Is it really that hard to maintain?

It’s time for lunch, so you go to your favorite café. After you order your sandwich, you see the dessert case and they have your favorite…chocolate cake. You really want a piece, but decide you shouldn’t and don’t order it. This is a great example of self-control. However, some people struggle more than others with practicing it. Why is the case? Are there things you can do to improve your self-control?

Self-ControlHumans are horrible at resisting temptation. We all have aspects in our lives in which we wish we had better control over, such as losing weight, exercising regularly, eating healthy, not procrastinating, giving up bad habits, and saving money. There are various terms used to describe this concept—discipline, determination, grit, willpower, fortitude, and self-control. It’s defined as the ability to manage one’s impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-term goals. It’s also used in regulating task performance and making decisions. This means that the average person spends three to four hours a day resisting desires. Being able to do this is a key aspect of higher function and is important for maintaining healthy behaviors. In fact, most of the problems that afflict us have some degree of self-control failure. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 27% of respondents identified a lack of willpower as the primary factor keeping them from reaching their goals. The majority of survey participants believe that self-control can be both learned and strengthened. Accomplishing this isn’t always be easy, but doing so can significantly improve health, performance at work, relationships, and quality of life. One study found that when it came to academic success, self-control was more important than IQ scores. Individuals with good self-control are also less likely to have issues with overeating, overspending, smoking, alcohol/drug abuse, procrastination, and unethical behavior.

Self-control is primarily rooted in your prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain responsible for planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. In this area, there are many nerve connections that enable you to plan, evaluate alternative actions, and avoid doing things you’ll later regret instead of immediately respond to every impulse as it arises. The limbic system is the opposite of your prefrontal cortex because it’s in charge of the impulses to which you react. These parts of the brain don’t work simultaneously. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have examined visceral versus rational decision making. Visceral factors are intense cravings, such as hunger, thirst, desire, moods, and emotions. Rational decisions are made when overriding the visceral reactions. When you’re stressed, the limbic system takes over, provoking more impulsive responses. When stress is managed, your prefrontal cortex goes into action and opens the door for reflective and higher-level goal attainment.

A new focus on self-control in psychology started in 1998. Since then, the theories around it have supported the idea that increasing self-control is possible. To understand this way of thinking, you must know how psychologists define the essential elements of self-control:

  • The ability to control behaviors
  • The ability to delay gratification
  • A limited resource that can be depleted

The first part is key but one of the hardest components. You have to truly desire the change, or it’ll be impossible for you to control your behavior. The good news is there are ways to help you do this, which we’ll discuss in a moment. Delaying gratification means putting off short-term desires in favor of long-term rewards. One example of this is the famous marshmallow test conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the early 1970s. During the test, children were left alone in a room with a plate containing a marshmallow. Some of the children were told that they would get two marshmallows in the future if they didn’t eat the one on the plate. These children were better able to resist eating the single marshmallow than children who weren’t told not to eat it. Based on the research, Mischel proposed a “hot-and-cool” system to explain the ability to delay gratification. The hot system refers to the part of our self-control that is emotional, impulsive, and urges us to act upon our desires (limbic system). The cool system is the part that is rational, thoughtful, and enables us to consider the consequences of our actions to resist our impulses (prefrontal cortex). Self-control as a limited resource is something that has come about recently. This means that your ability to control your thoughts and actions fluctuates throughout the day. Some studies suggest that using self-control makes demands on your mental energy. So, focusing all of your self-control on one thing makes it more difficult to have self-control on subsequent tasks. Psychologists call this phenomenon ego depletion since the same part of your brain rules decision-making; it can also impact your self-control. The term “ego” was borrowed from Freudian theory because Freud had spoken about the self as being partly composed of energy and processes involving energy. Depletion causes emotions and desires to be felt more strongly than usual. This concept explains why individuals are more likely to reach for a sweet treat when they’re feeling overworked.

A longitudinal study showed that childhood self-control abilities predicted adult success. This means children benefit not only in the short-term but also long-term when we remove temptations/distractions and create environments that reward self-restraint. Obviously, a child’s ability to demonstrate self-control depends on their age. For example, toddlers lack the self-control of older children. Some of the biggest changes in self-control development happen between the ages of 3 and 7, but there is a lot of individual variation. To help children acquire good self-control skills, they need timely reminders to stay on track and concrete, practical advice for staying motivated, overcoming obstacles, and sticking to a plan.

When practicing self-control, there are several things to keep in mind. The first is that your goal must be clear and concrete. If it’s ambiguous, you won’t know what you’re working toward. You must be motivated to reach your goal—it can’t be something you’re only half-heartedly committed to. Focus on one goal at a time. If you try to set a lot of goals all at once, you’re not going to effectively accomplish any of them. Instead, choose one specific goal and focus your energy on it. Once you turn the desired behavior into a habit, you won’t need to devote as much effort toward maintaining them, which means you’ll be able to use your limited self-control on another one of your goals. The next important step is to develop a plan and implement it. This is where self-control comes in. You need to have it to succeed. It’s important to keep track of how you’re doing. According to Psychology Today, monitoring your progress helps to keep you focused on your goals. One way to do this is to make a to-do list for every day, week, and month. This way, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re able to see that you’re making progress, making you feel more in control. Some people who are better at self-control actually enjoy the activities the rest of us don’t. So, engaging in these activities isn’t a chore for them. To be successful in your goal, you need to emulate their mindset. It’s important to view your goal as a “want-to,” not a “have-to.” It’s easier to pursue these types of goals because it feels more effortless. The final phase is evaluating if you’ve met your objective or if you need to alter your process or redefine your goal. Of these, the one that most people struggle with is self-control. There are strategies you can follow to strengthen it.

One of the most important things is to avoid temptation. To do this, you must become aware of triggers that cause you to lose your self-control. Research has shown that people who think about “why” they do something can usually exert greater self-control than those who think about “how” to do something. Also, research indicates that avoidance may be a more powerful predictor of behavior than self-control. This means planning ahead to create an environment where you don’t need to practice effortful impulse inhibition but avoid situations that will test your self-control. According to an APA study, “training self-control through repeated practice does not result in generalized improvements in self-control.” Instead, they recommend removing temptation. The other side of this is to find a healthy distraction—something that takes your mind off of your unwanted impulse. Although the APA isn’t a fan of practicing self-control, other experts are. They feel that regularly engaging in behaviors that require you to exert self-control will improve it over time. They describe self-control as a muscle that needs to be worked to become stronger. Doing this will establish better habits and regulate behavior over the long-term. Practicing good habits is more impactful than having strong self-control. Studies have shown that people who have better self-control rely more on good habits because routine makes it easier to stick to your goals. Essentially, people who are good at self-control structure their lives to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place. It takes time and effort to learn how to structure your life the way you want it, so don’t get discouraged.

Another key factor is food. When you’re exerting self-control, your brain burns heavily into your stores of glucose. Glucose is a chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to the brain and everywhere else in your body. If your blood sugar is low, you’re more likely to surrender to destructive impulses. Studies have demonstrated that low levels of glucose predict poor performance on self-control tasks and tests. People who ate showed improvements in self-control, irrespective of whether they enjoyed the food. This doesn’t mean eat just anything because while sugary foods will raise your sugar levels quickly, they’ll leave you drained shortly thereafter. Instead, eat something that provides a slow burn for your body because it’ll give you a longer window of self-control.

Two other considerations are sleep and managing stress. Sleep is crucial to having good self-control. When you are tired, your brain’s ability to absorb glucose is significantly reduced. So, getting a good night’s sleep, every night, can have a huge impact. Since stress suppresses your prefrontal cortex, learning how to manage it is essential. Getting enough sleep is also helpful in this regard. Eating healthy foods and getting plenty of exercise is beneficial in reducing stress too. If you’re feeling stressed in the moment, try stopping and taking a few deep breaths to help slow down your heart rate. Also, if you’re feeling a strong urge to do the thing you’re trying to avoid, keep in mind that desire has a strong tendency to ebb and flow. Try to wait it out for at least 10 minutes because the need should decrease by then. You can likewise try getting some exercise when the urge hits. Research has found that getting your body moving for as little as 10 minutes releases GABA, a neurotransmitter, making your brain feel soothed and keeping you in control of your impulses. A further thing to try is meditation. Not just in the moment either, since experiments indicate it actually trains your brain to become better at self-control.

Since a lack of self-control can lead to unwanted outcomes, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the consequences, which might help you stay motivated. Just as important is accepting that everyone, including yourself, fails at some point. By recognizing this, it’ll be easier to forgive yourself and move on. If you don’t, a vicious cycle of failing to control yourself, followed by feeling intense self-hatred and disgust can occur, which typically leads to over-indulging in the offending behavior. Besides, beating yourself up is wasted energy. Studies have proven that 80% of achieving a goal is your attitude. When you accept your weaknesses and limitations, you develop self-compassion. This doesn’t lead to laziness and abandonment but helps you improve by knowing yourself better and setting more realistic goals.

As a result of concerns related to the possibility of negative outcomes, some experts don’t view the emphasis being placed on self-control as a good thing. They believe it may lead to feelings of learned helplessness where people think that they can’t do anything to change a situation, so they give up quickly or stop trying. These experts further indicate that self-control can restrict emotional experiences. If individuals respond to emotional situations in a more neutral way, they don’t experience the growth that often accompanies it like someone who has less self-control. Some people who have strong self-control end up with long-term regrets because they feel like they missed out on things. In addition, those with high self-control can become overwhelmed because others tend to rely on them, making them feel burdened. While high self-control people are less likely to engage in illegal or antisocial activities, when they do, they are less likely to get caught. This can be problematic and dangerous. Regarding complex social problems, these are often viewed as problems with self-control rather than addressing social, economic, or political sources of these problems. This puts the blame entirely on the individual and ignores the impact of societal factors.

Having sufficient amounts of self-control is something that we all desire to have. Even though it takes dedication to making a change and putting forth effort, it can be achieved. Just remind yourself of what’s important to you and take it one step at a time!