As a Christian, I have often wondered about my failures of self-control. Why is it that I can know what I want to do, carefully plan to do it, and then do something completely different—something unhelpful and often directly opposed to my beliefs? As Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15). To make matters worse, for the longest time I had no idea how to change the situation other than to try again and hope for the best.
In this context, I discovered social science research on self-control—and it turns out there’s a lot of it. Studies on self-control have boomed in the past two decades, and self-control is a really good thing to have. Research has found, for example, that people with more self-control live longer, are happier, get better grades, are less depressed, are more physically active, have lower resting heart rates, have less alcohol abuse, have more stable emotions, are more helpful to others, get better jobs, earn more money, have better marriages, are more faithful in marriage, and sleep better at night. But psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists aren’t just interested in self-control’s practical benefits. They want to know what it is, how it works, and why some people seem to be better at it than others.
Let’s start with definitions. Self-control regulates desires and impulses. It involves wanting to do one thing but choosing to do another. We substitute responses to a situation, like wanting to eat a bag of chips but instead picking up an apple. That definition may seem obvious, but thinking about self-control this way helps us avoid less accurate or more vague ways of thinking about self-control, like “being a good person.” We use self-control to regulate what we think, what we do, and even how we express our emotions. Willpower is the emotional and mental energy used to exert self-control.
Christianity frequently asks us to substitute one response for another. Self-control was a prominent virtue in the Greco-Roman culture. The Hellenistic world emphasized the self of self-control and often portrayed ascetic avoidance of pleasure as high holiness. The biblical writers, by contrast, saw many of the world’s pleasures as God’s good gifts to be enjoyed and believed that self-control was the fruit of submission to God rather than autonomy. Nevertheless, the idea that we are to substitute one response for another, regulating our desires and impulses, lies behind every biblical command to obey when we are tempted. We want to worry, but we are to pray. We want to curse, but we are to bless. We want to hate, but we are to love.
How we think self-control works matters. I used to think that self-control worked like a fire extinguisher—to be used in emergency situations to fight back the flames of temptation. Or maybe it was like a power switch, to be turned on when needed. But research paints a different picture.
More a Muscle Than a Battery
One key recent discovery is that self-control is an exhaustible but buildable resource. Psychologist Roy Baumeister demonstrated this with a clever experiment. He had college students skip a meal, so that they felt hungry, and then sit at a table. The table had freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, candy, and radishes. The first group of students—the lucky ones—could eat whatever they wanted. Of course, they only ate the sweets. The second group had the same food in front of them, but they were told to leave the sweets alone, and they could only eat the radishes. The third group had no food in front of them at all. (It was the control group.) After the students sat at their tables for a while, they were given a complex geometry problem to solve. The trick was that the problem was unsolvable; what mattered was how long they worked on it before giving up. The students in groups 1 and 3 worked for about 20 minutes. But, the students in group 2 worked only about 8 minutes. Why such a big difference? The students in group 2 had already used up a lot of self-control resisting the sweets, so they had less energy left over for working on the geometry problem. Researchers call this ego depletion (and there’s a lively debate in the research literature about how much we experience it).
Does this mean that self-control, once it’s used, is gone forever? Not at all. It recharges with rest. In fact, the more often self-control is used, the stronger it gets. One study demonstrated this by having right-handed students use only their left hand to open doors. This required intentional thought and effort—self-control—to override natural inclination. After subjects had done this for a while, they had more overall self-control.
Self-control is like a muscle. It weakens immediately after use but strengthens with frequent use.
Who’s Behind the Wheel?
A second key discovery regards the interplay between self-control and habits. Most of our daily actions are automated. We do them with little thought or energy. Think of driving your car to work: You back out of the driveway, and before you know it, you are there. Likewise, we “automatically” comb our hair, climb stairs, and do the dishes. The basal ganglia, located deep inside the brain, help to coordinate automated behaviors.
We also engage in controlled behaviors. These behaviors require conscious thought and effort. Think of driving in a foreign country, where cars are on the “wrong” side of the road. Or assembling a piece of furniture with confusing instructions, or using a software program for the first time. Controlled behaviors are directed by the prefrontal cortex, which is located right behind the forehead.
Automated and controlled behaviors make a great team. Automated behaviors allow us to do many activities easily, but they don’t work well with new or difficult actions or anything that requires long-term planning. In contrast, controlled behaviors enable us to do new and difficult things, but they require a lot of willpower. If we had only automated behaviors, we would be like simple robots, mindlessly repeating the same actions every time. But, if we had only controlled behaviors, we’d have to intentionally plan and execute every single thing that we do.
Now imagine an elephant with a rider on its back. It’s a strong animal, weighing six tons and working tirelessly. It’s also prone to wander off in search of food or whatever else catches its eye. The rider is smart—he knows what needs to be done and is good at planning. The rider is also weak, at least compared to the elephant. For a short period of time, the rider can control the elephant using muscle, but this never lasts long, no matter how hard the rider works. The rider soon tires, and then the elephant can do what it wants. But the rider can train the elephant so it does what it should with little effort from the rider.
This general metaphor of an animal with a rider on its back dates back to Plato, and it has been recently popularized by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The elephant is automated behavior—strong, powerful, but not good at planning and prone to stray. The rider is controlled behavior, who knows what needs to be done but struggles to control the elephant. Willpower is the strength of the rider. The power of this metaphor is that it gives us insights on how to strategically use self-control. But before we get to that, let’s look at the relationship between self-control and Christianity.
Cultivating and Counting Fruit
The Bible speaks of self-control as a good thing. Self-control is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:23). A person who lacks it is like a city without walls (Prov. 25:28). It’s something that church elders should have (Titus 1:8). The practice of Christianity requires self-control. Think of a typical Sunday service—you stand up, sit down, kneel, shake hands, shut your eyes, open your eyes, listen, talk, and sing—all at the right times. We don’t necessarily think of these actions as moral decisions, but they use the same self-control resources, the same combination of automated and controlled behaviors, as self-control as we normally think about it. And that “normal” sense of self-control kicks in when we leave the sanctuary, when the hard work of the faith starts. Whatever their theology about the relationship between law and grace, Christians agree that holy living requires self-control in every area of their lives. There are sins of omission and sins of commission. The Ten Commandments is the best known list of self-control challenges in history.
Because Christianity requires self-control, it logically follows that it also builds it, and thus we can expect active Christians to have relatively high levels of self-control. And we can test this expectation with data. Several colleagues and I conducted SoulPulse, a large-scale study of self-control and spirituality funded by the John Templeton Foundation. This study (which you can learn more about at SoulPulse.org) had participants use their smartphones to answer survey questions twice a day for two weeks. It measured trait-level self-control using a standard scale that included questions about resisting temptation, refusing things that are bad, and acting without thinking.
We compared the self-control levels of Christians with those of people who have no religious affiliation. Protestants and Catholics both averaged higher levels of self-control (Fig. 1). Then we looked at how self-control varies among Christians by church attendance (Fig. 2). Christians who go to church most often also had the most self-control.
Two caveats: The analyses don’t include people of other religions because of data limitations. I would assume that they too have high self-control because every religion has its own self-control tasks. (Think of Muslims fasting during Ramadan or Buddhists sitting in meditation.) Also, while religion can promote self-control, it could also be the case that self-control promotes religiosity.
So far, we have an interesting (albeit abstract) treatment of self-control. How can we use this knowledge to live out our faith more fully? We’ve found four general strategies.
Look for What’s Not There
The first strategy is simply being aware of our capacity for self-control and willpower throughout the day. Keep an eye on the gas gauge. It gives us a sense of what is possible. Knowing our willpower level tells us when it might be a good time to take on new challenges, or when we should stop and refill. It lets us know when we are most vulnerable to moral failure.
How do we monitor our willpower? It is most apparent in its absence. That is, we are most aware of our willpower level when we are low on it. One symptom of low willpower is difficulty making decisions, even small ones. Last summer, my wife, son, and I spent the day cleaning, and as a reward, we went out to eat at a new restaurant. When we got there, it had a 90-minute wait. Choosing a different restaurant should have been an easy decision for us: There were a dozen restaurants within a few blocks, a couple even in sight. But we just stood there for a minute with dazed expressions, unable to compare options to decide where else to go. It just felt too hard.
Another symptom is that things bother us more than they usually do. We use self-control to regulate our emotions, so negative emotions surface easily when it’s low. We become irritable, and routine events become provocations. When somebody walks by our house, our 14-pound miniature poodle barks at them a few times. Usually I don’t even notice this barking, or I think it’s funny. But when I’m depleted, I end up yelling (the human form of barking) at her to stop.
A third symptom is that temptation becomes more alluring. Something like this happened to me yesterday morning before going to church. I walked into the kitchen and saw a pan of double-chocolate fudge brownies on the counter. They were there the day before, and I hadn’t given them much attention. But after a fitful night worrying about an upcoming deadline, I was low in self-control. The room got quiet, and the brownies, though all the way across the room, somehow filled my field of vision. Soon one brownie after another made its way from the pan to my mouth, and I sat through church with a stomachache.
Grow Power While You Sleep
The second strategy is to do things that increase our self-control. Resting our self-control means just that: A good night’s sleep bolsters self-control the entire next day. Studies have found that workers who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to act unethically and take credit for other people’s work. Likewise, experimental subjects randomly assigned to less sleep are more likely to cheat on tasks the next day. In the SoulPulse study, we found that the participants had a lot more willpower after they had slept well than they had on their usual sleep schedule.
Food also matters. The brain consumes a disproportionate amount of the glucose in our blood, so when blood sugar is low, we have less mental energy for self-control. The worst foods for self-control are refined sugars and processed grains. These foods break down quickly when eaten and spike our blood sugar. This prompts the release of insulin, which lowers our blood sugar. Low-glycemic foods, those that keep steady blood sugar levels, are best for self-control. In the SoulPulse data, participants had somewhat less state-level willpower after they had eaten sweets in the previous two hours.
Haste Does Make Waste
A third strategy for managing self-control is to not waste it. Years ago, my wife and I discovered Dave Ramsey’s financial program, and we tracked all of our expenses. We were astonished at the many little ways that we were wasting our money. We even had automatic withdrawals for things that we no longer used. Getting rid of these money wasters gave our finances a quick boost.
Something similar has happened to me with self-control. Once I started paying attention, I noticed the ways that I exercised it unnecessarily. Getting rid of these willpower wasters has given me more self-control for the things that matter. Some willpower wasters use up emotional energy. When I hurry to drive somewhere, I get anxious and have to pay more attention to what I’m doing. I start scanning the lanes to figure out which is fastest, and I get upset with red lights and slow drivers. In contrast, when I leave with time to spare, the drive is relaxing, the passing scenery is interesting, and I arrive ready for what is next. SoulPulse participants had less willpower when they were rushing at the time of a survey.
Another drain on emotional energy is interpersonal conflict. Conflict is sometimes necessary and healthy, but often it arises out of impatience, carelessness, or our shortcomings. I’m rarely as distracted and upset as when I’ve gone a few rounds squabbling with a loved one. In this way, being kind and patient with others preserves self-control. The SoulPulse participants had less willpower when they had argued with a loved one in the previous 12 hours.
Other willpower wasters squander cognitive energy. Take multitasking, for example. Multitasking is a myth. Our brains can’t pay close attention to two things at once. Yes, we can carry on a conversation while we walk, but that’s because walking usually doesn’t require much attention. We can’t carry on the same conversation while we are also doing long division in our head, because that also requires attention. When faced with simultaneous attention tasks, our brain may appear to be multitasking, but it is in fact quickly switching back and forth between them. This switching takes energy. Imagine trying to write two thank-you letters at the same time. You write a couple of words on the first note, then quickly move your hand to the second note and write a couple of words. You go back to the first note, back and forth until it’s done. It would be exhausting. Likewise, SoulPulse participants had somewhat less willpower when they were multitasking.
Another cognitive energy waster is frequent use of email and social media. Each time we check an account, we have to decide what to do with the message, post, snap, or tweet that we just looked at. Do we delete it, store it, respond to it, pass it along? Decisions, even this small, require willpower. Even if we do nothing with what we’ve read, we might still think about it for some time afterward. Many people, myself included, need to check email for work. Maybe we do it more often than needed. I used to check my email 8–10 times a day, but now I am down to once or twice a day. The SoulPulse participants had slightly less willpower when, in the previous hour, they had checked their Facebook account.
Train the Elephant
The fourth strategy differs from the first three. Using the metaphor of the elephant with a rider, the first three focus on keeping the rider strong (i.e., maintaining higher levels of self-control). This strategy trains the elephant. The elephant is a strong and tireless animal, so if it can be trained to do our important work without the rider having to push and pull, good things happen. We can use willpower to make habits out of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that we want in our lives. Once they are habits, they become routine and automatic. This is the single best use of willpower, better than fighting temptation or making ourselves do things we don’t want to do. Sometimes we have to do these, of course, but temptation will return, and an unpleasant task today will still be unpleasant tomorrow. In contrast, habits can make the things that we value happen regularly and easily.
In the first half of my career, I would agonize over writing: when to do it, how much to do, and so on. Over time, I’ve made it into a habit. Now, on most weekdays, at 7:30 a.m. sharp, I sit in the comfortable leather recliner in my home office, throw a favorite blanket over my legs, pick up a blue gel pen and a pad of paper, and write until 11:30 a.m., with a few breaks interspersed. When done, I feel good about what I’ve accomplished and go on with my day. Here’s why this habit is important to me: It allows me to write or rewrite about 1,500 words each day with little thought about what I should be doing. It just happens. The elephant gets a lot done without the rider exerting much effort. A habit has three components: a behavior (what is done), a cue (when it is done), and a reward (why it is done). When we put these components together, and practice them regularly, a habit emerges.
Making a habit out of a small, simple behavior is straightforward—just do the new behavior, with a cue and a reward, consistently, and it will become routine. This “just do it” approach, however, doesn’t work as well with big, challenging changes. Common advice is to just do the challenging behavior for 30 days in a row and it will become a habit. The problem is that some habits take much longer than 30 days to form. And, frankly, if it’s a big change, I probably can’t do it for 30 days straight. That requires too much effort and self-control.
Here’s a better way to make big changes. Start with what behavioral scientist B. J. Fogg calls a “tiny habit.” Think of the big change you want to make, and then pick one small behavior from it. This behavior should be so small that it feels trivial. This ensures that it’s easy to do. Start doing this small behavior consistently until it becomes routine, and then, when you feel ready, add another behavior from the big change until it, too, is routine. Then add another and another until the whole big change has become a habit. This approach requires patience, but it works surprisingly well.
Recently, I decided to start doing an exercise routine first thing in the morning as a way of getting myself going. I picked 12 exercises to do for one minute each. The problem is that I don’t like doing any of them, especially early in the morning. If I had approached this as I have past exercise resolutions, I would have psyched myself up, called on determination, and planned to do the whole routine every day. I might have also posted inspirational quotes on the refrigerator and asked my friends to hold me accountable. With this “just do it” approach, I would get off to a good start because of my high motivation. But inevitably, I would start to falter after a week or two as other demands in life asserted themselves, and soon I would be back at square one. This time, however, I started with a tiny habit. Every morning, after I took my vitamins (the cue), I walked to the sun room, and did one, single burpee (the behavior). That’s it. One repetition of one exercise. When I finished, I told myself, out loud, “Good job!” (The reward). My goal in doing one repetition was not to get good exercise. It was, after all, only one repetition. My goal was to starting building the habit of good exercise. Since I started awhile ago, this habit has steadily grown, and it won’t be too long before I’m doing all of the exercises every morning without a second thought.
As I integrate these strategies into my life, I manage and use self-control more effectively. Over several years, I have given myself a habit makeover. I have formed or am forming new habits with exercise, eating, sleeping, paying attention to my wife, helping my son with school work, praying, being grateful, photographing nature, cleaning the house, meeting people at church, learning about my faith, and other things that matter to me.
N. T. Wright describes this process as virtue: “Virtue is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices requiring effort and concentration to do something which is good and right, but which doesn’t come naturally. And then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required automatically. Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature.” Intentional habit formation is central to the New Testament’s call to holiness and sanctification.
This process has given me a sense of hope. Having been a Christian for several decades now, I have had self-control failures in many shapes and sizes. I understand that I’m saved by grace, and that I don’t have to have good habits to be loved by God. And that’s one of the big reasons that I want to have good habits—it’s not a matter of fear or duty. But even so, those self-control failures are aggravating and discouraging. Somewhere along the line, I concluded that these failures proved that there is something wrong with me. If self-control is like a power switch, then I wasn’t turning it on, and therefore I was either incompetent or defective in these areas of my life. If it was only a fruit that I had no role in cultivating, it wasn’t growing very well.
Understanding self-control better has led me to a more encouraging conclusion. Sometimes I fail because I’m simply an exhausted rider. Other times, I’m a rider on an untrained elephant. This gives me hope for the future. I don’t have to simply accept my regular shortcomings; instead, I have an effective way to work on them. I will face self-control challenges and sometimes fail. And there is still evil and sin, as well as the Spirit and grace. But, slowly, I am becoming a strong, skilled rider atop a well-trained elephant.
Bradley Wright (brewright.com) is a sociologist at the University of Connecticut. David Carreon is a psychiatry resident and neuroscientist at Stanford University.
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