How to have more self-control

Jerry is a broker working on Bay Street.

His day typically starts at 5.30AM.  He sips a coffee and eats a Tim Horton’s breakfast bagel while he reads the Globe and Mail to get all the latest updates on what’s going on in the world.

Staying on top of events helps him better advise his clients, who trust him with millions of dollars.

He spends his day meeting with clients, taking phone calls, and watching the markets.  Some days the phone calls don’t stop.  He’ll either miss lunch, just have a latte instead, or have to be contented with whatever is being served in the food court that day.

Every day he makes more than a dozen decisions that could irrevocably affect the financial future of the people he represents.  Some days, Jerry doesn’t leave the office until 8PM or 9PM, and retreats to his appartment exhausted, stressed, and hungry.

He knows he needs to eat better.  His weight has crept up over the last few years.  He’s even gone as far as to see a nutritionist that created a simple-to-follow meal plan, which he has every intention of putting into practice.  Yet today he’s so tired, and so hungry.

On the way into the elevator at his building he meets a delivery guy who’s just delivered a freshly baked pizza to someone two floors above him.  The smell wafts in the air, to the point that he can almost taste it, “ooh that smells good.  Pepperoni or Italian sausage?”  He requests a business card from the delivery guy, goes upstairs, and orders his own pizza.

Timing is everything.

According to a recent New York Times article, this is what researchers discovered after considering more than 1,100 cases of prisoners in an Israeli prison going before a parole board.  They identified a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it had little to do with the ethnic background, crimes, or sentences of the prisoners.

It had everything to do with the timing.  For instance, prisoners who appeared before the parole board early in the morning were paroled about 70% of the time, while those appearing before the board late in the day received parole at a rate of less than 10%! 

Need a favor from someone?  Better ask first thing in the morning.

The study contributes to mounting evidence that we possess a finite store of mental energy for making decisions, one that gets depleted with use.  In other words, your willpower goes down the more decisions you make.  The parole board makes decisions all day long.  Whether it’s at the end of the day, or after several decisions, not paroling someone mostly maintains the status quo, which therefore makes it less of a decision.

The limited nature of our “decision making energy” has been amply demonstrated in studies that tested willpower before and after a series of decisions.

What scientists are now realizing is that the fall off in our ability to choose has a lot do with brain glucose levels. 

Need another favor from someone?  Better buy that person a meal – or least some gummy bears.

In the study above, our inmates received very preferential treatment right after lunch.

They arrived at the glucose connection through an apparently failed experiment.  Researchers wanted to prove the Mardi Gras theory.  It’s the idea that people could restrain themselves better if they over-indulged first.  If you’re like most of us, you may have tested that theory on yourself a few times already.

Participants in the study were given a delicious milkshake, then tested.  Indeed, with an instant sugar fix they outperformed the control.  The only problem was, the control group, which was given a flavorless white glop, showed just as much improvement on the second test!  How could this be?

One optimistic version of the story was that it’s the glucose support, not the taste, that contributes to improvements in self-control.  This was later confirmed when the study was repeated using sugar versus artificial sweeteners.  Even though the artificial sweeteners taste sweet, it was a clear win for sugar in the brain boosting department.

According to the writer:

“The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose.”

He goes on to say that people are then caught in a nutritional “catch-22”:  they need willpower to not eat, but not eating depletes willpower.


Not only that, but as the body uses up glucose, it seeks a quick way to replenish, leading to cravings for sugar.  Because people in self-control situations are using more glucose, it makes them even more susceptible to craving sweets.

We are the creators of our own appetite.

When you have intense cravings, it’s usually a sign that you’re not giving your body something that it needs.

So what can you do about it?  Simply limiting the number of decisions you make in a day doesn’t seem very practical.  Or does it?

Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Don’t diet! I’ve always said any plan based on excessive deprivation is flawed.  I would say this latest article is more evidence that I might have something.  Diets are self-control killers and will eventually blow up in your face, as any former diet dropout knows.

If you thought you failed at dieting before, you now know that not only did you not fail, but in fact you’ve been genetically programmed not to succeed with diets!

But with no more hunger pangs, lightheadedness, lethargy, and general discontent, how will we know when we’re being good?

I guess all that’s left is to eat enough calories to support a healthy metabolism, learn to make better choices, and use how good you feel as a gauge.

  1. Smaller, more frequent meals, containing protein and low glycemic index carbs will keep the glucose levels steady, prevent excessive hunger and cravings, and give you the best possible opportunity to make better decisions as the day progresses.

According to the author: “The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.”

Say no more.  A wink is as good as a nudge to a blind bat, or something like that. 

  1. Plan ahead.  Let’s take this a step further.  In light of the above, I’ll suggest that planning and preparation are even more essential to success.  When you fail to plan, or prepare for the day or week ahead, you are deliberately placing yourself in a position where you’ll need to make many more tough choices throughout the day, thereby inducing a state of “decision fatigue” which leads to comparatively worse choices.

When your meals are planned there’s no need to think.  When you think less, you retain your self-control longer.  The longer you retain your self-control, the better your choices will be.

Make better choices by making FEWER choices.

I like it.

It’s a bit wordy to go on the back of a t-shirt though.

The good news is that if you make the right choice enough times it eventually becomes easier.  When less mental energy is expended with each decision, you increase your power to make supportive decisions in general.

Self-control is like a muscle; you’ve gotta flex it a few times before it gets stronger.

To Your Success,

Conor Kelly

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