Easing the Path. Environments and Growth
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2018 (edited 9-15-2021)
Facing the demands of change, we erroneously rely on will-power to push us through. Will-power is finite; it depletes and in exhaustion we fail. There is a better way.
Over the past decade, I have written a variety of articles on the difficulties of change. Redirecting our trajectory is a strenuous task for the courageous. The only road to change, I suggested, was putting our head down and bulling through the muck of obstacles and emerging on the other side as a better human being. I stand by this, adjusting our approach to living is difficult. However, there is much more to this story.
Change isn’t simply a luxury for those with dogged determination. Science is beginning to doubt that magical existence of the invisible substance we delightfully refer to as will-power. Those most effective at implementing change typically face fewer challenges. They rely on intelligent design, avoiding environments that pound our resilience, and then surround themselves with those that boost, push them to their goals. They successful ease the path.
The moral is simple: we don’t need to work harder, we need to work smarter. The self-discipline to change isn’t measured in brute strength but wise planning to avoid the monsters that unduly deplete our reservoirs of strength.
"Those most effective at implementing change typically face fewer challenges. They rely on intelligent design."
We suffer from a variety of maladies that drain our lives of joy. We have addictions, unconscious routines, blind reactions that intrude on futures and interfere with goals. Our lives improve through intentional change, bringing the unseen into the light, evaluating for effectiveness and forcing change. This is our challenge. We must adapt through promising changes or avoid the pain of inefficiencies by pushing the ailments beneath the radar of consciousness.
Both productive adaptation and fearful avoidance demand psychological and physical resources; they drain energy.
“Each act of self-control draws from this limited supply, leaving less available for subsequent acts that require self-regulation or the self’s active intervention. When this resource becomes depleted, people become vulnerable to self-control failures” (Bauer & Baumeister, 2017).
Strength Theory of Self-Control
Many have suggested that self control is like a muscle, and to strengthen the muscle it must be exercised, and thus gains strength . By strengthening will-power, we expand the resources available. Perhaps, this is true; but recent studies suggest a better path to successful goal pursuit. We enhance self-discipline by creating environments that are less depleting, and by structuring in activities that replenish.
Our path to change collides with a painful paradox, lack of self-control creates stressful events, and stressful events diminishes self-control (Park, Wright, Pais & Ray. 2016). This self-perpetuating and downward cycle sucks hapless victims into a powerful vortex of self-destruction. Instead of adopting helpful strategies to escape, the fearsome force, pulls downward, impelling the captive to seek psychological escapes rather than healthy adjustments.
The junkie wallowing in the mire of addiction, instead of pooling resources with those committed to sobriety, tend to collaborate with others stuck in the losing battle, embracing the collapsing pattern of depleted resources and magnified stressors. Instead of expending energy to manage the guilt and shame that often accompany honesty when around helpful others, they drift to destructive others where addiction is gleefully accepted. They find comfort connecting with those condemned to the same fate, in similar paths of helplessness.
Others that share our goals are essential to success. We draw from their resources in our pursuit, limiting energy depletion. This is a self-expanding model, instead of a self-limiting boundary (Chua, Carbonneau, Milyavskaya & Koestner, 2015). College students wishing for academic success that socialized with those committed to the same goal fared much better than those who socialized with friends that had different goals.
Using self-control to direct choices in friends was far better than using self-control to study every time one's friends had something more exciting planned. Once the friendships were set, very little self-discipline was needed. The social group naturally pushed for the behaviors essential for the success.
Failure to maintain control over thoughts, emotions and behaviors adds disastrous complications to already taxed systems. When we are overwhelmed, we act in irrational ways that increase stressors and further deplete our systems. Escape demands the wise approach. We can’t repeatedly fail, do the same thing, and expect an improved result—insanity.
Our momentary flashes of renewed strength will eventually fail without a supporting structure. We must return to the basics—a healthy diet, proper sleep, and a supporting cast of others. By easing our path, we conserve strength to face the passing temptations. As we progress, our healthy habits lessen the stressors and increase our ability to respond with power.
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Chua, S., Carbonneau, N., Milyavskaya, M., & Koestner, R. (2015). Beyond the self in self-control. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(3), 330-343. Retrieved from DeepDyve
Park, C., Wright, B., Pais, J., & Ray, D. (2016). Daily Stress and Self-Control. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35(9), 738-753. Retrieved from DeepDyve
Bauer, I.M., Baumeister, R. F. (2017) Self-Regulatory Strength. In Vohs, K.D, Baumeister, R. D. (Eds.) Handbook of Self-Regulation, Second Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. The Guilford Press; third edition. Retrieved from Kindle.