The New Science of Self-Control

Four Strategies for Longer Lasting Productivity

Lewis Kallow
July 24, 2022
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Wilken Wehrt, Anne Casper, and Sabine Sonnentag are at the frontiers of productivity science.

Their research pushes the boundaries of what we know about staying healthy, energetic, and effective at work.

Today we are breaking down their brand new study which reveals the most up to date and effective strategies for getting sh*t done in 2022*.

*bionic reading is not included


​Featured Science

The New Science of Self-Control — Four Strategies for Longer Lasting Productivity


🔷 Executive Summary
— Sustaining productivity throughout the day requires both the capacity and the motivation to use self-control. Strategies that involve planning, connecting to meaning, and self-reward can all help to keep your self-control levels topped up and subsequently boost your daily effectiveness.

⭐️ The Premise

If you want to be highly productive, you have to get really good at resolving conflict.

And by “conflict”, we’re not talking about squabbles between coworkers over who overlooked the typo in that big client presentation.

We’re talking about the sort of daily conflicts that stand between you and staying on task.

For instance…

  • your task might be unpleasant, difficult, or confusing;
  • you may have to fend off distractions;
  • you might feel tempted to go do something more fun;
  • you may feel your energy or focus dipping as the day goes on, etc.

Psychologists have found that the way we overcome these conflicts is by using an elusive force known as “self-control.”

If you’ve ever prised yourself from the warmth of your bed on a cold winter’s morning, or narrowly resisted the urge to call your coworker a creative expletive, or defiantly told Netflix that: no, you are no longer watching—then you know what it feels like to exert self-control.

And so a big focus of modern productivity science is learning how to keep our self-control levels topped up so we can successfully blitz through any conflicts that arise throughout the day and therefore maximize our effectiveness.

Here’s how Wilken Wehrt, Anne Casper, and Sabine Sonnentag managed to shed some fresh light on how we can do exactly that...

🧪 The Study

The trio started by recruiting 135 participants across a whole host of professions in Germany.

(Including: bankers, civil servants, electricians, graphic designers, interior architects, IT consultants, marketing managers, nurses, project managers, professors, receptionists, teachers, and more).

They worked an average of 8.3 hours and 40% were in leadership positions.

Across two full workweeks, their levels of self-control, task performance, and use of three different productivity strategies were assessed through a combined total of 2544 daily check-ins.

Three major findings emerged from all of that data…

⚡️ The Findings

PART I — A New Understanding of Self-Control

Their first finding deepens our understanding of how self-control actually works.

For a long time, psychologists have treated self-control like a muscle or a battery.

The idea is that your “self-control capacity” slowly gets depleted as you make decisions, focus on your work, and resist temptation, etc.

You start off with a full battery of self-control capacity in the morning but then it gradually gets weaker the more you use it until it eventually gives up. It’s at this point that you order pizza instead of salad, procrastinate on TikTok, and yell at your neighbors.

Nowadays people love to say that this notion of self-control capacity has been debunked.

Well, that’s only half true. We definitely do experience capacity depletion, it’s just not the full story.

There is now a new self-control kid on the block which modern psychologists are using to fill in the gaps of the willpower puzzle.

It’s called “self-control motivation”.

If “self-control capacity” is your ability to resist conflict then “self-control motivation” is your desire to resist it.

Think about it: you could wake up with a full tank of self-control gas (high capacity) and yet still feel entirely unmotivated to work on your powerpoint presentation.

It would be like having plenty of fuel but no motivation to drive anywhere.

Alternatively, you could have spent the whole day using self-control (low capacity) and yet you still work on your new website long into the night because you’re extremely motivated.

Kind of like if the car is running out of gas but you’d sooner get out and walk the rest of the way than give up.

The reason it's important for us to understand these two types of self-control is because the study found that we need to use different types of strategies in order to boost each one.

They also found that capacity and motivation affected people’s productivity throughout the day but in distinctly different ways...

Which leads us to the next finding...  

PART II — The Relationship Between Capacity, Motivation, and Daily Productivity

When it came to maximizing productivity, the team found that self-control motivation mattered most in the morning whereas the depletion of self-control capacity mattered most in the afternoon.

“Only self-control motivation at the beginning of work is important for task performance in the afternoon, but depletion becomes the predictor at midday.”

Let’s break each of those down.

🌅 Morning Motivation

It turned out that when people started their day feeling motivated, they were much more likely to be productive throughout the rest of their day. Morning motivation predicted daylong effectiveness.

How do you start the day feeling motivated? Well, one of the best ways to predict morning motivation is to ensure that you have enough rest and leisure the day before, along with a night of good sleep.

Previous research from our trio has found that people who take the time to properly rest and recover at the end of a workday are more likely to wake up the following morning with the highest levels of motivation.

If you find that you’re waking up feeling “blegh”, it might be time to check in on whether you’re taking enough time to recover and detach.

🏙 Afternoon Depletion

As the day wore on, self-control capacity overtook motivation as the biggest driver of productivity.

What this means is that your effectiveness in the afternoon will probably be most impacted by how depleted you feel, even if you still feel motivated.

So in order to sustain high performance, we need to find ways to fend off the depletion of our willpower reserves that can happen later in the day.

Unfortunately, they found that people felt more depleted in the afternoon if they worked on more challenging tasks in the morning.

Obviously you can’t always control how challenging your mornings are, and arguably it’s even beneficial to do your hardest tasks in the morning.

But the good news is that participants were able to avoid depletion or at least stop it from slowing them down by using three self-control enhancing strategies.

Allow me to introduce you…

PART III — Three Strategies to Combat Depletion

1. Planning

This strategy refers to any behavior that helps you define your priorities and how to tackle them.

It can include actions like setting new goals, writing a to-do list, reflecting on your priorities, coming up with a step-by-step plan, and making a schedule for tackling your work (e.g. time-blocking).

There are a few ways that planning and organizing might fend off depletion:

A) It may help you to structure your work in such a way that interruptions and conflicts can be avoided.

B) It may help you to identify possibilities for working on your tasks in a way that makes them easier or more fun and therefore less depleting.

C) Identifying your priorities and having a clear plan can reduce depletion by making your tasks simpler to understand and get started on, thereby lowering their cognitive load.

Wilken, Anne, and Sabine encourage people to use planning strategies to organize their work before heading into the afternoon.

2. Meaning Relation

Next up is simply good ol’ purpose.

People reported feeling less depleted when they used “meaning-related strategies”.

This can include reminding yourself of the importance of your work, why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for, and the positive outcomes associated.

Taking some time to connect to meaning can refocus your attention on higher order goals like wanting to work to a high standard or to the desire to make an impact.

Feeling a sense of purpose seems to be very effective at easing feelings of depletion or will at least allow you to persist longer in spite of those feelings!

3. Self Reward

Finally, treat yourself.

Participants were able to offset the effects of depletion on their productivity when they gave themselves small rewards.

This can be anything that feels personally rewarding to you. It can be having a coffee break, chatting with a coworker, listening to your favorite song, or reading your favorite newsletter: Super Self. 🦸🏻‍♂️

Harking back to previous studies we’ve looked at, we can also assume that internal rewards like taking a second to feel proud of the effort you’ve put in, will also nicely do the trick.

Self rewards work by acting as a sort of pressure relief valve.

The desire to give into instant gratification seems to build up the longer we exert self-control. We begin to shift our attention away from long-term rewards to more immediate ones when we're depleted.

But by giving into these short-term desires, just temporarily, you can help  to shift your focus back toward those more effortful work-related tasks.

This is in line with a recent study which found that giving into desires from time to time can be helpful because it makes goal pursuit feel less tiresome and more enjoyable.

Further experiments have found that depletion can be counteracted by additional ways of satisfying rest/leisure needs such as:

  • watching a funny video (Tice et al., 2007)
  • receiving an opportunity to meditate (Yusainy & Lawrence, 2015)
  • relaxation (Englert & Bertrams, 2016).

💎 The Takeaway

Maximizing productivity often requires the use of self-control to overcome daily conflicts.

Psychologists are now realizing that our motivation to use self-control is at least as important as our capacity to use it.

Starting the day with high motivation is associated with higher productivity throughout the day. You can improve your odds of starting the day strong by making sure you end the previous workday with sufficient recovery and sleep.

Once the afternoon rolls around, the most important factor becomes how depleted you feel. But by using a combination of planning, connecting to meaning, and self-reward, you can keep your capacity topped up and sustain your effectiveness for longer.

Your to-do list won't stand a chance!

Source: Wehrt, W., Casper, A., & Sonnentag, S. (2022). More than a muscle: How self-control motivation, depletion, and self-regulation strategies impact task performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior


Super Snippets

🫀Thanks For The Boost — An exciting new study found the first evidence that gratitude can help us achieve a state of peak performance. Researchers paired people up and gave them six minutes to prepare a business pitch. Half of the teams were then asked to each spend one minute expressing gratitude for something their partner had done in the past. In comparison to a control group, the teams who expressed gratitude before their pitch generated a superior cardiovascular stress response:

This biological state is classically referred to as a “challenge response” and has been strongly linked with confidence, resilience, focus, and enhanced performance across many previous studies. It also protects you from the harmful long-term effects of stress! So I guess you could say that gratitude really does strengthen your heart after all.

*collective awhhh*

🐠 The Power Of 3 — Speaking of the heart, previous research has found that Omega-3s can help lower blood pressure. The amount needed to do so, however, has been unclear. But now a new analysis from the American Heart Association of 71 clinical trials including 5000 participants aged between 22 and 86 found that people who consumed 2-3 grams of daily Omega 3s (both DHA and EPA) experienced a significant drop in blood pressure. That’s the equivalent of 4-5 ounces of Atlantic salmon (110-140g) or a 300mg fish oil supplement.

Meanwhile, another study found that increasing the levels of Omega 3 in your blood from the bottom 20% of the population to the top 20% could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 49%. That’s an estimated 4.7 additional years of life free of AD.

🔦 Going Dark — A new study gave out smartwatches to 552 participants which tracked the levels of light they were exposed to over a period of one week. People who were exposed to more light during the night time hours (smart devices, indoor lighting, outdoor lighting, etc) had a higher prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension:

The study authors recommend:

  1. Don't turn the lights on at night. If you need to have a light on, make it a dim light that is closer to the floor.
  2. Shift toward red. Avoid white or blue light during the night time hours. Amber or a red/orange light is less stimulating for the brain.
  3. Block it out. Try some blackout shades or eye masks if you can't control the light. You can also try moving your bed so the outdoor light isn't shining on your face.

Meanwhile...

💪 Strong Finding — flavonoids—exclusively found in plants (fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate, tea, coffee, etc)—were found to be particularly effective at preventing muscle loss and stimulating growth in a new systematic review and meta-analysis.

🩸 We’re Screwed — women who scored in the top 33% of exposure to PFAS chemicals which are found in various plastics, water resistant materials, cleaning products, personal care products, absolutely everywhere, etc, had a 71% higher risk of developing high blood pressure.

🪞 Drunk Narcissus — new eye-tracking research found that the more time people spent staring at their own face while on zoom, the less happy they felt during a conversation. Alcohol use appeared to worsen the problem!

⌛️ Keep Going —


New & Noteworthy Content

📖 [LIFE] 35 Lessons on the Way to 35 Years Old — Ryan Holiday

Over the past ten years, Ryan has written more than 10 books, got married, had two kids, bought a farm and opened a book shop. To celebrate turning 35 he’s sharing the top 35 lessons he learned along the way.

"The question to ask yourself with every year, every month, every day, every minute is: Did I live it while I was in it?"
​9 minute read

📖 [LOVE] — New Neuroscience Reveals 5 Rituals That Will Make Your Life Awesome — Eric Barker

“She was one of the leading experts on the neuroscience of love. But she didn’t truly understand it – really feel its power – until that day she met John. It was like studying roller coasters all your life but never having been on one.”

It’s not often that you get the chills while reading an article about science. Here’s an exception.
​10 minute read

📖 [SELF REFLECTION] — Letter to Your Future Self — The Curiosity Chronicle

Sahil Bloom explains why he has written 7 letters to his future self and how they’ve led to enhanced clarity, growth, and progress. In this new article, he walks us through the four areas to address:

  1. Reflections on the Present
  2. Changes to Make
  3. Goals for the Future
  4. Fun & Crazy Predictions

​4 minute read

📖 [SETBACKS] — The Rut Principle — Raptitude

“In the weeks since the lapse, I’ve been running even less, eating more junk, and staying up later. My short runs began to feel like long ones, and I stopped doing the long ones altogether. Then I caught a cold and took another week off to recover. This extended sort of lapse is what you could call a rut.”

I related a little too strongly to David Cain’s new piece on how a small setback can turn into a downward spiral. I can’t say it offers much in the way of solutions but there’s something helpful about hearing it articulated so clearly.  
​10 minute read

🎙 [LEADERSHIP] — Marshall Goldsmith: The Essentials Of Leadership — The Knowledge Project

Marshall Goldsmith reflects on a nearly 40-year career as one of the world’s leading executive coaches and shares the lessons he’s learned along the way.
​1 hour 30 minute listen

🎙 [STRENGTH] — Stuart Phillips, PhD, on Building Muscle with Resistance Exercise and Reassessing Protein Intake — Found My Fitness (Rhonda Patrick)

A deep dive into why strength training is so important for longevity and the best practices to get the most out of your workouts.
​1 hour 50 minute listen

🎙 [FASTING] — Fasting & Nutrition Protocols for Longevity & Disease Prevention — Rich Roll Podcast

Valter Longo, Ph.D. is one of the world's leading researchers in longevity science & the impact of fasting on healthspan extension. This conversation traverses the latest research on fasting, longevity, and nutrition, the potential of life-extending drugs, fasting-mimicking diets & more.
​1 hour 50 minute listen

🎙 [HUBERMAN] In case you missed them, here are two new and noteworthy episodes from the internet’s favorite neuroscientist:

FlexibilityImprove Flexibility with Research-Supported Stretching Protocols

OCDThe Science & Treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

💡 Did you hear, read, or watch some inspiring content published in the last two weeks relevant to personal growth? Help me improve this section for everyone by letting me know!


Latest Book Release

Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness

by Steve Magness

"In Do Hard Things, Steve Magness beautifully and persuasively reimagines our understanding of toughness. This is a must-read for parents and coaches and anyone else looking to prepare for life's biggest challenges." -- Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers and Talking to Strangers and host of the Revisionist History podcast.

Steve Magness, a performance scientist who coaches Olympic athletes, rebuilds our broken model of resilience with one grounded in the latest science and psychology. In Do Hard Things, Magness teaches us how we can work with our body – how experiencing discomfort, leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take thoughtful action can be the true indications of cultivating inner strength. He offers four core pillars to cultivate such resilience:

Pillar 1- Ditch the Façade, Embrace Reality

Pillar 2- Listen to Your Body

Pillar 3- Respond, Instead of React

Pillar 4- Transcend Discomfort

Smart and wise all at once, Magness flips the script on what it means to be resilient. Drawing from mindfulness, military case studies, sports psychology, neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, he provides a roadmap for navigating life’s challenges and achieving high performance that makes us happier, more successful, and, ultimately, better people.


Quote Of The Week

“These three skills—self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matter most—are the foundation for self-control.”

― Kelly McGonigal, PhD


In light of today’s gratitude study, I’d like to thank you for making it all the way to the end.

Strong hearts and all that,

Lewis 🦸🏻‍♂️

P.s. I've heard that forwarding this issue to a friend who might enjoy it will give you seven years of good karma. Who knows, worth a shot.

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