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Why Your Self-Control “Tank” is on Empty

Quit eating potato chips. Start exercising. Stop hitting snooze. Quit over-spending. Sound familiar? We could go on for days with habits we’re trying to change. If you’re like me, when you slip back into an old habit, you may be left feeling lazy or like a failure. Recently, I learned about a study that provided an explanation for these moments of failure: change is hard. That’s not earth shattering. But why is it hard? Because it requires self-control. And self-control is an exhaustible resource. Meaning, maybe we’re not lazy, but rather, we’ve simply exhausted our self-control.

At PYA Waltman, we're always working to improve our services and create the most fruitful financial planning experience we can for our clients. This quest led us to a non-profit entity, Money Quotient, whose mission is "to facilitate the exploration and implementation of a values-based, life-centered approach to financial planning." I attended a Money Quotient training last month to learn more about their multi-disciplinary research, training, and tools. I learned more than I could have hoped and I am thrilled to begin implementing much of it in my work with our clients. One of the biggest takeaways was the thought the first paragraph introduced:

“Self-control is an exhaustible resource. We only have so much of it to offer. Thus, if we spent it all preparing for a challenging meeting at work, or in dealing with an unruly child, we may be empty of self-control when it's time to stick to the diet.”

This thought comes from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Dan & Chip Heath and a study they reference about self-control. You can read my summary below, or watch Dan Heath quickly explain it himself (a much more entertaining option!).

A group of college students was asked to participate in a study on "food perception" (that's what they were told anyway). The students were put in a room with two food options: a bowl of radishes and a bowl of chocolate chip cookies. Half the students were told to eat cookies, the other half radishes. Surprisingly, the students did as they were asked—the radish eaters didn’t cheat. The students were then told they were to begin a new study. Next, the students were each given a stack of photocopied puzzles, all identical, and told they could try to solve the puzzle as many times as they wanted. Unbeknownst to the students, the puzzle was unsolvable. Here's the fascinating part. Before giving up, the cookie eaters spent over twice as much time, with double the attempts, as compared to the radish eaters. Why?

The radish-eaters ran out of self-control. Their self-control "tanks" were running on empty after they resisted the cookies. By the time they got to the puzzles, they were worn out. Switch tells us similar studies have been conducted many times with the same results. Per the book, research "shows that we burn up self-control in a wide variety of situations: managing the impression we're making on others; coping with fears; controlling our spending; trying to focus on simple instructions such as 'Don't think of a white bear'; and many others."

Switch also tells us this concept has broader implications. The capacity of our self-control “tank” greatly impacts our ability to make changes in our lives. From changing small habits (eat your vegetables before eating your starch) to big ones (stick to a budget). 

So how can these findings help you? For starters, give yourself a break the next time you lack self-control. But also, be aware of your self-control “tank” and consider the areas where you may be unnecessarily exhausting it. If one of those areas relates to your money, let us help you by either taking one of the burdens off of you, by helping you find a new strategy or by breaking the challenge into smaller pieces that can be more easily handled amid life's other responsibilities. 

Want to learn more about how we can help? Give us a call or shoot us an email to learn more about our financial planning services.