Why Self-Control Sometimes Fails

Photo by Johannes Otto Foerst; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Johannes Otto Foerst; Wikimedia Commons

Over the past couple of blog posts, you’ve learned about the “unthinking side” of yourself, which includes the gut reactions and snap decisions that happen underneath the radar of your consciousness. You’ve also learned about the “thinking side,” which is the systematic, logical planning system that makes sure the impulsive self does not always get its way when you are making important decisions about your health.

Now, think for a moment about the reasons why the unthinking/automatic system can overwhelm your thinking/controlled system. In other words: Why do your impulses take over your behavior, even when you have the best intentions to stick to a health-related goal?

Here are five reasons:

  1. Ego depletion. This is also known as regulatory depletion. Think about all of the situations you encounter in a day which require you to regulate your behavior, hold back distressing emotions, suppress certain things you want to say or do, or choose from an overabundance of options. Scientists have discovered that all of these tasks drain your supply of self-control and make it more difficult for you to persist in the face of obstacles. Regulatory depletion means that if you’ve used up much of your supply of self-control on one task, you have limited self-control available to use on the next task, even if it is a completely different task.
  2. Cognitive overload. Basically, the more you have on your mind, the easier it is to give in to temptation.
  3. Emotional overload. The more stressed you become, the more difficult it is to maintain self-control.
  4. Lack of awareness. If you aren’t aware that a given situation is one that could cause you to lose sight of your health-related goals, your self-control can be obstructed.
  5. Overpowering urges. Sometimes, an urge is so powerful that it saps every bit of energy required to maintain self-control. For those who have good inhibitory control and who have cultivated discipline in their lives, this happens less frequently. But no one is completely immune to overpowering urges.

In the next blog post, you’ll learn about strategies for strengthening self-control.

Until then, ponder this: Which one of the five conditions listed above do you think is most problematic, either for yourself or for other people?

The Quest for Better Self-Control

Photo by Dave Dugdale; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Dave Dugdale; Wikimedia Commons

“Control” is a word that gets a bad rap. No one wants to be accused of being a control freak or engaging in controlling behavior.

At the same time, self-control is one type of control that we probably wish to have in abundant supply, because the lack thereof could be devastating to our lives and to our health.

This post begins a four-part series aimed at understanding impulse control: (1) the unthinking side, (2) the thinking side,      (3) why impulses take over our behavior, and (4) strategies for strengthening self-control.

Let’s start with the unthinking side of things. Science has uncovered the fact that there are two processing systems at work in the mind as we move through the day: controlled processes and automatic processes. Controlled processes are the things that we think about consciously using language—we’ll get to that in part two. Automatic processes happen without the need for conscious attention or control. In other words, they are the “unthinking” things that happen underneath the radar of our consciousness, such as our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions.

The automatic system runs the side of ourselves that you might call the “impulsive self.” Consider what would happen if you faced a tempting situation and weren’t allowed to think it through. Imagine a giant piece of chocolate cake staring you in the face, the impulse purchase you might make at your favorite store, or the gutsy move you might make with your investment funds. If your thinking system is disabled, all you have left is your impulsive self to make quick judgments and then set habitual actions in motion.

Where do these habitual actions come from? Probably a complex composite of several different sources, including your personality (how you are wired), your current needs (what it would take in this situation to pursue pleasure and avoid pain), and your learning history (which of your responses have been reinforced in the past).

Thankfully, we have the controlled system to ensure that our impulsive self does not dominate all of our daily transactions. You will read more about that system in the next post.

For now, though, think about this: When are you most likely to see your impulsive self emerge? Can you think of any famous examples of individuals who got in trouble because their impulsive self was able to act unchecked?

Tipping Point for Change

Tipping Point for Change

Photo by epSos.de; Wikimedia Commons

Many times when people tell the story of how they changed a habit, they recall a single event that prompted the shift:

“I saw a photo of myself and realized that I needed to lose weight.”

“When I got out of breath taking the stairs during the fire drill at work, I decided I needed to quit smoking.”

“My cholesterol numbers were off the charts, so I thought I had better change my diet.”

In reality, though, the event that people describe was likely just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many different change processes were brewing beneath the surface for a long time, and they finally came together to create a tipping point for change.

In his recent book Change: What Really Leads to Personal Transformation, author Jeffrey Kottler lists the elements that may “feed on one another and eventually multiply and pool their influences to lead you in a given direction.” These include attitude shift, experimentation with alternatives, skill development, support, cognitive restructuring, and meaning making.

For example, imagine a woman who begins to fill her day with healthy and nutritious foods after years of unhealthy eating. She may have arrived at this transformation because she challenged her negative thoughts and became more flexible in her thinking (cognitive restructuring), and she learned how to forgive herself for the occasional slip-up (attitude shift). She began the change effort by searching for healthy breakfast foods she liked (experimentation with alternatives), and she eventually built up a new daily meal plan after taking some nutrition classes at her local community college (skill development). It was somewhat easy to stick with this plan because her next-door neighbor was doing it, too (support), and they could encourage each other. She found that eating better gave her the energy she needed to be more generous with others, and this was very important to her (meaning making).

Knowing that change happens at many different levels, you can take advantage of this when you are creating a new habit or eliminating an old one. Design a plan that includes all six change processes. Put the right ingredients in place to let synergy occur, rather than passively waiting until you reach the threshold that is the tipping point for change.

Think of a significant change you have made in your life. Can you recognize how more than one change process was at work?

For a specific process you can use to map out a route to habit change, check out this week’s blog post at pocketchangebook.com.

What Really Prompts Change?

Habit Change

In the trial and error (mostly error) process of trying to change a habit, most of us have discovered what does NOT work. It does not work to set a resolution and then apply sheer willpower or positive thinking to make that resolution come true.

Real change tends to occur after certain key events. These events have been cataloged by author Dr. Jeffrey Kottler in his book Change: What Really Leads to Lasting Personal Transformation (Oxford Press, 2014).

According to his list, people often change when they encounter an important life transition, such as a new developmental stage. Or, they change when their life situation shifts enough that they become significantly dissatisfied with the direction things are going. A life shift may also lead to “hitting bottom” or a brand new insight, two more factors that can prompt the process of change.

What if you want to change and you are not expecting any special life events or life transitions? Consider these three ideas:

  1. Increase your sense of urgency about your need to change. Ask yourself the difficult questions that will unveil your dissatisfaction with your current situation. Imagine the future that you will live if you continue your current unhealthy habits.
  2. Take a small step toward changing your bad habit. When you experience a sense of mastery over a small step, you get the ball rolling. You build confidence that you can, indeed, make forward progress toward your goal because after all, you have already conquered part of it.
  3. Seek out a new perspective. Talk to someone different who may shed new light on your situation. Seek out a novel environment that may prompt you to see things differently. New adventures often give us new perspective.

What has prompted real change for you in the past?

To read about the myths of change, check out the current blog post at pocketchangebook.com.

Resolutions for Change

Original photo

Original photo

Personal change is a popular topic this time of year as many individuals commit to New Year’s resolutions. As a reader of this website, you already know that successful attainment of self-improvement requires (1) setting a goal; (2) taking actions that lead you to your goal; and (3) monitoring your progress (allowing you to adjust your behavior as necessary).

We now know that there are a couple of “super-ingredients” that help you to boost your chances of success in your change efforts.

One super-ingredient is called an implementation intention (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999). An implementation intention is a highly specific plan that you use to change your habits at high-risk times.

Here is the basic formula to use when you are building your implementation intention:

“If I [name the specific obstacle, such as a thought, emotion, or situation] and I am tempted to stray from my personal goal, then I will [choice of healthy behavior].”


If my waiter or waitress offers dessert and I am tempted to order it, then I will order a cup of coffee instead.

If I feel stressed and am tempted to eat an unplanned snack, then I will take a walk around the block before deciding whether and what to eat.

If I drive by my favorite store on the way home from work and I am tempted to stop in and spend money, then I will stop at my favorite park instead.

This technique is believed to work because it prompts you to identify the exact cues or triggers that lead to your unhealthy habits. This makes you more likely to notice your habitual behavior. It also makes you more likely to identify your “choice points,” which are the times when you have the freedom to depart from your automatic behavior and choose something healthy for yourself.

Another super-ingredient is called self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977, 1997). Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to organize and execute the courses of action that are necessary to attain your goal.

In a recent study (Koestner and colleagues, 2006), participants were instructed to boost their sense of self-efficacy by doing three things:

(1)   They were asked to think about past situations in which they achieved a similar goal.

(2)   They were asked to think about situations in which an individual who is similar to them achieved a similar goal.

(3)   They were asked to think about a person who encouraged them to reach their goal.

In this study, participants who used the two magic ingredients (implementation intentions plus self-efficacy) reported significantly higher levels of progress toward their goals compared to individuals in a control group.

Just a few simple tasks, then, can help take you from choosing a resolution to actually carrying it out. Now you have the tools to make it a great new year!

I wish you all the best in 2014.

Welcome to the Stretch Zone

Photo by Bill Ebbesen; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Bill Ebbesen; Wikimedia Commons

Whenever I begin a new personal change group at work, there is a long pause when group members consider which goal they would like to set for themselves.

Last week, one of the group participants gave voice to her hesitation: “It just seems like so much. Like it’s easier to not even start the change journey in the first place, because it’s so daunting.” The others nodded in agreement.

This was a sign that the group members had crossed over into the anxiety zone, where goal-directed efforts are paralyzed and it doesn’t even seem possible to try new habits.

The scenario is a great illustration of an old concept in psychology known as the Yerkes-Dodson law: As your arousal/anxiety level increases, task performance improves, but only to a point. Beyond that point, increases in arousal/anxiety lead to stress and a deterioration of task performance.

This concept was borrowed by an organization called Professional Thinking Partners and transformed into the three “zones of existence”: comfort, stretch, and stress (M.J. Ryan, 2006).

According to their model, when you are in the comfort zone, you are not challenging yourself enough to try a new approach, and your anxiety level remains low. When you are in the stress zone, you have moved too far outside your comfort zone, and the resulting anxiety will impede your performance.

Somewhere between comfort and stress is the “stretch” zone, where your new behavior will feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable, but you won’t experience disabling emotions. New learning and true change occur in the stretch zone.

Think about your change efforts. Can you think of times that you have been either too comfortable or too stressed to advance toward an important goal? How do you know when you are in the stretch zone?

Print Version of New Book Released

Pocket Chage for FB

Effertrux Publishing is pleased to announce the release of the print version (paperback) of Pocket Change: Using the Science of Personal Change to Improve Financial Habits.

Every year, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions to save more, spend less, or otherwise become savvier about their financial habits. And every year, most of these resolutions end in failure.

Getting better with money and achieving your financial goals do not happen through passive waiting, wishing for life to be different, or gimmicky quick-fixes that promise you instant wealth. Living a healthy financial life requires real personal change (or a pocket change, you might say!) Thankfully, behavioral scientists have uncovered the secrets of habit modification which have the power to convert your resolutions into action.

The basic ingredients of healthy money behavior include motivation, persistence, and impulse control as well as a basic knowledge of personal finance. Most of us have the basic knowledge about money, but we are at a loss when it comes to strengthening our focus and motivation.

In this book, Dr. Heidi Beckman teaches readers how to use well-tested techniques from the field of psychology to build and sustain positive money habits. She covers topics that range from goal-setting and self-monitoring to personal efficacy and discipline. She also suggests how to design the social, psychological, and environmental context in which good habits will thrive. In this way, Dr. Beckman gives readers renewed energy for healthy money management well into the future.

E-Version of New Book Released


Effertrux Publishing is pleased to announce the release of the electronic version of Pocket Change: Using the Science of Personal Change to Improve Financial Habits. For those who prefer the print version, the paperback will be released next month. I am happy to be able to share my writing with you and look forward to ongoing dialogue about the ideas and concepts described in the book.

Self-Compassion and Habit Change

Photo by Gphoto; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Gphoto; Wikimedia Commons

When people are working on changing a health habit, they are often resistant to the idea of being kind to themselves. They might think, “The last thing I need to do is be kinder to myself—that’s the problem in the first place. I’m too lenient, and then I give myself permission to do the unhealthy things that I shouldn’t do.”

If this is your knee-jerk reaction to the idea of self-compassion, know that you are not alone. Many people believe that if they treat themselves with kindness, there will be no forces at work to correct mistakes or prevent them in the first place. But the reality is, self-compassion allows you to be open to learn from your experiences, your mistakes, and the feedback that you receive from other people. It does not sabotage accountability; it increases accountability.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains it this way: If you perceive yourself as having failed and you cannot exercise forgiveness toward yourself, you end up with feelings of guilt, self-criticism, and self-hatred. Your priority, then, is to escape these uncomfortable feelings. You turn to unhealthy habits in an effort to comfort yourself.

Alternatively, if you perceive a setback as an opportunity to forgive yourself, you suffer far less pain, guilt, and self-criticism, if these feelings are even present at all. Because you do not have the need to escape uncomfortable feelings, you have mental energy available to figure out how the setback occurred and what to do differently next time. In this way, acting in a kind and compassionate way toward yourself increases flexible thinking and confidence in your personal resources.

David McArthur and Bruce McArthur make the point this way: “Many people are afraid to forgive because they feel they must remember the wrong or they will not learn from it. The opposite is true. Through forgiveness, the wrong is released from its emotional stranglehold on us so that we can learn from it. Through the power and intelligence of the heart, the release of forgiveness brings expanded intelligence to work with the situation more effectively.”

How can you bring an attitude of self-compassion into your habit change efforts?

The Power of Expectations

Photo by RicoShen; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by RicoShen; Wikimedia Commons

Scientific research has shown that when you expect something good to happen, your expectations can bend reality to some extent and bring the positive outcomes your way.

The classic example of this is from the field of medicine: the placebo effect. If you are prescribed a sugar pill believing it is an effective pain reliever or antidepressant or sleep aid, your body responds appropriately and brings you the expected relief.

Now we know that the placebo effect extends far beyond the doctor’s office. Author Chris Berdik reviews evidence of the placebo effect in multiple domains of life. He describes a study in which people’s expectations of the quality of wine they are about to drink actually changes the level of activity in the brain’s reward centers.

In another study, experienced weight lifters are told that they’ve taken a performance-enhancing medication, and they are able to surpass their personal bests. In yet another study, track athletes were told that pre-race jitters would actually heighten their level of performance, and their performance actually improved.

If you interpret a situation in such a way that it generates positive expectations of the future, you actually help to create good things in the future.

How can you use this phenomenon to your advantage?