About a year and a half ago I was first introduced to the works of Dan John through his book Never Let Go, which is simply a compilation of many articles and post he wrote over a period of time. One such article I read out of that collection was entitled "The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban: Free will and Free Weights" and it left a really strong impression on me for one particular reason. Shaving cream.
Exactly that is what I though too! Shaving cream? What the heck does shaving cream have to do with lifting weights and looking better?
The answer Dan John tells us has to do with free will or in my terms self control. See our self control is like our can of shaving cream. We only have a limited amount of it. We use a little bit here and a little bit there and before we know it we suddenly run out at the point when we often need it the most.
I know Dan John's a genius like that! But it really is true every time we say no or make a choice we are forced to expend a little bit of our "shaving cream" and thus limiting the amount we have to spend on much more important choices and decisions.
This point was again reiterated to me during my most recent completed book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. Although for they do not use the shaving cream metaphor and rather opt for the Rider and Elephant analogy which is more appropriate for the discussion they have inside Switch, but the point remains the same. The rider (your self control) can only fight the elephant (your desires and wants) for so long, but due to the elephant's size eventually the rider will fatigue and the elephant will get his way.
Both Dan John and the Heath Brothers make note of a particular study that showcases this phenomenon beautifully.
The study is entitled Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource by Baumeister, Roy F.; Bratslavsky, Ellen; Muraven, Mark; Tice, Dianne M. It was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998.
In this study college students were told they were participating in a study regarding food perception. They were instructed to report to the lab hungry by abstaining from food three hours prior to the experiment.
Subjects were led to a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. On a table in the middle of the room were two bowls. One bowl held a sample of the chocolate chip cookies and on the other was a bowl of radishes.
The researchers fed the subjects a bullshit story about the distinct flavor of the foods and how they would be questioned about their taste sensations the next day. Half of the subjects were told to eat two or three cookies along with chocolate candies, but no radishes. The other half of subjects were instructed to to eat two or three radishes, but no cookies.
The researchers then purposefully vacated the room in order to create temptation among the subjects who were told to abstain from the chocolate chip cookies. But despite this none of the participants disobeyed the instructions they were given.
At this point the subjects were made to believe that the taste perception study has been officially ended. Then another group of different researchers entered the room to pose as researchers working on a different experiment that was testing whether college or high school students were better at solving problems. This question was engineered in order to draw pride out of the college students and make them take the task seriously.
The subjects were then presented with a series of puzzles and problems which they were asked to solve without the knowledge that the problems themselves had been designed to be unsolvable. The point being to see how long the subjects were spend trying to solve the unsolvable problem. A sort of measure of self discipline and control. What happened was amazing.
Subjects who had not been tempted by the previous cookie study spent a total of 19 minutes making 34 attempts at solving the puzzle. While the tempted subjects only spent 8 minutes making 19 attempts at solving the puzzle before giving up.
Scratching your head a bit? Well don't because it is a simple explanation. The tempted subjects simply ran out of self control. They had spent so much energy trying to control their elephant in the previous study and continually used their shaving cream that when confronted with another difficulty situation that required self control they didn't have enough left in the tank to stay the course. Thus showing us that self control is an exhaustible resource.
Now take this truth and look at your own life and behaviors. Imagine you wake up each day with a certain amount of self control. Every time you choose to say no or make a difficulty decision you spend a little bit of that self control. Whether it be deciding what clothes to wear, what to eat for breakfast, to drive the speed limit or not, or even pack your lunch you are always spending your self control.
This has HUGE implications for success in life, but more importantly for us, success at becoming stronger, leaner, healthier individuals. It informs us that if we are to truly have success we need to automate as many processes and decisions as possible so that we can reserve our self control for the moments we need it most.
For example saying no to that piece of cake at work. Or perhaps fighting that temptation to just go home to your couch after work instead of getting that third training session of the week in. If we have more self control to spend on these important battles we will be more likely to win them and not run out of "shaving cream" when we need it most.
To better understand think about that feeling you have after you get into your car and then suddenly find yourself pulling in to your parking spot at work. You can't really quite remember every turn and stop on the way there, but you know you were driving and you know that you were processing all the things you needed to do at the office upon your arrival. This is an example of an automated process! It is a habit loop! We have done it so many times that we have sequenced the process into this compacted step of physical and mental behaviors that we can carry out without any conscious thought allowing us to focus on other ideas and to-dos.
Now think about the last time you were at work and were aware of the fact that 25 feet down the hall was a box of donuts that you know you aren't suppose to eat or perhaps don't want to eat. Remember how hard it was to constantly guide your thoughts away from the donuts? Or how hard you fought the urge to get up and meander back to the break room? It was physically draining! This is because the rider is having to strain to control the much bigger elephant and every minute that passes our shaving cream level falls a bit more.
This "shaving cream", our rider's strength, or self control is vital to our ability to be able to control our behavior and create new habits. Without it we are ultimately doomed to fail. This makes it our most precious resource regarding successful healthy behavior changes. We must guard it and protect it at all costs. This means limiting the amount of decisions we make each day. Simplifying our meal options. Shrinking the size of our habits. And conserving the self control for important tasks such as fighting the power of pastries and the strong arm of apathy.
Self Control is an exhaustible resource and it is your most important resource for success. Treat it accordingly!
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