Media Releases

Finding pleasure in productive activities the key to boosting self-control

January 15, 2014

TORONTO, ON — After a long, tir­ing day many of us sim­ply give in to the urge to grab a favourite unhealthy snack and avoid tack­ling oblig­a­tory tasks. But we don’t have to.

A new study from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough shows that while peo­ple have a hard­er time con­trol­ling them­selves when tired, it doesn’t mean they’ve exhaust­ed all of their willpow­er. The key to boost­ing self-con­trol is find­ing plea­sure in the nec­es­sary activ­i­ties of life.

“When peo­ple are fatigued they expe­ri­ence a change in moti­va­tion­al pri­or­i­ties such that they are less will­ing to work for the things they feel oblig­ed to do and more will­ing to work for things they like to do,” says Michael Inzlicht, pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy at UTSC and affil­i­ate fac­ul­ty at U of T’s School of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy and Gov­er­nance.

Inzlicht defines self-con­trol as the men­tal process­es that allow peo­ple to over­ride thoughts and emo­tions in order to adapt their behav­ior from one moment to the next. The pre­vail­ing view in psy­chol­o­gy has been that self-con­trol is a lim­it­ed resource where repeat­ed acts of restraint exhaust sup­ply until indi­vid­u­als are left with lit­tle to no willpow­er at all.

While it’s true that peo­ple tend to lose their focus after per­form­ing spe­cif­ic tasks over a peri­od of time, Inzlicht says that is the result of a shift in pri­or­i­ties and not an absence of self-con­trol. In fact, there may be ways to avoid hours of being unpro­duc­tive when one’s ener­gy and focus are low.

The impor­tant thing is to con­vert tasks from “have-to’s” into “want-to’s,” says Inzlicht. When that fails, it’s worth plan­ning for the unavoid­able ups and downs in moti­va­tion by steer­ing clear of temp­ta­tions and tak­ing men­tal breaks in order to refresh.

For indi­vid­u­als with busy per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al lives this may be eas­i­er said than done, but cer­tain­ly not impos­si­ble, notes Inzlicht.

“If some­one wants to eat health­i­er they should think of the enjoy­ment they can get from eat­ing deli­cious nutri­tious foods. They should not frame their eat­ing goal as some­thing they feel oblig­ed to do because their doc­tor or spouse told them to do so,” he says. “The key is find­ing a way to want and like the goal you are chas­ing, just like the per­son who loves to jog as a way to relax or take a break.”

The study, which was co-authored by Bran­don Schme­ichel at Texas A & M Uni­ver­si­ty and Neil Macrae at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Aberdeen in Scot­land, is avail­able online and will appear in the upcom­ing edi­tion of Trends in Cog­ni­tive Sci­ences.

Online link:


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Michael Inzlicht
Tel: 416–820-2395

Don Camp­bell
Media Rela­tions Offi­cer
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough
Tel: 416–208-2938