How to Practice More Self-Control

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How to Practice More Self-Control

Learn more about self-control and how to gain mastery over yourself.

Self-control is the ability to overcome your impulses and immediate desires in favor of behavior 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.

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). In 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 of which it was previously capable. Similarly, 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.

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
― Marcus Aurelius

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 behaviors of which we aren’t totally aware. Keeping a close watch on your spending by checking your bank account more regularly or recording your behavior in a journal might give you a better sense of when you are actually engaging in the undesirable behavior, 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 behaviors. 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. Dr. 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.

In Sum

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. Learning how to practice self-control can help us become masters of our own destinies.

References

● 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.