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Study: Self-control is not a finite resource

Exhibiting self-control means more than just harnessing your impulsive desires or exercising restraint. It can also refer to the day-to-day decisions you make to be your most productive and efficient self.

Say you practice self-control all day, working hard, eating right, staying focused, and by the time you get home and wind down for the evening, you’re spent. Instead of exercising or doing a load of laundry, you decide to watch a few episodes of your favorite show. Is this because you’ve used up your allotted amount of self-control for the day?

Previously, psychologists and scientists condoned the idea that self-control is limited, and exhibiting self-control throughout the day exhausts those resources.  

Any early studies that tried to conclusively prove that people lose motivation on tasks through the day, though, were unable to do so with sufficient evidence.

But now, a new study from the University of Toronto has found that self-control is not a finite resource, although we may experience fatigue at the end of the day.

The study was led by Daniel Randles and was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Randles found that self-control doesn’t necessarily diminish throughout the day, but what is mentally taxing is the amount of focus and time spent on a single task. Randles also discovered that time of day does not affect motivation.

For the study, Randles and his team collaborated with Cerego, an online software company that provided online tests to two groups of students over seventeen-week intervals.

The tests were based around language and topic learning, and the researchers recorded how long the students spent per session and what time they performed the tasks.  

The results of the tests showed that time of day had no impact on a student’s completing a test.

“Time-of-day has no detrimental effect on motivation; rather there is a strong tendency to increase learning time at night,” said Randall.

The researchers found that what did affect performance was the amount of time spent on a single task, noting drops in performance after an hour had been spent on a test.

The research proves that motivation is dependent on how long we spend focusing on a single task, but that self-control is not limited.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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