Monday, March 22, 2010

The power and limits of self-control

You may already instinctively know this, but self-control is like a muscle.  You have to use it in order to build it up.  And when you use it a lot, it gets tired and becomes less reliable for you.

This article is a good summary of several recent studies that showed that wear-out effect.  I found this to be true when I was seriously dieting.  I had trouble saying no to other forms of temptation (and no, I'm not offering any details on that.)

And Freakonomics points to a study that indicates that low blood sugar reduces self control in dogs.

Recently I have been focusing on learning PHP and writing Pray with Friends.  I can force myself to work on that for a while, but then I can't make myself get up and do my exercises.

This is a strong argument for taking little breaks during your work, and for taking days off.  You ability to focus on all of the small details and continue to do good quality work diminishes over time--without breaks and rest, and time to recharge.

I would love to see some studies on how long it takes to recharge.  I would also love to see studies on whether or not someone cal truly build up their self-discipline muscle and thus exercise discipline for longer and longer periods.

One of the formative books of my youth was The Kingship of Self Control.  I found it on a bookshelf at my house, above the encyclopedias (which I also read cover-to-cover.)  It has my mother's name inside, but there is no indication of the year or where she got it.  I asked her about it one time, and she didn't remember it.

The book is 64 very small pages.  Maybe 5,000 words.  The author was the editor of Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, Mr. William George Jordan.  I re-read the book recently.  Jordan's arguments have lost little power over the years.  These aren't direct quotes, but capture the flavor of his arguments:

  • If you don't control yourself, then who is controlling you?  
  • You can only stop being someone else's victim by taking control of yourself.
  • You cannot rely on yourself if you cannot control yourself.
  • You cannot achieve any goal if you cannot rely on yourself to work to achieve it.
  • You cannot achieve any goal if you cannot stop yourself from taking actions that undermine your progress (succumbing to temptations.)
  • A sense of duty will fail you.  Duty can only push you so far.  Only love can be relied upon to motivate.
  • Do not bother with worry, guilt, or regret.  They are merely traps that will sap your strength and give you nothing good in return.

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