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Thinking You Need Self-Control Just Makes You Have Less Self-Control

A new study examines how wishing you could do better only makes things worse.
Photo by VegterFoto via Stocksy

In our capitalist hellscape, there's always room for improvement. If you're doing well, you could be doing great. If you exercise two times a week, you could try to double that. If you have a sack of juice that you can squeeze with your hands, you could invent an $700 contraption to do it for you. You could definitely check Twitter less often when you're at work. We're always being told to push ourselves to achieve more and be better.


To meet these standards, self-control is likely needed—you can't lose weight or build an empire around an overpriced bag squeezer without some sacrifices along the way. A 2012 study by the American Psychological Association found that people cited lack of self-control as the top reason for falling short of achieving their goals. There are dozens of books and articles on the subject, each of which instructs you on how to increase your self-control so you can get ahead. However, a new study has found that wanting more self-control can actually hurt your ability to exert self-control.

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Researchers at Bar-Ilan University conducted four experiments to see how desiring self-control impacts people. Participants were asked to either complete simple tasks that required very little self-control or difficult tasks that required intense focus. Their desire for self-control was measured beforehand and, in some experiments, manipulated to be higher or lower. (In one study, for example, participants were asked to either write an essay about why self-control is problematic or why it is beneficial before completing a task.)

The researchers found that, across all the studies, participants who wanted more self-control fared worse on tasks that required self-control. "Performance suffers because people with a strong desire for self-control sometimes disengage and withhold effort," the researchers note in the study. "For these individuals, a demanding self-control challenge emphasizes their (perceived) current incapacity, which diminishes their motivation."

In other words, thinking that you're not doing well enough—or you that could be doing better—just makes you feel bad, and the self-flagellation doesn't actually help you. "Clearly, interventions designed to induce strong desire for self-control (e.g., by emphasizing the benefits of high self-control through popular media or education channels) could lead to unintended negative effects that have not been sufficiently considered yet," the researchers write.

"One of the main messages of this paper is that although it's good for society that both children and adults have a high level of self-control, the mere desire for self-control could be an obstacle to achieving it," Dr. Liad Uziel, one of the authors of the study, said in a press release. "Thus, while intended to help people gain more self-control, the common practice of driving people to desire more self-control runs the risk of actually undermining their confidence and increasing their doubts that they have the resources to exhibit self-control."

"I think the broader message from our study about reaching your desired goals is to believe in yourself and in your ability to achieve your goals, and to know that it might require a struggle and involve frustrations," Dr. Uziel told Broadly in an email. "Knowing that there are obstacles on the way to reaching your goals might reduce the pressure in the face of challenges and help manage them in a more constructive manner."

So give yourself a break. You're doing fine!