Research shows balanced studying improves all-round self-control

A 2006 study in Basic & Applied Social Psychology showed that students who participated in a regular program of study through their year at college had noticeably better mental focus under stress, as well as greater ability to be self-controlled in other areas of their life.

The study followed one group of students with a regular study program and one without (control group), testing them at the beginning and end of the semester. The tests included a visual tracking test (to determine mental focus), and questionnaires about perceived stress, and their habits related to: alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine consumption; emotional control; healthy diet; maintenance of household chores (laundry and dishwashing); attendance to commitments, and monitoring of spending.

The following are some findings from the study:

  • “These findings converge with those of Muraven et al. (1999), Oaten et al. (2003) and Oaten and Cheng (2005b) to show that the repeated practice of self-control can improve the strength or capacity for self-regulation. All our procedures and measures were different from what the Muraven et al. (1999), Oaten et al. (2003), and Oaten and Cheng (2005b) studies used, which therefore increases confidence in the generality of the pattern.” (p. 13)

  • “The main new finding to emerge was that students who participated in a study program over a 2-month period reported no increased stress at exam time and significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviors. We found improvements in both a laboratory task (VTT) and on all self-reported regulatory behaviors. The participants not only studied more and improved study habits but also improved their behavior in many ways outside the context of academic habits. We observed a decrease in tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine consumption and an increase in healthy dietary habits, emotional control, maintenance of household chores and self-care habits, attendance to commitments, and monitoring of spending.” (p.12)

  • “The resource model considers self-control to operate like a muscle. Any act of self-control tires this muscle, leaving less available strength for subsequent self-control tasks. This muscle is considered to fatigue easily, as all acts of self-control have been argued to draw on a common resource or regulatory strength that is of limited capacity and is therefore readily depleted. This aspect of the model is well established, with evidence to suggest that in the short term, people’s capacity for self-control diminishes following exertion much like muscular action. For example, when individuals were asked to engage in tasks involving self-regulation, the ability to self-regulate in subsequent activities significantly declined (Muraven et al., 1998; Vohs & Heatherton, 2000; Vohs & Schmeichel, 2003). This effect of depletion has been reported across a variety of tasks in physical, intellectual, and emotional domains.” (p.1)

  • Students’ self control breaks down under stress, as evidenced by increased smoking, increased alcohol consumption, poor eating, increased caffeine, and less physical activity. (p.2)

  • Self-control improves with practice; improvement in one area also improves focus and concentration in other areas. (p.2)

  • The “muscle” of self-control can be improved in two ways: Power – the degree of self-control expressed at any given moment, and stamina – the ability to sustain self-control for longer periods of time (the reduced vulnerability to fatigue). (p.2)

  • Students who followed a regular study program performed much better on visual tracking under distraction tests, which reveals their increased ability to concentrate (the control group’s visual tracking deteriorated with stress). (p.3)

  • The emotional distress and perceived stress increased during exams for those not in the program, but remained stable for those on a regular study program. (p.12)

Some great charts illustrating the results of this study can be seen here.

Quoted from:
Oaten, Megan & Cheng, Ken. (2006). Improved Self-Control: The Benefits of a Regular Program of Academic Study. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 28(1), 1-16.