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Self-Control Fatigue

Habits, States of mind

This New York Times blog entry had at least two interesting pieces of information in it for me, echoing ideas I’d seen elsewhere. At the same time, it seemed to take a very narrow view of the subject of willpower: the studies they talk about look at body chemistry only, and while that’s an important part of the picture, it doesn’t offer nearly as many opportunities for improving self-motivation as the psychological parts of the picture do. After all, they’re about studies where groups of people are asked to do tasks they don’t care about, then either are or aren’t given some lemonade. These are very useful studies, but any time we look at this kind of information, it helps to remember that there are a lot of habits and thought processes going on that we’re not even touching.


Photograph by Palagret

So with that disclaimer, here are the things that might be most useful to us directly in understanding self-motivation:

First, we have a limited amount of energy and attention to give to self-motivation or changing habits at one time. If we try to push in too many directions at once, we’ll rapidly become fatigued and usually lose our grip on all of the pieces. This is why, generally speaking, self-motivation works best when we work on one and only one kind of goal at a time. This can sometimes include mutually supportive sub-goals, like working on both diet and exercise or physical organization and time management, but two very different goals will suck attention and energy away from each other unless at least one of them has already developed into a habit. Fortunately, we can develop a new habit and then move on to a new goal, so that over time we can address many goals.

The second useful point is that self-control draws energy from our body in the same way physical tasks do. It helps to be aware of this to understand when we’ll be capable of better self-motivation (which is to say, not when we’re hungry, distracted, or tired) and to understand that eating habits can directly affect how much we can motivate ourselves at any given time. For anyone working on weight loss, this is a point in favor of the “smaller meals, more often” approach.

The Times has several other interesting pieces on willpower that I’ll delve into in the near future.


  • Self-motivation is influenced both by our thinking and by our physical state
  • A little food energy can help boost self-motivation in the short term
  • We have a limited capacity for reversing our habits, so to be effective, that effort has to be focused rather than used to try to change everything at once
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