I read about a fascinating study the other day. In a nutshell, the researchers gathered two separate groups of college students (it was an American study) and stuck them in a room with two bowls, one was filled with freshly baked chocolate cookies, and the other – radishes. Half the students were given permission to eat the chocolate cookies, but the other half weren’t – though they could help themselves to the radishes if they wanted (yay!).
After a while the researchers returned to find that everyone had followed their instructions to the letter – which was to be expected, after all – the subjects were adults, not children.
Then, seemingly as an afterthought, the researchers mentioned they were currently running an experiment to see who was smarter – college students, or high school students, and would everyone be prepared to quickly do one more test, just to help out?
Of course, the college students readily agreed, thoroughly determined to prove their superior intellect.
The true agenda of the researchers was to see how long the students would persist in a difficult task before giving up, and so they presented them with puzzles that were, in fact, unsolvable.
Here’s the fascinating thing: the group of students that were earlier allowed to eat the chocolate cookies spent 19 minutes working on a solution and made 34 attempts to solve it.
But the group of students who were restricted to the radishes and forced to resist the cookies gave up after only eight minutes, not even half the time of the others – and they managed only 19 attempts.
Why did they quit so easily?
The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control.
Self-control is an exhaustible resource.
This is crucial to understand, but so too is knowing what sort of things drain your self-control. In truth, there are any number of things: concentrating on a task can be draining, having to make tricky choices or decisions can affect our ability to focus or solve problems later; even something as simple as fighting back our emotions during a sad movie has been proven to reduce our ability to resist temptation.
The one thing that research has shown very clearly is the difference between ‘supervised’ behavior, and ‘automatic’ behavior. ‘Automatic’ behaviors are things we do without needing to even think about, like driving a car. We’ve done it a thousand times and it requires no brain power or emotional commitment. Not surprisingly, ‘automatic’ behaviors require very little of us, and so have a negligible impact on our levels of self-control.
‘Supervised’ behaviors on the other hand, are things we do that require a lot of focus and concentration, like learning to drive. It’s not something that comes naturally to us and so it requires a huge amount of brain power or emotional commitment, and, as a result can significantly impact our ability to control ourselves in other areas. Why? Because self-control is an exhaustible resource, and we’ve used it all up supervising our behavior.
Here’s the big takeaway: being 100% authentically you – is an ‘automatic’ behavior. You do it better than anyone else, and you do it without even thinking. On the flip side, trying to be someone you’re not, trying to ‘fit in’, trying to live up to someone else’s expectation or ideal – is a ‘supervised’ behavior; and that’s incredibly draining.
Moral of the story? If you want to be more disciplined, if you want to be better at saying ‘No’ when you need to or ‘Yes’ when you should; then BE YOURSELF! Save your self-control for the things that really matter to you.
And maybe eat a chocolate cookie every now and again, and when you watch a sad movie – have a good cry 😛