Self-control is the ability to control one’s emotions and desires. Everyone possesses self-control, but often in a constant battle with basic urges, you find that your self-control buckles mainly when difficult situations arise. People usually blame their faulty self-control for the imperfect choices in their lives. Sometimes we blame the influences of others for our lack of self-control.
More than 1 in 4 people (27%) say that lack of willpower is the most significant barrier to change, according to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association. (1)
At its core, self-control is the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals. It is the ability to overcome obsessions, impulses, and addictions. It helps you gain control over your life, behavior, and reactions. A lack of self-control can reveal a character flaw or willpower.
Whether your goal is to read more books, take the stairs instead of the elevator, avoid unhealthy choices like drugs and alcohol, eat right, exercise regularly or save and spend wisely, self-control is a critical step to achieve the outcome you desire. Only through persistence and perseverance will you be able to overcome the obstacles that block your ability to exercise self-control.
When used wisely, self-control becomes an effective tool for self-improvement. It is not a skill you are born with. It is something that needs practice to master. Having a plan of action is always a good idea. Always stick to your plan and make changes where needed. Every new year brings about resolutions to make a change. Exercising self-control will be essential to your success.
Here’s a roundup of some useful techniques to help you boost your self-control. Can you think of others to add to this list? Personalize it based on your attitude and personality.
- Avoid temptations. The very first step toward gaining self-control is to avoid temptation in the first place. If you know that keeping unhealthy food items at your home will tempt you to dig in, stop buying unhealthy foods. Avoid those middle food aisles in the grocery stores where they are kept. High self-control includes eliminating or avoiding temptation, rather than merely resisting it. According to a 2015 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, people high in self-control engage in behaviors that help avoid the temptation to a greater extent than people with low self-control. (2)
- Take small steps. Don’t push yourself or try to move too fast with your self-control plan. Start with small steps. Slow and steady wins any mental race.
For instance: If you want to stop yourself from getting distracted while studying, start small by putting away your mobile phone or studying attentively for at least an hour without checking your social media feeds.
- Prepare before facing a tempting situation. Pre-committing yourself before getting into a tempting situation can actually be beneficial in curbing the temptation. Research suggests that people who impose strict deadlines on themselves can improve their self-control better than those who don’t. (4) Know your triggers that heighten temptations. For instance: when going shopping, if you know you will be tempted to splurge, leave your credit and debit cards at home and take only a limited amount of cash with you.
- Use mental images to curb temptations. Make your temptations appear unattainable or unpleasant using mental images. The goal is to make the image so aversive that you will not act on your temptation. Imagine the thing you are tempted to buy or eat to be out of reach, enclosed in a locked glass case that you can’t open. If you are struggling to quit smoking, imagine someone suffering from mouth cancer with a tumor on their tongue, mouth, lips or gums. Television commercials about the ills of smoking are often created to leave a lasting mental image on you if you engage in unhealthy behavior.
- Identify the deeper need hidden behind your temptation. You might have a deeper need hidden behind an unhealthy habit or temptation. An unhealthy habit can develop without us being aware initially and then spiral out of control. Try to understand why you have this habit and be willing to acknowledge and confront it. For instance: You might reach for a chocolate bar when you are under stress. This is called emotional eating – using food to calm and soothe yourself. Also, the stress hormone cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet and high-fat foods - foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. In such situations, become aware of your temptation and practice self-control. Instead of eating a cookie to soothe your feelings, munch on nuts or veggies like carrots. Or even better, call a close friend and talk to them. It will instantly make you feel better.
- Reward yourself. Rewards can be a great motivator when it comes to exercising self-control. Rewards control our behavior by offering a positive incentive. Sometimes you have to delay gratification for a bigger reward. According to a 2000 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were better able to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains when they had a self-imposed reward in mind. (3)
For instance: If you like listening to rock music, listen to it only when you are in the gym. The desire to enjoy your favorite music will give you the motivation to go to the gym every day.
- Plan ahead for lapses. When working toward any goal, it is very common to encounter setbacks. Don’t beat up on yourself if you have a setback. Make a recovery plan for when you face a setback or a lapse in self-control. Poet Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human.” Typically, when people fail to resist temptation, they tend to forget about the goal altogether. To stop that from happening, form a plan on how you will recover from the setback. For instance: Tell yourself, “The next time I fail to stick with my study schedule, I will not watch my favorite show for 2 days.” Keep your plan specific and simple.
- Be positive about your ability to overcome temptations. Remember the story of the Little Red Engine that thought 'he could.' Being optimistic about your ability to use self-control can be beneficial. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants who were optimistic stuck to their task longer than those who had been asked to make accurate predictions about reaching a goal. (5) Overestimate your ability to curb temptations, provided it doesn’t make you impractical and overconfident.
- Distract yourself. There may be periods when you are most vulnerable to temptations. Like when you are under stress. When you find it hard to control your impulses, distract yourself.
Listen to music and sing aloud, or close your eyes and think about something else. Immerse yourself in something that will help you take your mind off whatever is tempting you.
- Take a few deep breaths to relieve stress. Don’t let your struggle to exercise self-control overtake you. Controlling your impulses can be stressful, can be stressful, as your mind is involved in a constant battle with your heart. When you are experiencing high stress, your brain uses up your body’s energy reserves. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is involved in decision-making and behavior. When high stress is involved, this part of your brain loses its battle against stress. Take a few deep breaths when you find it difficult to resist your temptation or immediate desire.
- Use self-affirmations. When you find it difficult to control the urge to do something that needs not be done, encourage yourself to stick to your plan. (6) Use self-affirmations like, “I am the master of my life,” or ”I am fully in control of myself.” Research suggests that self-affirmation improves self-control by promoting higher levels of mental analysis. Be mindful of your language and the words you use. The next time you find it hard to control your urge to smoke, instead of saying “I can’t resist it,” try saying “I don’t want to smoke.” When you say “I can’t,” you send a message to your brain that you are forcing yourself to do something that you don’t want to do. By saying “I don’t,” you are reminding yourself that you are choosing not to partake in that bad habit.
- Postpone temptations for later. Postponing indulging in temptations can be effective when you are trying to resist an urge. You will be less tormented by a temptation if you tell yourself, “Not now. Wait until later.” For instance: If you are tempted to watch television while studying, try pushing yourself to study for half an hour more. Once you have done that, ask yourself to do it for another half an hour. By pushing yourself inch by inch, you will notice that you will eventually overcome your temptation. Your need for improvement through self-control must out way the need or desire.
- Change your environment. Avoid places and situations that encourage a bad habit. Changing your environment can help you to curb or avoid temptations. If you are trying to quit drinking alcohol, hanging around with your drinking buddies or visiting your neighborhood bar can make it difficult for you to curb the temptation to drink.
- Meditate. Take out time for meditation. It helps you control your thoughts & feelings and also improves your emotional intelligence. It helps improve your attention, focus, stress management, and self-awareness.
Research suggests that just 8 weeks of practicing brief daily meditation can improve your self-control. Mindfulness – a state of becoming aware – can vastly improve your self-awareness even if done for just 5 minutes. Mindfulness lets your mind focus on your breathing and your senses, thereby improving your brain’s ability to resist destructive thoughts. People who regularly practice meditation or mindfulness appear to be calm and controlled.
- Feed glucose to your brain. Self-control falls under the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain that regulates decision-making and behavior. To control your urges and make sound decisions, you need to take care of the prefrontal cortex. When your brain is working hard to resist temptation, it uses up your body’s glucose reserves. Glucose also helps stop an automatic response, thereby helping you curb your impulses. To boost self-control, gargle with sugar water. According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, a mouth rinse with glucose improves self-control. (7) Though a glucose mouthwash might not be enough to solve some of the biggest self-control obstacles like losing weight or smoking, it could help you in the short run.
- Eat healthy. If you aren’t a healthy eater consider making changes to improve your energy and self-control. You need to feed your brain with good-quality food so that it has enough energy to do its job. Avoid skipping meals, as it can make your blood sugar level drop. Instead, eat small meals at regular intervals. Although sugary foods give you an instant energy boost, you’ll soon find yourself all drained out. Instead of digging into unhealthy foods, eating something healthy like a plant-based diet or whole-grain rice that burns slowly will help you improve your self-control.
- Get proper sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to poor decision-making. When you are sleep deprived, your brain loses its ability to assess a situation and choose the best solution accurately. Lack of sleep impairs your judgment and weakens your self-control. A good night’s sleep will help restore your self-control reserve. Research suggests that an average person needs between 5 and 7.5 hours of sleep a night.
- Exercise regularly. There are numerous benefits to regular exercise. Exercising releases calming hormones like endorphins. Regular exercise is an often undervalued aspect when it comes to self-control. Any form of physical exercise, ranging from yoga to intense physical training, can help you effectively deal with stress and thus boost your self-control.
- Forgive yourself. We are the hardest on ourselves. When your attempt at self-control fails and you give in to your temptation, it is normal to feel defeated and frustrated. This often leads to overindulging in the offending behavior. When you fail (and everyone does at some point), forgive yourself and move on. Focus on your future actions and your next steps to further improving yourself.
- What You Need to Know about Willpower: American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.
- Ent MR, Baumeister RF, Tice DM. Trait self-control and the avoidance of temptation. Personality and Individual Differences. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886914005339. Published October 19, 2014.
- Trope Y, Fishbach A. PsycNET. American Psychological Association. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2001-00438-002. Published 2000.
- Ariely D, Wertenbroch K. Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12009041. Published May 2002.
- Zhang Y, Fishbach A. Counteracting obstacles with optimistic predictions. Journal of Experimental Psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20121310. Published February 2010.
- Brandon JS, Vohs K. Self-affirmation and self-control: Affirming core values counteracts ego depletion. American Psychological Association. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2009-03773-004. Published 2009.
- Sanders MA, Shirk SD, Burgin CJ. The Gargle Effect: Rinsing the Mouth With Glucose Enhances Self-Control. Psychological Science. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797612450034. Published October 22, 2012.