Study after study confirms that if we just find the way to strengthen our self-control, our lives will become so much better—we’ll eat healthier, exercise, won’t overspend, overdrink or overdo anything that’s bad for us. We will be able to achieve our goals much easier. Success will not be a distant chimera anymore.
Simply put, if you know how to control your temptations, emotions and behaviors, “the world’s mine oyster,” as Shakespeare told us many years ago.
In this article, we will take a look at how self-control works and what you can do to improve your self-control and live the life you want.
What Is Self-Control?
According to Psychology Today,((Psychology Today: Self-Control))
“Self-control is the ability to subdue one’s impulses, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve longer-term goals.”
It is rooted in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain((CNN Health: Where is self-control in the brain?)) —the area, responsible for planning, decision-making, personality expression, and distinguishing between good and bad.
Self-control is also the ability to resist short-term temptation and to delay immediate gratification, so that you can accomplish something much more worthy and better in the future. “Short-term pain for a long-term gain,” as the Greats teach us.
The most famous manifestation of self-control and its benefits is the famous Marshmallow test.((Mischel, Walter: The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control.)) It was a series of studies, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by psychologist Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University. The test was simple—children between the ages of four and six were told that they can have one treat (a marshmallow, candy or a pretzel) now, or wait for 15-20 minutes and get two treats instead.
It’s not hard to guess that more kids chose instant over delayed gratification. But the researchers then tracked the ones who decided to wait, through their high school and adulthood. What they found out was that self-control helped these kids tremendously later in life—they had higher academic scores, better emotional coping skills, less drug use, and healthier weights.((Business Insider: The famous Stanford ‘marshmallow test’ suggested that kids with better self-control were more successful. But it’s being challenged because of a major flaw.))
So, it’s quite simple then—to ensure future success, teach kids better self-control.
But it’s not always easy, it turns out.
What’s the Hype About and Why It Matters
Ever since the Marshmallow test, self-control has been the protagonist in many other studies. And it generally lives up to its hype. It does give great advantages to those who are able to practice it well.
Self-control tends to be close friends with things as goal-achievement, mental and physical health, and lots of other important parts of life—relationships, academics, sports, career, and self-esteem. Simply put, willpower is a ‘must-have’ when it comes to eyeing any type of accomplishment.
Interestingly enough, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey from 2011, from 2011,((American Psychological Association: The APA Willpower Report)) 27% of respondents noted that lack of willpower was the most important impediment to change.
Lack of self-control is the major obstacle to maintaining healthy weight too. Studies back this up—children who learn to control their impulses are less likely to become overweight in adulthood.((Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.: Self-control as a protective factor against overweight status in the transition from childhood to adolescence.))
So, there is no doubt about it—self-control matters quite a lot for everything we do or want to do.
Is Willpower Unlimited?
Undeniably, self-control is an “It”-trait to have when it comes to the successful completion of our goals.
In 1998, a team of researchers, led by the American psychologist Roy Baumeister, introduced an idea, which quickly earned its place as one of the most famous contemporary psychology theories. In the study, participants were brought into a room where on a table there were freshly baked cookies and radishes. Some were asked to try the cookies and the others—the radishes.
Afterward, both groups were given a hard puzzle to complete. Guess what? The group who ate the cookies had a go at the puzzle for 19 minutes, while the other group, who resisted eating the tasty cookies, lasted an average of 8 minutes.
Enter ego-depletion.((Case Western Reserve University: Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? ))
Willpower is a limited resource, researchers concluded. Using up your reservoir of self-control on one thing (resisting the cookies) can drain your mental strength for subsequent situations.
Another popular study supported the Ego Depletion theory too. We all have heard about “emotional eating,” right? We sometimes tend to overeat, if we feel that our emotions are all over the place—if, for instance, we watch a sad movie or something unpleasant happens to us. But what studies have found is that if we try to contain or hide our emotions, then our willpower will be depleted, and we will be less likely to resist overeating.
“Willpower depletion was more important than mood in determining why the subjects indulged.”
How to Get Better at Self-Control?
Another outcome of the Ego Depletion theory was the revelation that self-control is like a muscle. It’s not fixed—it can be trained and improved over time with practice.
So, how can we get more of this good stuff? Here are few ideas:
1. Have Something Sugary
Yes, sounds a bit funny but it’s true. Studies show that the strength of our self-control is connected to our glucose levels.((American Psychological Association: What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control)) The brain needs energy to operate and sweets provide that fuel.
Consuming sugary drinks increases blood-glucose levels and boosts our worn-down willpower.
2. Develop Your Internal Motivation
Other research tells us that when we are driven internally to achieve our goals versus by external motivators or to please others, our levels of willpower get depleted slower.
Simply put, “want-to” goals make us better at self-control than “have-to” goals. Makes perfect sense, of course.
Learn how to find your internal motivation here: Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It)
3. Find Your “Why”
Closely linked to the above advice is the one about the purpose behind what we do. Using a so-called “high-level” abstract reasoning((PsyBlog: How to Improve Your Self-Control)) — can help us practice better self-control too.
For instance, if you want to avoid eating a piece of cake, it’s easier to alleviate the temptation if you remind yourself that you want to stay healthy, rather than think how you will just eat a fruit instead.
4. Have a Plan in Place When Temptation Comes Knocking on Your Door
This technique is also known as “implementation intention”((Psychology Today: Implementation Intentions Facilitate Action Control)) and it simply means going though some “what-if” scenarios beforehand, so that you can have a strategy when you feel the enticement to stray away from your goal and “live a little.”
5. Use Your “Wrong” Hand
Using your non-dominant hand to do small things such as operating the computer mouse, opening the door, or stirring your coffee, are great ways to enhance your self-control powers, according to research.
Studies tell us that this can also help curb feelings of anger, frustration and even aggression—after only two weeks of practice, there are some noticeable benefits.((Science Direct: Want to limit aggression? Practice self-control))
6. Focus on One Goal at a Time
The Theory of Ego Depletion also advises that “that making a list of resolutions on New Year’s Eve is the worst possible approach” to improve self-control.
Since depletion has spill-over effect and often leaves you exhausted and unlikely to want to do anything more, going after multiple aspirations can only make you frustrated with yourself. Or, As Prof. Baumeister advises, don’t try to quit smoking, go on a diet and to on a new exercise plan all at the same time.
7. Find a Way to Earn More Money
When the Marshmallow test was done with kids from less affluent families, they were unable to engage in delayed gratification—i.e. they chose not to wait for the second treat. Coming from a low-income background forces people to live in the now and seek immediate indulgence,((The New Republic: Poor People Don’t Have Less Self-Control. Poverty Forces Them to Think Short-Term)) when possible.
In contrast, when someone is better-off financially, they are used to being spoiled and may be less tempted to go after instant rewards. Additionally, although self-control can be taught by letting children be independent, make their own decisions, solve problems, all of these depend on the parents spending time with their kids. And quite often, financially-struggling parents are also “time-poor.”
8. Avoid Temptation Altogether
In the Marshmallow test, the children who closed or averted their eyes from the marshmallow, were more likely to resist than those who were staring straight at the treat.
Gretchen Rubin, the happiness guru, also writes on her blog that often, it’s harder to control your urges when you indulge in something, like chocolate, in small ways, rather than cutting it off completely.((Gretchen Rubin: Want To Be Free From French Fries? Or, Why Abstaining May Be Easier Than You Think))
A resent piece posted in BPS Research also supports the idea that “goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower.”((The British Psychological Society: Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower)) When we know something is “off limits” altogether, we just stop thinking about it over time.
Since willpower is like a muscle, the more we practice, the better we become. While in the short-term we may feel depleted, in the long run, we will be able to build the strength and the stamina we need to successfully achieve our goals.
Exactly like going to the gym. The first few times you may feel exhausted and sore, but after a while, you will be able to fly through the same exercises that challenged you in the beginning.
10. Adopt Healthy Habits
Once we start practicing self-control and engage in healthier behaviors and choices, they, over time, will become habits. And when they do, we no longer will need so much willpower (if any) to do that activity. In fact, research across 6 studies found that people who are better at self-control also have better habits.((J Pers Soc Psychol.: More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes.))
Simply put, when our lives are based on habits, we are less frequently faced with making a decision, which require us to tap into our self-control reservoir.
Self-control is one of the biggest contributors to goal achievement and leading a better life in general. And although the jury is still out on whether the Ego Depletion Theory is valid across all situations and people,((Science News: Sometimes a failure to replicate a study isn’t a failure at all)) the idea that we still need willpower to get us moving forward, is not in question. But we also need a motivation to start with and a way to monitor our behaviour and progress to accomplish success, as Prof. Baumeister advises.
So, to save yourself from the constant drizzles of disappointment with seeing your dreams crushed and burned over and over, take the time and try practicing some self-control.
The Future You will thank you.