Self-Control: Limited but Renewable

Susan looked up at me with panic in her eyes when I walked into her office. “Oh, no!” she said dramatically. I thought she’d just heard about a major disaster. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “It’s 10:00, time for our appointment. I got in at 7:00 and I haven’t gotten anything done! I’m so overwhelmed, I can’t think straight. I was supposed to prepare for our session and I don’t even know what I want to talk about.”

“Why don’t we talk about this?” I said.

Helping people manage their emotions is among the most important areas of focus in my work with clients. Often, it involves strengthening one’s capacity to maintain control in interpersonal interactions. But managing emotions can also play a part in “staying cool” in the midst of tight deadlines, a heavy workload, and significant demands on our reasoning ability. Unfortunately, we often overestimate our brain’s capacity to exercise control and stay focused for long periods of time. If we don't do something to give our brain a break, performance and well being are likely to suffer.

Research has shown that while we do have some degree of voluntary control over our emotional responses, it’s a limited resource.  Once we’ve exhausted our capacity, we start showing signs of the “fight, flight or freeze” response: Impaired reasoning and decision-making, racing heart, high blood pressure, and emotional reactivity. To make matters worse, once we’ve successfully exercised self-control, it’s harder to do it the next time. So if you managed to stay focused on an important task and meet a deadline even though you were on the verge of overwhelm, you’re going to be less likely to control yourself when someone cuts in line just as you are about to pay for lunch. And interestingly, the part of our brain that is responsible for self-control handles this function in many domains, not just the interpersonal. So if you managed to refuse that piece of cake at the office party, you might be more susceptible to road rage on your drive home.

Given the limits of our capacity for self-control it’s important that we give our brain some help to make the best use of these mental resources.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Create “distraction free zones”: Clear your physical space, or some part of it. Minimize external distractions, break tasks down into smaller ones, give yourself time to think and plan, set limits on email, eliminate pop up messages that tell you you’ve received a new email, turn off the TV, put your desk somewhere where you can gaze at a peaceful scene.
  • More importantly, foster a culture that minimizes the need to exercise significant self-control. Hallowell refers to this as a positive fear-free environment. Spend time in environments that offer what the brain perceives as social rewards: non-hierarchical, predictable, enabling choice, relatedness and fairness.
  • Make connections with other people. Hallowell: “Even when you’re under extreme stress, the sense of human connection causes executive functioning to hum.” We experience a “toward” response to the sense of relatedness. On the other side, people who work in isolation experience more stress.
  • Get enough sleep, eat well and exercise.
  • Pay attention to the times of the day when you perform at your best; do your most important work then. Be really conscious of what mental energy a particular task requires and try to match that to when you have that energy.
  • Slow down: Listen, ask questions, take a break, recognize when you are getting overwhelmed and/or confused and stop!!
  • If you do feel overwhelmed, switch to an easy rote task, tackle the easiest part of a complex task or “warm up” by spending a few minutes doing something unrelated.
  • Schedule appointments or calls with a few minutes of breathing room in between. E.g., take 10 minutes to clear your mind of your previous appointment, then 5 minutes to prepare for the next appointment.
  • Give yourself a break: Recognize that if you’re already doing something that requires a lot of inhibition, like losing weight, it might be draining your capacity to exercise self-control. Something else that also requires self -control--such as empathizing with another person---may be negatively impacted.

The key takeaway is that our internal resources for effectively coping with high stress conditions are vulnerable and limited. Making accommodations—even simple ones--can enhance your ability to function well in the midst of such conditions.

Back to Susan: What did we do during her session? First, she let off steam by “clearing” for several minutes…doing a download of everything on her mind that was contributing to feeling overwhelmed. Next, she had fun creating a soothing screen saver for her computer. We finished the session by talking through one of her important and time-sensitive projects, a conversation which would have been impossible at the beginning of our session.