Inside Our Impulses

Anyone that has a fondness for chocolate, candy, or coffee – or in my case, Strong Hearts shakes – knows that the saying “out of sight, out of mind” has no foundation in reality. A craving is a craving, and whether it is sitting right in front of you or waits a few minutes away, the ease – and pleasure – of succumbing to such impulse can be surprising. After an especially taxing day, an impulse can become undeniable.

There are many possible reasons for this, but a rising theory suggests that we have two competing systems within the brain that come into play, and it is the champion of this battle that controls our actions. In one corner: reason, which helps us achieve long-term goals. In the other: impulses that seek immediate gratification.

But why does a stressful morning make it so much more difficult to resist a donut or extra coffee at lunch? The theory maintains that tasks that tax our self-control – such as studying for an exam or attending an interview – leave us vulnerable to later impulses. In essence, we have limited resources of self-control, and after expending the resources on a stressful task our brain’s center for impulse easily wins out over any long-term, well-reasoned goal.

A stressful week doesn’t mean you have to succumb to impulsive follies, and the researchers provide several techniques to increase your self-control:

1. Tell friends about your goals for outside support.

2. Identify and avoid impulse-testing situations.

3. Take frequent breaks during long work sessions to limit fatigue.

4. Understand the risks associated with your impulsive action.

5. Formulate ‘if-then’ responses for activities that might leave you vulnerable to impulses. (i.e. ‘If they ask me to go get Starbucks, then I’ll say I can’t spend the money.’)

In the end, a donut after a bad week won’t kill you, but learning to recognize when you’re vulnerable to impulses can help you avoid them and stay on track for more important long-term goals.

By Chris Iversen