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How to Boost Self-Control? Finding Pleasure in Productive Activities Is the Key.

Self controlSometimes you can’t concentrate on study, sometimes you want to loaf on your job—low self-control becomes a common issue in today’s society. Recently, Michael Inzlicht, associate professor at Toronto University proposed a new insight: The willpower of self-control is not a limited resource. The results have been published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Self-control, as Inzlicht defines, is the mental processes that allow people to override emotions and thoughts to adapt their behavior from one moment to the next. The prevailing viewpoint in psychology used resource model to explain self-control and believed that it was a limited resource where repeated acts of restraint exhaust supply until individuals are left with little or no willpower at all. This viewpoint was widely applied in research of psychology and neuroscience and their branches, and some conclusions were that limited resources, such as energy (the self-control process fastens the metabolism of carbohydrate), restrained self-control ability.

However, “Many people in this field are confused at such resource model,” says Inzlicht. Previous studies didn’t directly observe the declining processes of the “self-control resources” and yet can they explain why the decreasing willpower of self-control can be alleviated by raising motivation for self-control, changing the cognition for level of energy as well as believing that “the willpower of self-control is definite”. Finally, the resource model is not reasonable in a perspective of evolution.

Inzlicht believes that when people are fatigued, they have hard time sustaining self-control, but that is not because they can’t control their behavior, but because they don’t want to: At least under certain circumstances, people prefer to do things that they consider as “want-to’s” rather than “have-to’s”. Inzlicht says: “Generally, ‘have-to’s’ are mostly external demands, for instance, someone may have to eat healthier because their spouse told them to do so; while, want-to’s come from personal interests, for example, someone wants to eat healthier because they can get the enjoyment from eating delicious nutritious foods.”

Inzlicht integrated several related studies and theories and presented a new self-control model—process model, which includes three levels: ultimate, intermediate and proximate. Inzlicht says: “These three levels are focused on different aspects, but they are equally important. The ultimate level explains why people’s motivation changes with time in an evolutionary perspective; the intermediate level demonstrates how the evolved function can change to a specific feeling of striving for a balance of work and rest; the proximate level explains how fatigue affects cognition and emotion.”

 process model

A schematic of the process model. The balance is composed of three levels: ultimate (exploration/exploitation), intermediate (leisure/labor) and proximate (want-to/have-to). *Image source: Michael Inzlicht,Brandon J. Schmeichel,C. Neil Macrae. (2014)TICS


The ultimate level in this model includes people’s balance towards exploitation and exploration. The exploitation here refers to exploiting the value of current resources as well as exploring new environments and opportunities: This is similar to a hunting animal’s decision—to stay here or investigate other areas? When it comes to the intermediate level, people will weigh over rewarding labor and beneficial leisure. Although people can gain different rewards, such as money, course credit, etc., as fatigue accumulates, people are expecting more rewards and they prefer leisure rather than labor when rewards can’t meet their expectation. At the level of proximate, such balance further changes to a decision between “have-to’s” and “want-to’s”. “have-to’s” usually come from obligations or requirements, while “want-to’s” are from personal preferences.

havetos to wanttos

The dynamic process of the task from “have-to” to “want-to”. The shifts reside in motivation, attention and emotion. *Image source: Michael Inzlicht,Brandon J. Schmeichel,C. Neil Macrae. (2014)TICS

To apply this model in daily life, we can take employees’ vacation as an example. “Theoretically, proper leisure can stimulate motivation for work and thus rest and vacation can improve employees’ work quality,” says Inzlicht. “But this point of view needs further investigation.” He added that the working mechanism of self-control should be studied in depth, particularly the fundamental research for mental fatigue’s influence on emotion and cognition.

Source: EurekAlert!

Title image source: psichika.eu