Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszewski recently published a study in Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 37, electronically published Aug. 24, 2010, entitled "Work or Fun? How Task Construal and Completion Influence Regulatory Behavior."
It is an example of a simple research study in an evolving literature about self-control.
A prevailing notion is that the work involved in any self-controlling action is depleting; therefore, repeated difficult acts of self-control, even if successful, increase the chance of self-control failure shortly thereafter, because of the depletion of inner self-control resources.
The authors in this study hypothesize that there are several variables which affect the dynamics here:
1) individuals vary in their capacity for self-control
2) individuals who engage in actions which are inherently satisfying (fun) are not depleted by these actions, and do not experience a decrement in self-control afterwards
3) individuals for whom these same actions are merely work, and not fun, are depleted by their actions, and have less self-control afterwards
4) Activities which are incomplete have a neutral effect on subsequent self-control
5) Activities can be "reframed" as work, or as fun, and this reframing affects whether the activity is depleting or not.
The experiments described in this paper are, like many brief psychological studies of this sort, somewhat amusing to read about, and could certainly be criticized as somewhat shallow, cross-sectional portraits of a complex behavioural dynamic, with quite limited generalizability. The measure of "self-control," for example, involves measuring how much candy the subjects eat following a written exercise.
Yet, the results did support the hypotheses, allowing the following conclusions:
1) One's attitude towards a task has a very strong influence upon how the completed task will affect you afterwards. If tasks are perceived and experienced as work, as tedious, as unenjoyable, then they will leave you "depleted," and substantially more prone to unhealthy behaviours afterwards. If an attitude can be nurtured of tasks being enjoyable or fun, then the completion of these tasks leads to an increased sense of vitality, without any experience of depletion. .
2) While there may be mood or personality states or traits which influence these attitudes towards tasks, it is possible to reframe the activities in a beneficial way.
3) If some tasks cannot be reframed as "fun," than a neutral alternative could be to frame the activity as ongoing, and therefore never complete. Incompleted tasks, according to this study, have a more neutral effect upon self-control depletion. In the management of obesity, for example, nutrition management tactics, even if not subjectively enjoyable, would best be framed as a permanent lifestyle change, rather than a temporary "diet." An unpleasant "diet" is much more likely to cause regulatory failure after completion; this is certainly the almost invariable experience of all those who have managed their weight using spartan "diets." Yet, I would emphasize that something better than neutrality should be sought after, which, in the case of nutrition management, means that one's permanent nutritional habits should also be enjoyable, rather than simply a self-care chore.