willpower. It turns out that people who believe that they can’t take it anymore may be right!
Is Self-regulation… a Stable Trait?
In his classic marshmallow study, Walter Mischel found that young children who resisted taking a treat in favor of waiting and getting two treats later were lastingly more self-regulated. Years later, as older adolescents, they had fewer behavior and attention problems, higher academic and standardized test performance, and more social success. So does this mean that we are born with our self-regulation skill, or can you get more of it?
Is Self-regulation… Like a Muscle?
According to Baumeister’s model, self-regulation is a limited resource, rather than a personality trait. Not only is self-regulation used up on a particular task, it is then thought to be unavailable for other tasks until it is rested. Like a muscle that’s reached the burn, self-regulation needs to be rested and then exercised again for strengthening.
In coaching parents, students, and educators I have found that this model aligns well with the need to accomplish tasks and improve achievement, but only up until a point. If clients do not believe that they can stick with a task, they are often (at least temporarily) correct. The stretch, rest, and stretch again approach builds ability and creates a history of successes that build self-efficacy. The resting, it turns out, may be essential.
In studies with dogs, those that were given a mentally exhausting task (sit and then stay for 10 minutes) were less able to persist at a second exhausting task compared to dogs that had been caged during the sit-stay time.But there was a catch. If the exhausted dogs were fed a sugar drink, they performed just as well as the rested dogs. The depleted dogs who were not “refueled” gave up much more easily. Maybe Walter Mischel’s preschoolers who ate the marshmallow should have been given a second chance!
Is Self-regulation…the Result of Mindset?
Veronica Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton have recently discovered that individual differences in the way we think about our willpower may play an important role in our ability to self-regulate when faced with exhausting circumstances. Participants who had the theory that their willpower is a limited resource consistently reported higher exhaustion compared to people who did not believe it was limited. This aligns with other work by Dweck (described here) on Self Theories or Mindsets.
This was true whether the participants came to the study with these beliefs or were induced to have them as part of the study. Even exhaustion did not undermine the participants’ successful completion of a difficult task if they had a non-limited resource mindset. Unsurprisingly, the more participants agreed with the limited resource theory, the more likely they were to report eating unhealthy foods, procrastinating, and ineffectively self-regulating while working toward an important goal.
So if it is possible to get people in a lab to believe that they have enough willpower to get the job done, how can we help people persevere with difficult tasks?
“The most essential factor is persistence — the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.”
~ James Whitcomb Riley
Real Life…Can it Benefit from What We Learn in the Lab?
In consecutive self-control task studies, people consistently perform more poorly in the second task, but not when they plan ahead. In real life, planning ahead includes setting specific times when you will work on and complete tasks. It facilitates goal attainment and also increases self-control. The mechanism may be connected to a your personal views about yourself, so it would make sense to build the non-limited resource belief outside of the lab.
Surely you know people who spend more energy complaining about a task than doing it. So what works when you are faced with a task that feels like shoveling Greenland?
- Resist resisting
- Decide it is your goal, too
- Believe you can stick with a task
- Plan ahead
- Choose to persist
- Repeat and…
- Savor your success.
Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Ego Depletion and Self-regulation Failure: A Resource Model of Self-control. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2 (2), 281-284.
Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Ego Depletion and Self-Control Failure: An Energy Model of the Self ’s Executive Function. Self and Identity, 1, 129-136.
Baumeister, R. & Tierny, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books.
Dweck, C. S. (1999), Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Herbert, W. (2010). Dog Tired: What Mutts Can Teach Us about Self-Control. Scientific American Mind
Job, V., Dweck, C.S., & Walton, G.M. (2010). Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation. Psychological Science, 21 (11), 1686-1693.
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Peake, P. (1988). The Nature of Adolescent Competencies Predicted by Preschool Delay of Gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54 (4), 687-696.