When willpower fails because of too many demands
The Journal of Personnel Psychology recently published a study looking at the how self-control is affected by stress. Those higher in self-control tend to experience more success across various life domains. For example, it’s been linked to better emotional regulation and greater life satisfaction. However, this new research suggests that the advantages of high self-control are only effective when an individual is dealing with one demand at a time.
For example, if your job was the only source of stress in your life, channeling your self-control could easily help you cope. However, if another source of stress presents itself at the same time, your high self-control isn’t of much help anymore. Previous studies have suggested that experiencing stress from various domains can inhibit effective behavior associated with high trait self-control.
This led the researchers to argue that high self-control fails to attenuate the negative effects of stress when an individual is coping with multiple demands.
The study & findings
Dr. Externbrink and his team predicted the relationship between stress and self-control. In their experiment, work and school were used at the two sources of stress. They hypothesized the following.
Hypothesis 1: An individual with high self-control will experience the least amount of strain from one stressor if all other stressors are low.
Hypothesis 2: An individual with high self-control will experience equally high amounts of strain as an individual with low self-control if dealing with multiple stressors.
In other words, they predicted that the advantages of high self-control (versus low) play out only when a person has to deal with a single stressor at a time.
For the study, self-control was measured using the scientically validated Self-Control Scale by Bertrams and Dickhäuser. The survey consists of a 5-point scale (1 = not at all like me, 5 = very much like me) designed to assess their baseline self-control.
The participants’ academic and work environment were used as their sources of demand. To assess job-related demands, participants were given a survey consisting of statements such as “some of my work tasks are such that I really need to force myself to get them done”. To assess academic-related demands, participants were given the same survey, but each time the word “work” appeared, it was replaced by the word “academic”.
Following this, the researchers assessed whether participants felt strained by the multiple stressors. Levels of irritation were used as markers for psychological strain. Irritation was measured using the Irritation Scale, consisting of statements such as “I anger quickly”. The researchers focused on irritation because the symptoms of this response reflect distinct failures of self-control.
The results of the study provide evidence in favor of Hypothesis 1. In cases of high trait self-control, when the participant was dealing with one stressor (either work or school), their reported level of strain was relatively low. Moreover, in favor of Hypothesis 2, when a second stressor came into play, high trait self-control no longer acted as a buffer against feelings of strain. Both groups of people, the lows and the highs, reported being equally strained.
The results of these studies provide support for the notion that self-control only enables effective coping when dealing with one stressor. In the event of multiple stressors, even those with high self-control will experience disproportionately high strain.
How to deal with multiple stressors
These results may seem quite discouraging. After all, dealing with multiple stressors is an unavoidable part of life. Fortunately, there are effective ways for high self-control individuals to cope with these stressors. Before getting to them though, we should first determine whether you’re high or low in trait self-control.
For each statement below, indicate on a scale of 1 to 5 the extent to which you agree with it. (1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = neutral; 4 = agree; 5 = strongly agree).
I am good at resisting temptation
It is not hard for me to break bad habits
I’m not lazy
I don’t say inappropriate things
I rarely do things that are bad for me even when I enjoy them
I am satisfied with my level of self-discipline
Pleasant activities don’t distract me from doing my job
I don’t find it difficult to concentrate
I can effectively work towards long term goals
I can easily stop myself from doing something that I know is wrong
I rarely act without having thought through all the alternatives
I reject things that are bad for me
Others would say that I have iron-willed discipline
Scoring: If you scored a 39 or higher, then the following tactics are for you. Try them out as a way to juggle multiple demands and keep your (high) self-control in check.
1. Tap into your Selective Attention
When work, school, family etc. become increasingly demanding, you may feel the need to address all these demands at once. Although this may seem productive, you’re likely just setting yourself up for burnout. Taking it one step at a time is often the best course of action. So, how can this be done? Simple: activate your selective attention. Research suggests that selective attention can be an effective mechanism for coping. That’s because attentional regulation forces you to focus on one task at a time.
To tap into your selective attention, try the following tips:
heighten your autonomic nervous system: A study showed that increasing your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) improved focus.
Increase PNS: Perform low intensity exercises such as aerobic exercise.
2. Utilize your time efficiently
An effective way to deal with multiple stressors is to minimize their overlap. This can be accomplished through time management. Managing your time efficiently can also reduce stress, improve academic achievement and enhance performance. Try the following tips to improve your time management:
Be future-oriented: A study showed that future-oriented individuals are at a decreased risk of procrastination and internet addiction.
Use an agenda: An agenda will allow you to plan out your schedule ahead of time and prioritize your demands. This can effectively reduce their overlap.
3. Adopt a clear goal structure
When you’re faced with obstacles from various domains in your life, you may feel unsatisfied and decide you want to try something new. However, this change comes with a degree of uncertainty which can further fuel your stress. Fortunately, there is a way to manage the pressure of uncertainty while still working towards achieving your new goals.
This tactic requires you to order your goals into a hierarchy. A goal hierarchy has a Major Goal (end state) at the very top and several nested Minor Goals (means state) underneath. A goal hierarchy is effective because it brings attention to any unproductive pathways, allowing you to identify an optimal route running from your Minor Goals through to your big Major Goal. With a well-organized hierarchy, this decreases long-term uncertainty and stress.
How to create a goal hierarchy:
Write down one Major Goal you’d like to achieve (e.g. the type of job you want to land)
Now write down at least three Minor Goals that will allow you to achieve that Major Goal
Below your Minor Goals, list a handful of tasks and activities required to accomplish your minor goals (tactical to-dos)
Once this is complete, start from the bottom of your list and work your way up
In moments of frustration, always go back to your Major Goal
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