My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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A new study explains why I can use self-control to meet one challenge, but I crumble when faced with a second challenge.

PlateofcookiesThis morning, the New York Times ran a short piece, How Self-Control Lowers a Buyer’s Guard.

A paper in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that after doing an exercise that required self-restraint, people spent much more on impulse purchases.

In the study, college students were given an exercise: writing down their thoughts while not thinking of a white bear, or reading from a boring book while assuming a fake expression of interest. Next, they were given $10 to save or spend on an assortment of products.

The average sum spent by a test subject who’d just used self-control was $4.44. The average sum spent by a test subject who hadn’t just used self-control was $1.21.

Apparently, after people use self-restraint in a particular context, they have less self-restraint available to meet the next challenge.

Boy, this rings true to me.

Just recently, I sat with a plate of cookies in front of me for a two-hour meeting without taking a single one (distracted by that effort the entire time), only to grab a big handful of Hershey’s kisses from the bowl at the reception desk on the way out.

Yesterday, I battled myself to bite back the nagging words I wanted to hurl at the Big Man: “Can’t you hurry up?” “Aren’t you ready yet?” “We’re going to be late!” Then, one second after I congratulated myself on my self-restraint, I complained to him in a rude voice, “You never answered any of my scheduling emails.”

While exercising no longer takes a huge effort of will for me (this took years to achieve), I remember the days when I’d force myself to go to the gym, then buy a cookie on the way home.

This study provides an insight that’s truly useful in real life. If I know that my self-restraint is apt to be low after I’ve exercised it, I know to be extra-vigilant for a while, until my self-control store replenishes itself.

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If you just can’t hear enough about the Happiness Project, check out the “Five Minute Interview” on Mind Hacks, where they were kind enough to interview me.

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Marginal Revolution is a blog by two economists who take an expansive view of what subjects they discuss. There, I was delighted to discover a W. H. Auden poem, “The More Loving One,” I’d somehow never read before. My favorite relevant-to-the-Happiness-Project lines are:

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.