Self-Control (Also, back with a vengeance!)

I’ve been really into behavioral economics lately, like to the point of reading it all the time, bothering people with anecdotes about it, looking for future jobs in the field, etc. (And if you found that first sentence reason enough to stop reading, stay with me! I think this post will actually be good, I’m saving the turgid, academic prose for a later post).

One element of behavioral economics involves looking at self-control, and how it affects us. Basically, self-control is a limited resource, the more self-control you engage in, the less you will have shortly thereafter. In one of my favorite experiments, a group of participants had two bowls in front of them, one of radishes and one of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. One group was told to eat as many cookies as they liked, while another was told to eat as many radishes as they liked, but no cookies. Afterwards, they were asked to solve some puzzles, but what they didn’t know was that the puzzles could not be solved, and it was really a test of their willpower. The group that had eaten radishes, and therefore had to practice self-control, tried the puzzles for less than half the time of the cookie-eating group, before giving up. This phenomenon is known as ego depletion. It’s basically for this reason that Cinnabon makes a killing at the mall. You’ve been making hard decisions for a period of time, and don’t have much self-control left, and you smell cinnamon, and boom! Cinnabon has you.

A major issue that I have is one of sleep. As anyone who knows me well knows, I am an absolute champ at sleep. My record thus far in Kenya has been sleeping from 6 pm (just a short nap, I figured) until 7 am the next day. I’ve already worried a colleague, who worried I must be ill or something (No Kura, just tired–me sleeping from 8 to 7 isn’t anything to worry about). Anyway, any plans on my part to wake up early require some serious effort. Behavioral economics would say I have a problem of time inconsistency. 10:00 PM me wants to be productive the next morning; 7:00 AM WANTS TO STOP THAT ANNOYING NOISE AND RESUME SLEEPING. Accordingly, I’ve borrowed from behavioral economics, and have “tweaked my environment.” Every night, I make a point of hiding my phone in my hamper, so that the next morning, not only do I have to get out of bed, I have to dig through clothes for a while to turn it off. If this fails, I’m considering raising the stakes, and putting a second alarm, one minute later, just outside my roommate’s door. If I don’t wake up to turn that alarm off, well, hopefully I won’t ever find out. (Sarah if you’re reading this, hopefully I don’t get to this point!)

Another method to avoid time inconsistency is to “externalize your internal desire.” I used this same method in the past to force myself to wake up early and do work last year. I would tell my roommates that if I wasn’t up by a certain time, I would pay them money. Only once did this not really work, and it was when I asked a roommate who was too nice, and when I didn’t wake up, told me I didn’t have to worry about paying him. DARNIT JULIAN, THAT WASN’T THE POINT. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO TERRIFY ME INTO WAKING UP ON TIME.

I’m planning on using this same externalization method to follow through with another goal of mine: continuing to study Swahili. I mentioned earlier that a real challenge is ego depletion (See! The two ideas I expressed in this post are in fact related!), so at the end of a day of working, I often don’t feel like studying, though I’m always sure tomorrow I will have no problem studying. I’ve learned that a great method of forcing yourself to do something is to promise to donate to a cause you care about if you don’t achieve your goal. I’ve also learned that a greater method is to promise to donate to a goal you DO NOT LIKE at all if you don’t achieve your goal.


Every week I do not study at least five different days before November 6th, I will be making a $20 donation to the Romney-Ryan campaign. (I was inspired by a black woman in the south who promised to donate to the KKK unless she lost weight. Is my potential donee less extreme? Yes. Will it inspire me to study? Yes.)   So, the question is: will I learn Swahili? Or will I do what it takes to make this country great again?

And no, Ryan, Mom, and other blog readers. I do not need to apply these same lessons to my blogging. My problem in the past week and a half has been a lack of internet, not self-control. I’ll be back with a vengeance though! I have all kinds of topics I want to write about. Less perhaps on the “Dear Diary” side, and more on the “Wow, that is really interesting. I should blog about it.” side of things.

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4 Responses to Self-Control (Also, back with a vengeance!)

  1. N P says:

    As good read, as always, Nate!

  2. lrb5 says:

    For your Christmas list: “Clocky – the Runaway Alarm Clock”

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