Hi. It is still January. How are you doing with your One Thing? Or your New Years Resolutions? Have you been “good” which is what we call it when we follow through with our good intentions? Or have you been “bad” meaning you have not? Well, here are some facts that may surprise you.
You have so much self-control and no more. Yes, it’s true. The seat of judgment – the part of the brain in which you weigh and make decisions about what you will and will not do is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). Neuroscientists call the PFC “a resource hog”. Only a small portion of your 3 pound brain, it uses 20% of the glucose you consume. It needs rest and hydration. It tires, like a muscle but you don’t feel it. All you experience is that you have no more self control, usually after a regretful event.
So, you wake up in the morning, you choose egg whites over a chocolate muffin. + 1 for your health, -1 for PFC. You stop to fill your gas tank on the way to work even though you don’t feel like it, but you know it is smart because you have less time later. +1 for time management, -1 for PFC. An employee calls in sick, an obvious lie and you are kind, even though you know you are going to have to give some feedback later on about this. +1 for work relationships. -1 for PFC. Your child calls and asks if you can bring his math textbook to school because he forgot it at home (for the 5th time this month), you gently explain that you have meetings all morning and that he will have to muddle through. You do not say the nine kind of nasty things that pop into your head. +1 for you as a parent, – 1 for your PFC
Again, at lunch, you choose a salad instead of what your pal is having which is what you would prefer, and then head into a meeting where you are interrupted several times by a colleague who is driving you crazy. You do not storm out of the meeting, you politely ask your colleague to cut it out. You do not eat the chocolates that someone has brought to the meeting even though they are your favorites.
On the way home from work your spouse, who had promised to shop and make dinner calls and asks if you mind terribly that something has come up and could you manage dinner. You do mind, but you are nice about it because you know that your spouse has been working hard on an important project and needs extra TLC right now.
You get home and find that the puppy, whom you thought was passed this point, has found your favorite pair of shoes and decimated them. You go to the kitchen, to get dinner started, spot a bag of corn chips that you bought for the kids and eat the entire thing.
You judge yourself. Your lack of self control, will power, character, strength. You shake your head at how “bad” you are.
But the truth is that your PFC simply ran out of gas. You had literally used up your self control. You are lucky you didn’t yell at the dog, or your kid who came home sullen because you refuse to bring him his book at school, or your spouse who came home just in time to sit down to dinner.
How do get more self control? Like building muscle, you can condition yourself to have more. It requires planning and forethought. But the best strategy is to need less. The more systems you have in place, the fewer decisions you have to make. More on this coming soon.