The upside of failing at self-control

Research suggests that self-control failure may serve a purpose: to help us balance between work and play.

Riikka Iivanainen
9 min readApr 8, 2024

We tend to think of self-control as the holy grail: It helps us eat healthy, save for the rainy day, and not lash out at our parents over the holidays.

Researchers agree. They’ve called self-control “one of the most powerful and beneficial adaptations of the human psyche.”¹ It’s associated with many positive life outcomes, such as academic success and fewer impulsive behaviors like alcohol abuse.

But if self-control is such a lofty human adaptation, why do we ever fail at it? Is there something to be gleaned from an occasional lack of self-control?

This is an essay on the potential upside of failing at self-control with a bit of science mixed in.

A woman doing a headstand on a paddle board
The upside of failing at self-control: Being able to balance work and play. Photo by Tower Paddle Boards on Unsplash

The wisdom of procrastination, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Sometimes you just gotta do the work even if you don’t feel like it,” one student exclaimed. I was sitting in class with all the 36 students in my master’s program (yes, it was a very small program). We were discussing different scenarios that might come up during the six-month industry projects we were about to embark on in small groups.

“I disagree,” a student at the back of the classroom declared, joining the conversation. He went on to explain that we shouldn’t force ourselves to do things that don’t excite us. As he was talking, I could see the other student growing increasingly irritated, if not appalled.

Many of us, especially women, grew up with the notion that we just gotta do the work. If we’re not feeling it, we need to will our way through it.

But what if the guy in my class wasn’t just lazy and arrogant? What if he had a point? What if constantly high self-control has a downside? A downside that’s easy to miss because it’s covered up by socially acceptable outcomes.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of several books on risk and randomness (among many other things), thinks there is. In Fooled by Randomness, he describes the negative side of a high work ethic — which can be seen as a manifestation of high self-control — via the thoughts of Nero Tupil, a fictional character :

“[T]hose who merely work hard generally lose their focus and intellectual energy. In addition, they end up drowning in randomness; work ethics, Nero believes, draw people to focus on noise rather than signal.”²

Procrastination seems to be one of those signals. In Antifragile, Taleb refers to it as a “naturalistic filter” because it allows things to “take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility.”³ For example, when you keep putting off calling the doctor about some non-acute back pain, you may find that the pain goes away on its own and no medical intervention is needed.

In addition to filtering out unnecessary visits to the doctor, procrastination may help determine what to focus on. Taleb describes using it to guide his writing process: If he keeps procrastinating on a specific part of a book, he eliminates it.

What Taleb seems to be saying is that, no, we shouldn’t force ourselves to do things we feel no natural drive for. (Within reason of course: We should probably still take out the trash and fill in the tax return.)

Instead, we should listen to what our procrastination is trying to tell us and act accordingly:

“Since procrastination is a message from our natural willpower via low motivation, the cure is changing the environment, or one’s profession, by selecting one in which one does not have to fight one’s impulses. Few can grasp the logical consequence that, instead, one should lead a life in which procrastination is good, as a naturalistic-risk-based form of decision making.”³

Funny he would use the words “a message from our natural willpower via low motivation” to describe procrastination.* Because that’s eerily close to what some researchers propose may be the purpose of self-control failure.

What the science says: Self-control failure may be about balancing work and play

Many of us are familiar with the phenomenon that after a long day of work or school, we feel like just crashing on the couch and binging on our favorite series. In the morning, we may have felt like David Gogginsing it and going to the gym after work, but now. . . not so much.

Why do we fail to follow through on our plans?

For a bit over a decade, social psychologists believed it was because self-control is limited: If you use up your self-control resources during the workday, you’ll struggle to get your butt out the door and off to the gym in the evening.⁴

Research findings also supported this strength model of self-control: Experiment after experiment showed that exerting self-control on one task made people perform less well on a subsequent self-control task—people’s self-control strengths diminished upon use.⁵ This effect was coined ego depletion (yes, the term is confusing as it doesn’t actually refer to a lack of ego in the colloquial sense).

If only it were that simple.

The ego depletion literature has become quite controversial because despite the mountain of studies conducted on it, the evidence is inconclusive. An article titled Is Ego Depletion Real? answered their own question with the academic equivalent of “We can’t say.”⁶

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, now that you’re aware of the wobbly foundation on which the idea of ego depletion rests, you can decide what to do with the information I’m about to share.

Because fairly recently, some scholars have offered an alternative to the strength model of self-control.⁷ But instead of dismissing ego depletion altogether, they’ve found a way to make sense of some of the exceptions to the effect.

Exceptions? Yes, some experiments find only a weak ego depletion effect or none at all. In other words, people are able to exert further self-control even when mentally depleted.†

Here are some of the circumstances under which people did not perform worse after exerting self-control:

  • The task felt important or meaningful.⁸ ⁹
  • The task felt interesting (even if it was more effortful than a less interesting task).¹⁰
  • The participants had some autonomy over the task (e.g., getting to choose among a few options or not feeling pressured to perform).¹¹ ¹²
  • The participants were offered an incentive like money for the task.⁸
  • The participants got to do something fun like watch a funny video before moving on to the next thing requiring self-control.¹³

What should we make of this list of findings?

Since, under specific circumstances, people are able to exert self-control even when depleted, self-control cannot be based on some mysterious limited resource alone.⁷ Instead, it may have more to do with motivation: It’s not that people lack the mental strength to apply more self-control, but that they’re unwilling to do so.⁸

What’s more, it seems like exerting self-control makes us prefer activities that we consider fun or important or that we get to choose freely. (By the way, this is in line with the research on procrastination: People procrastinate less when they have intrinsic motivation for an activity.¹⁴ ¹⁵)

“By failing to control ourselves, we can redirect our attention to something that may potentially be more rewarding or valuable.”

Thus, self-control failure could be seen as a “motivated switching of task priorities from ‘have-to’ to ‘want-to’ goals.”⁷ It allows humans to balance mental labor and mental leisure, or exploration and exploitation.¹⁶ ⁷ By failing to control ourselves, we can redirect our attention to something that may potentially be more rewarding or valuable.‡

Some scholars argue that this new theory on self-control also makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.⁷ ¹⁶ It would be odd if we’d evolved such a seemingly maladaptive tendency as self-control failure if it didn’t serve a purpose:

“Any apparent failure in relatively simple human function is more likely an evolutionary design feature than a design flaw.”¹⁴

But what should we do with that evolutionary design feature?

Using self-control failure as a source of information

If the new theory on self-control has any truth to it, self-control failure may be a useful source of information. Or, as Taleb put it, “a message from our natural willpower via low motivation.”

“By pointing us toward activities that feel like leisure and play, procrastination and self-control failure may hint at our (unconscious) preferences and values.”

By pointing us toward activities that feel like leisure and play, procrastination and self-control failure may hint at our (unconscious) preferences and values. This can be very useful, especially for those of us who don’t know what they like or keep toggling between interests.

So, instead of whipping ourselves when we fail to go to the gym yet again, we can pause and consider if we could find a sport that actually excites us (sorry Goggins, it’s not all about discipline). Ironically, we may find ourselves willfully at the gym when we realize it makes us a better and less injury-prone dancer, climber, or orienteer.

And sometimes, we may just need a break: watch a few cat videos or, even better, play with an actual cat.

Here are a few more points I’d like to make on using self-control failure as information:

One person’s leisure may be another person’s labor. Carmen may love going to the gym; it makes her feel strong and allows her to forget about the day’s worries. To her friend Hai, however, it may feel like a chore, something he does only because his physiotherapist said it would help with his back issues. At the same time, Hai may willingly spend two hours cooking an extravagant three-course meal, while the gym-lover prefers to skip the chopping and frying and order some take-out.

Not every self-control failure is a noble message from our inner selves. Our modern-day environment is a temptation minefield, much more than the one we evolved in. That’s why it’s useful to learn to identify the signals in the midst of all the noise. James Clear offers a good rule of thumb for this in one of his newsletters (Apr 4, 2024): “If you feel resistance before you begin, it’s usually procrastination and you need to get started. If you feel resistance after you begin, it’s usually feedback and you need to make adjustments.”

We’re all different. Although I named the article The upside of self-control failure, I want to acknowledge that some people may not be experiencing any upsides to it. People, their bodies and minds are different — and so is the experience of self-control.

In a footnote in Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes, “A friend who writes books remarked that painters like painting but authors like ‘having written.’ I suggested he stop writing, for his sake and the sake of his readers.”

In some situations, we may be better off letting ourselves fail at self-control. It may free us from the things that feel like work and allow us to move on to pursuits that feel more like play.

And the people experiencing the fruits of that play may thank us.


*When Taleb published Antifragile in 2012, the papers on self-control failure as a motivated switching from work to play hadn’t come out yet.

† Self-control failure may also have to do with beliefs and perceptions. Participants were able to compensate for depletion when they believed or were led to believe that mental energy is unlimited¹⁷ and when they perceived themselves as less depleted regardless of how depleted they actually were.¹⁸ So we may be able (and motivated) to exert further self-control if we believe we’re capable of it regardless of how we feel.

‡ If there is a biological resource behind self-control such as glucose — which some studies suggest might be the case — self-control failure may not be about a lack of that resource but about its allocation: Maybe the body allocates more glucose to tasks that feel personally meaningful.¹⁹

If you enjoyed this article, check out the other articles I’ve written on self-control:


If you want to dig deeper, check out the Google Doc in which I collected all the references.



Riikka Iivanainen

Writer, content designer, and user researcher fascinated by the human mind and behavior. I study (social) psychology for fun and love to tell stories.