Learn more about self-control and how to gain mastery over yourself
Are you sick of being pulled here and there by one-off desires and urges so you never get closer to what you really want? Developing more self-control could really help you. Self-control is the ability to overcome your impulses and immediate desires in favor of behaviour that is in line with your standards and long-term goals (Baumeister et al., 2007). In other words, self-control is being able to choose the thing you should do over the thing you want to do. I use the word ‘should’ here in the sense that you should do it, given your values and desires, not ‘should’ in the sense you should do something because of societal pressure. We’ve all experienced situations where we know we should do something, like not have that third chocolate biscuit / second ice cream / another drink / [insert your foible!] and yet at the time we disregard our ‘higher’ desire to not do it and succumb. Sometimes there are much more serious consequences of losing self-control, some lose their self-esteem, or many possessions.
One of the dominant theories of self-control at present is the limited-resource model. This model suggests that when we exert self-control, our mental energy can become depleted (Baumeister et al., 1994). From this perspective, self-control is a lot like a muscle. When we overwork a muscle, it becomes fatigued and can’t produce the same level of exertion which it was previously capable of. The good news is that, just as exercising a muscle increases strength, exercising self-control can increase your ability to override impulses in the future.
Self-control is more challenging for some than it is for others. People with ADHD, for example, have a harder time controlling their impulses than non-ADHD individuals. Personality, life experience, and motivation also influence our capacity for self-control (de Ridder et al., 2012). Some studies have even shown differences in brain structure and function in people with poor self-control compared to those with good self-control (Cohen & Lieberman, 2010).
Can We Control Our Behavior?
The ability to control our behavior is essential for achieving long-term goals and life satisfaction. Luckily, for all of us who are not naturally gifted when it comes to self-control, it’s an ability that can be learned.
Research suggests that practicing self-control of any kind can improve your ability to override urges of any kind (Baumeister et al., 2007). For example, one study showed that participants who avoided sweets for 2 weeks demonstrated improvements in self-control on a completely unrelated task (Muraven, 2010).
Here are a few simple and scientifically validated ways to practice self-control:
- Improve your posture – Depending on the current state of your typical posture, this task may be more or less challenging. Remember, self-control is a limited resource, so if improving your posture is going to be particularly difficult for you, you might want to try practicing good posture for a limited period of time every day (i.e. ‘I’m going to maintain good posture for the first hour of my day’).
- Alter verbal behavior – This might be swearing less, speaking in complete and grammatically correct sentences, or avoiding particular words. For example, you might try to avoid using the word “thing” for a month.
- Use your non-dominant hand for simple tasks – This is a great way to exercise self-control and monitoring. For a specified period of time (i.e. between 10am and 9pm) use your non-dominant hand (if you have one) for simple things like opening your water bottle or brushing your teeth.
- Squeeze a handgrip for as long as possible – this task doesn’t require as much monitoring, so it might feel a bit simpler to implement than the other exercises. In squeezing a handgrip for as long as possible, you are exercising self-control by overcoming physical discomfort and suppressing the desire to let go.
Tips on Self-Control
As you are on your journey to achieve greater self-control, there are a few things to keep in mind that might help.
- Try not to make decisions when you are angry, frustrated, or fatigued. For example, if you are frustrated with a friend, wait until you’re calm and rested before talking to them about the issue.
- Spread out important decisions over several days. We know that decision-making can deplete self-control energy, which means that the more decisions you make at a time, the more likely you are to make a bad one. It might be helpful to give yourself time and rest between important decisions if possible.
- Monitor yourself more. It’s hard to exert self-control over behaviours of which we aren’t totally aware. Keeping a close watch on your spending by checking your bank account more regularly or recording your behaviour in a journal might give you a better sense of when you are actually engaging in the undesirable behaviour, leaving you more opportunities to correct it in the future.
- Get some glucose. Our brains require glucose for energy. Giving your body more glucose (having a piece of fruit for example) when you feel mentally fatigued may help provide enough energy to help you exert more self-control.
- Avoid triggering situations. There are some situations that we know provoke unwanted behaviours. A triggering situation could be a place, a person, an event, a smell, etc. For example, many cigarette smokers feel a strong desire to smoke when they are at a bar. By avoiding bars, they reduce the likelihood that they will feel compelled to smoke and reduce the need for self-control.
- Become a mental energy accountant. C. Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky suggests making a list of everything you need to do each day and assigning each activity a score that indicates how much self-control it will require. By taking stock of the amount of self-control you will need for various activities throughout your day you will be better able to spend your mental energy more judiciously.
A Step to Mastery
Our ability to control ourselves has a far-reaching impact on nearly all aspects of our lives. Self-control affects our health, finances, intellect, self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships. Though the capacity to govern ourselves in accordance with our values and long-term goals doesn’t always come easily and, for some of us, can feel nearly impossible, it is possible to improve. It’s a good idea to start practising with things you find easier, get some success and then take on larger challenges. Learning how to practice self-control can help us become masters of our own destinies. Good luck!
- Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1994). Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current directions in psychological science, 16(6), 351-355.
- Cohen, J. R., & Lieberman, M. D. (2010). The common neural basis of exerting self-control in multiple domains.
- de Ridder, D. T. D., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stok, F. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2012). Taking Stock of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis of How Trait Self-Control Relates to a Wide Range of Behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 76–99.
- Muraven, M. (2010). Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance. Journal of experimental social psychology, 46(2), 465-468.