6 Tips to Improve Your Self-Control (and Feeling Happy)
Self-control has been the subject of philosophy and psychology, but we’ve also included it in our most famous books and even wrote songs about it! It’s obvious we’re obsessed with hacking self-control.
In a world where treats are plenty and all sorts of things are possible, practicing self-control can seem like an impossible task.
In this guide, we’ll explain to you why you should care about self-control and the many benefits you can achieve with higher levels of self-control. We’ll then provide you six tips on improving your self-control.
WHY FOCUS ON SELF-CONTROL?
The first step towards improving self-control is about understanding what the term means and how it affects your life. What is self-control? According to the dictionary definition, self-control is “control over your feelings or actions” and “restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions, or desires”.
The first problem people encounter with self-control is to mix it up with the term total abstinence. Improving self-control isn’t the same as stopping yourself from doing something completely, but rather the ability to find a healthy balance between your desires and urges.
For example, instead of eating a chocolate bar every time you feel like it, you might work towards only eating one once a week. The goal is not often to completely remove the desire (although this might be your goal, e.g. to stop smoking), but rather to ensure the desire isn’t harmful or limiting to your true desires or goals.
The good news regarding self-control is the fact it can be improved. Self-control isn’t a set trait we either have or don’t have, but we can all enhance it at any stage in life. Just like you can build up your muscles, you can also increase your self-control.
Why does it matter?
One of the best examples of the importance of self-control came from a study in the late 1960s. Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford, began studying children’s ability to delay gratification by presenting them with the famous ‘marshmallow dilemma’.
Children were introduced to a situation where they could either eat a single marshmallow immediately or sit and wait while the tester comes back with another marshmallow, giving the child two of these treats.
Mischel later noticed an interesting phenomenon within the children he had studied and conducted a follow-up study.
The children who had better self-control (waited for the second marshmallow) were performing better in high school, while the low self-control children (who ate the treat immediately) ended up suffering from problems related to self-regulation and coping with stress.
Watch this cute video below of a modern re-creation of the classic test:
Further studies have resulted in similar results. A study in New Zealand in the 1970s concluded that self-control from ages three to eleven was closely associated with success at the age of 32.
According to the study, higher self-control reduced the likelihood of the person becoming a criminal or a substance abuser in adulthood. Obviously, other factors might have played a role in the results. But the study found that even when variables such as social class were taken into account, the link to self-control remained strong.
According to research, low self-control means you place disproportionate weight on immediate costs and benefits. Instead of being able to look at different approaches in terms of short- and long-term benefits, low self-control simply prefers the short-term gain in nearly all circumstances.
But if you improve your self-control, you can boost your brain capacity. Higher self-control can support other important functions such as:
- Cognitive flexibility
- Resistance to distractions
- Impulse control
Overall, by improving self-control, you are improving your ability to plan and organize your behavior.
This can be helpful in terms of achieving goals. For example, instead of spending your salary on a new outfit, which you don’t even need, you can set that money aside to buy a home later on in your life.
TIP 1: SET GOALS TO UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO CONTROL
When you are trying to improve self-control, you have to understand what it is you are trying to control. This can be easily achieved by introducing goals to reaching a desired outcome.
The key to setting goals to improve self-control is about being precise with your goals. Don’t set vague or open-ended goals, which don’t provide you enough tools and opportunities to improve.
This video will show you how you can set smart goals.
Saying “I will never be late” is not helpful in terms of creating the circumstances for success. It doesn’t give you any room for failure, it sets an unachievable task – you simply can’t guarantee you’ll never be late – and it can’t give you any tangible metrics to measure.
Instead, opt for smaller and more defined goals. For example, say “I’ll start leaving to work 10 minutes earlier than normally”. This helps you avoid being late, it gives you a more achievable goal and you’re able to measure your success rates by keeping track of what time you left each morning. This can help you adjust your behavior and ensure success, which then strengthens your self-control.
You should also list the reasons you want to achieve your goal. Saying “I want to stop being late” doesn’t outline the motivation behind it. Knowing why you’d like to do so (e.g. avoiding rushing, lowering stress, being able to show appreciation, improving your image in front of the boss) will help you stay motivated.
Create a list by focusing on the following points:
- What are the downsides to your ‘bad’ or ‘unwanted’ behavior?
- What would you gain if you improved your self-control over the issue?
Being aware of the benefits and the consequences of your behavior can be the extra motivator to changing the habit to something better.
TIP 2: EXAMINE THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND YOUR HARMFUL ACTIONS
The majority of our habits have a specific motivation behind them, even the harmful ones. For example, most smokers understand that smoking is bad for their health, but they still feel like going for a smoke in certain situations.
Examine the motivations behind your actions and habits. Focus on whether you are driven by short- or long-term benefits.
We humans are hard-wired to choose quicker gratification, even though it isn’t always the right option. Long-term goals such as “doing well at school” can be de-valued relative to short-term goals such as “playing video games”. If you have to choose between “playing games” or “reading two chapters in order to prepare for the exam in a month’s time”, most people will find the first option more motivating and rewarding.
Simply by understanding your behavior is driven by a short-term reward, you can recognize the greater importance of focusing on the long-term rewards instead.
You should also critically look at your behavior and the real motivation behind it.
It might seem that indulging in cookies during the lunch break is all about the cookies and the sugary injection, but the underlying motivation might be something else.
Perhaps you are storming off to the coffee shop because you’d love to have a longer break off from work or you simply love chatting to other people. By understanding the motivation behind the harmful action, you can try to improve your self-control over it.
Learn more about the theories of what motivates us.
TIP 3: LIMIT THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF THE HARMFUL BEHAVIOUR
It might sound rather simple, but the old saying “out of sight, out of mind” actually works. By removing the harmful behavior out of your sight and making it harder for you to perform, you decrease the attractiveness of it.
If you find yourself flicking through social media on your smartphone whilst you should be working, try to make the phone harder to reach. This is especially good if you don’t need it for client calls or such. If you need to hold on to the phone, simply hide away the social media apps with locking-apps like Focus Lock.
The key is to modify the environment to reduce the attractiveness and ease of falling for the bad behavior. You can use tools like the app mentioned above or opt for the old-fashioned method of re-organizing your surroundings. Move away the biscuits from your office desk, get a high-desk to force you to stand occasionally during the day and so on.
Even if you can’t physically remove the harmful act from your sight, apply mental images that limit the appeal of it and use abstract thinking.
When you start dreaming of a cigarette break, bring those images of lung cancer patients to your mind. Associate the cigarette to your family weeping beside you in the hospital. It might sound drastic, but by creating a negative mental image of the action, you can boost your self-control. It’s much easier to say ‘no’ to something unattractive.
Athletes are using mental images to perform significantly better (see slides).
TIP 4: INCREASE THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF THE RIGHT BEHAVIOUR
On the other hand, you also want to make the positive counter behavior seem more attractive. You should try to increase the attractiveness of the alternative, ‘good’ behavior by rewarding yourself and turning the behavior into something more fun.
Self-control can be quickly improved if you acknowledge the successes you make with little rewards.
Humans seek for that positivity rush, the release of dopamine, which can often be the cause for bad behaviors. But instead of getting the rush from checking your Facebook every five minutes, you can seek to turn it around and feel the rewards once you don’t check your social media.
When it comes to rewarding the right behavior, the focus should be on positive and non-harmful reward. For instance, even if over-eating isn’t your problem you don’t want to replace smoking with eating a cookie, as this can quickly cause you another problem altogether.
What could positive and non-harmful rewards be?
It should be an action you love doing and it’s a good idea to swap between a few ideas, to avoid being stuck with another behavior.
For example, you could go to the movies if you avoid being late from work for a whole week. You could buy your favorite magazine or sleep an hour longer on a Sunday morning if you visit the gym twice a week. At work, you could take ten minutes off to chat with a colleague if you finish a task in a specific amount of time.
The key is to find a reward that gives you the feeling of accomplishment and which you don’t take for granted. For instance, if you already go to the movies every week, it isn’t going to feel like a reward.
You should also try to boost self-control by turning the right behavior into something a bit more fun.
If you are trying to get in shape, then going to the gym might not seem like the most fun thing to do. But what if, you go there together with your best friend? You could also try to attach fun activities like listening to an audiobook or music to working out. Instead of cleaning the house feeling miserable, take your mind off by talking to your friend on the phone.
TIP 5: CHANGE YOUR LANGUAGE AROUND THE BEHAVIOUR
Perhaps surprisingly, language can play a big role in self-control. We can literally talk ourselves towards failure and deplete our self-control, even when we think we are “being tough”.
Consider how often you view a task you don’t like by saying to yourself “I can’t” – “I can’t ever lose weight”, “I can’t finish this on time”. By saying, “I can’t”, you are reinforcing a feedback loop that reminds you of your limitations. The word doesn’t necessarily speak of actual ability, but your lack of desire to do something.
Studies have shown that by swapping your language from “I can’t” to “I don’t”, you can take back control and stick to your plan. In fact, another study found self-affirmation could help you have more self-control.
Furthermore, we tend to be quite good at preparing ourselves for a failure. How many times have you thought about working without distracting yourself, but countered it by thinking “Oh, I’ll never be able to write for an hour straight, I need a break”. But by thinking something is impossible, we reinforce the feeling it is impossible and reduce our self-control.
In these situations, you can increase your self-control by overestimating the easiness of achieving your goal.
Start thinking how the positive behavior isn’t actually hard and imagine the feeling of a positive outcome. Use language such as, “I can easily finish this worksheet within an hour and then I’ll feel even more productive” or “It’ll be so much fun going to the gym after work. All I need to do is get my gym back and off I go!’
You should also talk about your goals aloud, not only to yourself but to other people as well. This reinforces the positive reaffirmation and it makes the goal more tangible. If other people are aware of your aims, they can help boost your self-control by positive encouragement.
TIP 6: CREATE A RECOVERY PLAN
It’s a good idea to define small steps, which help you bring closer to your ultimate goal.
As we’ve already mentioned, don’t just aim for the moon straight away; create steps for building the rocket ship first. Become consistent in one thing and then move on to the next step. For example, try to limit your use of social media during the workday to three times a day from the previous five. Once you consistently achieve this, you can set a goal of two and so on.
Perhaps more importantly, understand that you’ll probably experience setbacks and your self-control might fail. Don’t beat yourself over a failure – practice makes perfect and small setbacks are inevitable.
In terms of self-control, it’s important to understand that just like your muscle power weakens at times, so does your self-control.
Your self-control will automatically be at its lowest when:
- You’ve had inadequate sleep
- You’re receiving poor nutrition, such as not eating enough or eating bad foods (lots of sugar, refined foods, ‘junk food’)
- You’re experiencing emotional distress, such as stress, anxiety, fear, anger
When you feel your self-control is depleted, analyze whether one of the above reasons influences your lack of self-control. By understanding the reason behind the lack of ‘willpower’, you might be able to rectify the situation or push yourself through the behavior.
You’ll also need a recovery plan for situations when you’ve failed or you’re lacking self-control. If you are late for work, don’t give up and think you’ve failed. Instead, examine the situation and find the reason for being late. Perhaps you had a stressful day and you slept badly, which made you slower than usual in the morning.
So, next time you struggle with self-control and you fall back to bad or unwanted behavior, do the following:
- #1: Tell yourself it’s not the end of the world. Your goal is still achievable.
- #2: Think carefully what was behind the dip in self-control and in behaving in the undesired manner:
- Was your ability to self-control diminished by lack of sleep, poor nutrition or emotional distress? If so, how can you improve the situation?
- Was it simply a momentary lapse?
- Does your plan of action need readjustment? I.e. are you starting to open those cupboards for the cookies, or is the audiobook/gym combination starting to lose its appeal? If so, how can you adjust your plan?
- #3: Continue working towards your goal.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Our modern lives are full of distractions and attractive short-term rewards. Leading a healthy lifestyle and staying productive at work isn’t always easy when you have all these treats and attractions luring you in.
But ever since the marshmallow test, studies have highlighted the benefits of strong self-control. We can enjoy a more rewarding life, if we just focus a bit more on long-term benefits and take a more analytical look of our behavior.
Hopefully, the above tips have shown you some simple ways on improving your self-control and taking ownership of your actions.
We’ll leave you with this clever statement by Aristotle:
“The self-controlled man craves for the things he ought, as he ought, and when he ought.”
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