Self-Control

Managing the Only Person You Can Truly Manage

Self-control—or our ability to subdue our impulses, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve longer-term goals—is what separates us from our ancient ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom. Self-control is primarily rooted in our pre-frontal cortex, which is significantly larger in humans than it is in other mammals with similar brains. Thanks to our pre-frontal cortex, rather than immediately responding to every impulse as it arises, we can plan, evaluate alternative actions, and, ideally, avoid doing things we'll later regret.

The ability to exert self-control is typically called willpower. Willpower is what allows us to direct our attention, and it underlies all kinds of achievement, from school to the workplace. There is significant debate in science as to whether or not willpower is a finite resource. Some well-known studies have made a case that exercising willpower makes demands on mental energy. This concept, called ego depletion, is one possible explanation for why we're more apt to reach for a chocolate chip cookie when we're feeling overworked.

Recently, however, scientists have failed to replicate some of the studies underlying the concept of ego depletion. More research is underway, but the final verdict on whether we can “run out” of willpower remains to be seen.

Failures of Impulse Control

One of the most famous studies of self-control is known as “the marshmallow test,” which found that children who were able to resist eating one marshmallow—in order to be rewarded with two in the future—later showed higher academic achievement than those who had wolfed the treat down immediately. The study’s results seemed to indicate that self-control is an innate ability with wide-reaching implications for our lives, but later studies have suggested that our self-control actually changes significantly over our lifetime, and can be improved with practice. A better understanding of why we give in to some impulses—but are able to successfully resist others—is critical for understanding addictive behaviors, impulsivity, and eating disorders.

Regulating Behavior

Whether you’re most tempted by drugs, food, sex, or scrolling through Twitter instead of working, we all have areas in our lives where we wish we could exercise a little more willpower. How can you build this critical skill? Recent research has pointed to the use of rewards, routines, and mindfulness as a few possible ways to establish better habits and regulate your behavior over the long term. Strengthening your willpower may not always be easy, but the benefits can significantly improve your health, your performance at work, and your quality of life.

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