Why we lose self-control and how to avoid it!
The average American adult is estimated to make 35,000 decisions a day (Sollisch, 2016). Most of these are benign whilst others are thought to have negative consequences for controlling our behavior and the quality of subsequent decisions (Pignatielle, et. al (2020).
This phenomenon, known as decision fatigue, describes 'the impaired ability to make decisions and control behavior as a consequence of repeated acts of decision-making'. Evidence suggests that individuals experiencing decision fatigue demonstrate an impaired ability to make trade-offs, prefer a passive role in the decision-making process, and often make choices that seem impulsive or irrational (Tierney, 2011).
Making decision after decision takes it out on our cognitive faculty. Our ability to remain stable and consistent in the face of temptation and stick to our original plans goes out of the window. We start to act on impulse or emotion, or others' whims and we make bad choices when it comes to food or other consumable choices.
Baumeister found that we have finite amount of mental energy for exerting self-control. So when people exerted a lot of energy resisting one temptation e.g., M&M's or freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, they were less able to resist other temptations in other tasks afterward. Willpower was described as a form of mental energy that could be exhausted causing us to act irrationally and emotionally.
So how do we avoid losing self-control in the face of decision fatigue?
Let's say you knew that smoking cigarettes, a major factor in causing heart disease, was a known factor in raising your blood pressure. And quitting smoking was beneficial in lowering your blood pressure and reducing your risk of having to take medication or having a heart attack or stroke.
Making a decision to never smoke a cigarette again no matter what the circumstances are, is a sensible choice to make for your health and you will go about forming alternative habits if necessary to replace them. If smoking cigarettes eased stress such as boredom or anxiety, other relief methods would be found to replace it so the decision to not smoke again never has to enter your mind i.e., you never have to re-psychologize and revisit a decision that has already been made.
If however, you only wanted to cut out certain cigarettes, say when you were at work but still smoke at home, that's a more tricky habit to deal with since once you've got the nicotine in your blood the brain latches onto it and that's when the hours smoking at home can spill over to having cravings at work the next day when you're having a bad day or stressed in your job. i.e., it still acts as a possible relief mechanism in other areas of your life and is therefore still a possible decision in the running.
It then only takes a previous smoking buddy or colleague at work to provide the relief you need in the form of offering you a cigarette as a good gesture, that you take the kind offer and that commitment and decision to never smoke at work again has to go back to the drawing board. This takes time to adjust again.
These incongruencies and cognitive dissonances are what cause people to keep going around the cycle of change again and again and again.
Many smokers reserve the right to keep a stash of cigarettes e.g., under the sink, in the belief that if they never touch them knowing they are there, it's a test of their ability to stay strong-willed and overcome the habit. This is a risky policy given the cue to action can become an obsession in time of need and much more likely to be acted upon when our decision fatigue is at its most powerful!