Self-Control Depletion May Actually Be Shifting Of Priorities, Study Suggests

woman saying "hold there" with...
woman saying "hold there" with...

Self-control seems awfully hard to come by when we're zapped of energy. But a new study suggests that trouble with self-control during times like these may be less an issue of depletion and more an issue of only doing what we want to do.

According to the study, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, self-control "refers to the mental processes that allow people to override their thoughts, emotions and behaviors to keep them in line with overarching goals." Previous research on self-control has suggested that there may be a certain period of time -- called a refractory period -- where we're more likely to fail in our self-control efforts.

However, the authors of the study suggest that what might seem like depletion of self-control during fatigued moments might actually just be a shifting of priorities.

"In short, when people are 'depleted' or fatigued, they experience a change in motivational priorities such that they attend to and work less for things they feel obliged to do and attend to and work more for things they want to do -- things they like doing," study researcher Michael Inzlicht, of the University of Toronto Scarborough, said in a statement.

The findings suggest that people who are feeling especially low on self-esteem should reframe the way they look at what they need to accomplish. By looking at a task as something they want to complete, versus something they have to complete, they may be more likely to actually complete it.

Other studies have also shown other potential self-control boosters and shrinkers. Boosters include exercise, surrounding yourself with good influences, mindfulness, looking at the big picture, and prayer. Meanwhile, Facebook has been shown in a recent study to shrink self-control.