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Columns: Enhancing Your Behavioral Toolkit

Not Today, Lack of Self-Control, Not Today

Hathaway, Liz Ph.D., MPH; Gregg, Mckenzie MPH(c)

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: March/April 2020 - Volume 24 - Issue 2 - p 37-39
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000550
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As one of your favorite clients, Emmy, is in the homestretch of your expertly crafted workout, she again expresses her frustration that she failed to walk after work the day before. “Why does this keep happening? I have every intention of walking after work, but then I’m just too tired when I get home.” Can we get a retweet on that? How many times do our clients, and ourselves for that matter, have the best of intentions but then fail to follow through with our planned action? Might self-control be a key variable in better understanding why we do what we do or why we fail to do what we set out to do? Grab a cup of coffee (or protein shake), take a seat (or pop a wall squat), and let’s chat about self-control.


Self-control is the ability that allows people to exert control over behaviors, thoughts, and emotions to pursue goals (1–3). Self-control is not an infinite resource (Can we get an Amen?), but one that becomes depleted after a period of self-control exertion, which can only be replenished after a period of recovery (4). Thus, why should we care about self-control? Have you noticed, like Emmy, you do not always follow through with your intentions? Maybe you thought it was just you, but research has shown that although behavioral intentions are important, they are not enough to engage in a behavior (5). Most of us have a list of healthy intentions we would like to accomplish each day: eat a healthy diet, engage in the recommended amount of physical activity, manage our stress levels, and get a great night of rest. Alas, how often do we actually fulfill all these intentions in one day?


In the Strength Energy Model (SEM) of self-control, self-control is viewed as a finite resource that can become depleted after effortful expenditure, which can then lead to impaired self-control for future tasks, termed ego depletion (6,7). More specifically, ego depletion occurs when an individual’s diminished self-control resources lead to a reduction in capacity or willingness to implement further control (6,8). After depletion, subsequent use of self-control is limited and can result in self-regulatory failure. This analogy is similar to a muscle that becomes fatigued after continued use and must be rested before further use. This model further states that self-control is a global resource, meaning all actions that require self-control pull from the same finite global source. Meaning that a tough day at the office or school where you were forced to expend much of your self-control can leave you in a vulnerable position in the evening — suddenly that freshly baked muffin looks much more appealing than your evening workout. Take a minute to think about it, on days when you had to bite your tongue and not lash out or sit through meeting upon meeting upon meeting, were you more likely to have self-control lapses those evenings? Many would answer “yes” to this question.


Let us paint you a picture, a hypothetical picture of course, of what can occur in ego depletion. You are in the Chicago airport. You finally board your flight after a three-hour delay and six gate changes. You have a heightened sense of self because you have smiled your way past all the TSA employees that gave you the infamous “random” strip search. The plane is ready for takeoff. You are putting in your earphones to watch the newest Aladdin movie that you were too busy to go watch in theaters. You are thanking all that you believe in that there is no crying infant in the cabin. Then … as the film’s opening song begins … a precious tyrant sitting behind you begins to kick the back of your seat, as if it was a hacky sack. You hold your tongue, clench the arm rests, press your seat as far back as it will go to subtly limit the range of motion in the swing, and the child’s parents are blissfully unaware because they are having the sweet dreams you wished you yourself were having. You make it the whole flight demonstrating exquisite self-control. You are now mentally and physically exhausted, and you are ignorant to your soon-to-come explosion. You reach baggage claim, about to head home, only to find out your luggage was taken on the flight on what was your fourth gate change. You storm to the worker’s desk, raise Cain, make a scene, and send in an unhealthy worded letter about everything wrong that happened on your trip back. You thought you were fine, but alas, you were not — you put the “depleted” in ego-depleted. Clearly, this was a hypothetical situation.*

Throughout the day, we all expend self-control. It starts with the sound of the alarm, ugh is it really already time to get up? Yes, you would prefer to stay in bed, but you decide to rise and shine anyway. Good-bye to a bit of self-control. You are going through your morning routine — time for breakfast, hmm … Greek yogurt and fruit or a morning muffin. Oh that morning muffin would be good, but you decide to go with the Greek yogurt and fruit — pour out some self-control. On the way to the office, someone cuts you off. Instead of going full-blown Rambo in your car, you decide to restrain yourself … you do not have time to be arrested this morning … again, there goes some self-control. A doozy of a day at the office; you have a 5 p.m. deadline to meet and you skip lunch … no time. Your colleagues clearly woke up on the wrong side of their beds this morning, do not lash back, it’s not worth it … just sprinkle out that self-control. On the drive home after a stressful day, you go back and forth in your head … “I should work out, but it has been a long, exhausting day.” Fast forward an hour, you are on your couch, Netflixing for the win and enjoying that muffin you wanted for breakfast (it is delicious by the way), and no, you did not work out … you decide you will work out tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow you will definitely work out. Can you relate to this? If so, let us not sit idly by. Let us discuss how to pump up our and our clients’ self-control abilities.


Limber Up, Time to Train

We can train self-control just like we train our physical muscles by exposing ourselves to situations where we successfully use self-control and then provide ourselves with sufficient breaks to allow for self-control replenishment (9). In sports, we are told to be proactive, not reactive. This is true in self-control development as well. We must choose to put ourselves in situations that require self-control to increase our self-control capacity. Everyone knows his/her strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. Practically, one can put himself/herself in a situation that is taxing and then remove himself/herself and allow recharging to occur. You and your clients will grow through these efforts.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

According to the SEM, trying to change too much at one time will lead to self-control failure and the “I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate” moments. With this in mind, consider having your client introduce one new action at a time and allow a bit of time before introducing the next new action so that appropriate self-control will be available to be successful. Competence, the need to gain mastery over tasks, is another human need explained by self-determination theory (10). Introducing one new behavior at a time and allowing your client to be successful will lead to increased levels of competence. Have your client embrace his/her inner tortoise (call your client that at your own risk) and aim to empower him/her to run the marathon, not the sprint.

If Possible, Automate

Why not try to lessen the power of self-control in our daily decisions? Enter automation. By automating behavior, we may be able to preserve our self-control resources (11). We can do this by automating certain healthy decisions. For instance, automating your breakfast choice Monday through Friday is one option. Instead of having to contemplate each morning what you will eat, decide to eat a consistently healthy breakfast during the week. At first, you will still have to expend self-control making this decision, but as you continue to engage in the same behavior, it will become more and more automatic until you no longer spend much time thinking about it. Another example would be to engage in morning exercise. After your morning cup of coffee, you head to the gym — this becomes your normal routine. Exercising in the morning also might be helpful for those who continuously find themselves depleted in the evenings.

Use Your Noggin, Plan Ahead

Implementation intentions are “if–then” action plans that increase the likelihood of individuals carrying out the proposed action/behavior (12). For instance, an implementation intention for our rockstar of a client, Emmy, might be that during her 1-hour lunch break, she will take a 15-minute walk. Implementation intentions go hand in hand with automation. Your client is the expert on himself/herself — partner with your client to best understand vulnerable times in his/her day. Once these are determined, guide your client to create his/her own implementation intention for the specific situation. For instance, maybe coming home from work is a vulnerable time for your client where he/she often goes for a sweet treat. Instead of the current learned behavior, “When I get home, I will have a sugary treat,” look to adapt to “When I get home, I will have a piece of fruit.”


Self-control will not grow itself. Embrace your inner farmer and view self-control as the fruit of the tree you wish to grow. You must plant, water, and harvest the seed to grow the strongest, most fruitful tree. Over time, your tree is tested and grows stronger bearing more self-control. You must be proactive in this process, exposing yourself to self-control expending situations and then allowing for recharging. Self-control is a maturation process that is never fully finished, yet much progress can be made. Hence, arise from your seat or wall squat, channel your inner tortoise, and start developing your and your client’s self-control today.


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*No author(s) or airport workers were harmed in the hypothetical airport adventures described above.
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