A theme that runs through a lot of the writing that I do, influenced by Stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius and modern academics and productivity experts like Cal Newport, is that we don’t have as much control over our lives as we generally believe. Writings from Aurelius show us how much happens beyond our control, and how important it is to be measured and moderate in our reactions to the world. Newport’s work shows how easily our brains can become distracted and how limited they are at sustaining long-term focus. Fitting in with both lines of thoughts is research from Daniel Kahneman, particularly an idea he presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow about our depleting self-control. His work as a whole shows us just how much of our world we misunderstand and how important structures, systems, and institutions in our lives can be.
Regarding our ability for self-control, Kahneman writes, “an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.”
Self-control is overrated. We think of ourselves and others as having far more self-control than is really possible. We are quick to judge others for failing to exercise self-control, and we can beat ourselves up mentally when we don’t seem to be able to muster the self-control needed to achieve our goals, stick to a diet, or hold to a resolution. But the work of Roy Baumeister that Kahneman’s quote describes shows us that self-control is limited, and that we can run out of self-control when we are overly taxed. Self-control is not an unlimited characteristic that reveals a deep truth about our personality.
It is easy to think up situations where you might have to restrain yourself from behaving rudely, indulging in vices, or shirking away from hard work. What is harder to immediately think of is how your initial act of self-control will influence the following situations that you might find yourself in. If you spend all day trying hard not to open Twitter while working, then you might give in to a post-work cookie. If you sat through an uncomfortable family dinner and restrained yourself from yelling at your relatives, then you might find it hard to hold back from speeding down the freeway on the drive home. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being so easily influenced by things that happened in the past, but we are unable to truly separate ourselves from things that happen around us. As we exert effort via self-control in one situation, we lose some degree of our ability to exert self-control in other situations.
It is important that we keep Kahneman and Baumeister’s research in mind and think about how we set up our environment so that we are not fighting a self-control battle all day long. There are tools that will stop you from being able to open certain websites while you are supposed to be working, you might have to decide that you just won’t buy any cookies so that they are not in the house at 2 in the afternoon when your sweet tooth acts up, and you may need to just Uber to and from those tense family dinners. If we put it all on ourselves to have self-control, then we will probably fail, but if we set up our environment properly, and give up some of the idea of self-control, then we will probably be more successful in the long run.