Self-Control

6 Strategies to Strengthen Your Self-Control

Willpower plays a big role in our health and happiness.

Posted Mar 12, 2020

Saying "no" to your own impulses—resisting the easy thing to do the hard thing—is surprisingly difficult. It's eating the apple instead of the Hot Pocket. It's getting up at the first sound of your alarm rather than hitting the snooze button (for the sixth time). It's doing the anxiety-provoking task that moves you toward your dreams rather than scrolling through Twitter.  

Self-control has all sorts of aliases: willpower, discipline, restraint. Whatever you call it, it plays a big role in our health and our success. 

Self-control helps determine whether we save or spend, work out or stay stuck to the couch, keep or lose our temper, or focus on work or get pulled into the black hole of procrastination ("I don't want to be hungry while I get my work done, so I might as well make homemade banana bread right now"). 

Misfiring impulse control is even a symptom of various disorders, like depression, OCD, ADHD, and straight-up impulse-control disorders, like hair pulling, skin picking, or compulsive shoplifting.

Sometimes it's subtle. You may do things that need to be done, but just not right now, a phenomenon called productive procrastination. Scrubbing the toilet may be virtuous, but not if it keeps you off-task. 

So next time you're tempted to reach for that Hot Pocket (or for the productively impulsive among us, that toilet brush), try one of these six tools:

1. Tackle your difficult tasks first. As the day wears on, our self-control wears out. In a simple but telling study, researchers at Harvard flashed a pattern of 20 dots on a computer screen for one second and asked participants whether there were more dots on the right side of the screen or the left. Participants made a selection, received some money, and then got another dot flash, for a total of 100 flashes. But here's the twist: They received 10 times more money every time they chose the right-hand side, regardless of whether or not the answer was correct. Therefore, there was a huge incentive to choose the right-hand side, even if it was the wrong answer.

Interestingly, those who did the experiment in the morning—between 8 a.m. and noon—were less likely to throw in a few extra right-hand answers than those tested in the afternoon—between noon and 6 p.m. 

The researchers called it the morning morality effect, but the take-home has less to do with morals than with self-control. Apparently, good people find it harder to resist doing bad things, like cheating for some extra cash, as their energy flags throughout the day. It's not an excuse for bad behavior, of course, but it teaches us not to expect stellar resistance to temptation at the end of a long day.

Since that study, there have been follow-up research showing that the morning morality effect may only be true for morning people. If you're a night owl, it's possible that your most moral, self-controlled self comes out in the wee hours. The jury is still out on the definitive answer, but the moral (ha-ha) is to know yourself and your energy levels.

2. Change the environment to change your behavior. So what's a morning lark to do in the danger zone of the evening? What's a night owl to do in the sleepy haze of morning? The best way to resist temptation is simply to remove it.

If you can't resist the tractor beam of Skittles at midnight, don't buy them. If you find yourself scrolling through Instagram when you're supposed to be working, install an app that keeps you off social media. (By the way, I neither confirm nor deny knowing anything about either of those situations.)  

In short, don't set yourself up for failure. Just like you wouldn't let a toddler loose in a wineglass store, don't expect yourself to resist temptation when you're tired, stressed, or hungry. Remove temptation from your environment. You don't have to exert self-control if your surroundings can do it for you.

3. Track your progress. Think back to high school physics—remember the observer effect? Observation changes the phenomenon being observed. Trying to keep your credit card bill in check may not feel like physics, but it's the same principle. 

Keep a log or use a wearable tracker to keep an eye on whatever sucks up your self-control. Keep a food diary, an exercise log, a sleep diary—whatever you're tracking, it's called monitoring. Indeed, it's when we're not paying attention that things tend to slide. So pay attention and track your progress. In fact, monitoring is a big percentage of the treatment for impulse control disorders like skin picking or hair pulling. Simply observing will change what's being observed, which just happens to be your behavior.

4. Literally watch yourself in action. If you're trying to stick to good habits while you're stuck at a desk, try propping a mirror next to you. It works on the same principle as monitoring. Watching yourself scarf Pop-Tarts or get sucked into interweb stories about celebrity diets makes it less likely to happen. 

A close alternative is to work in public. If working from home really means scrolling through TikTok from home, take your laptop to a shared workspace or at least a coffee shop. Knowing there are witnesses can keep you on task.

5. Allow yourself your distractions, just not now. "I'll do it later" is the mantra of every procrastinator. But flip-flop what you'll do later. Rather than doing your tasks later, tell yourself you'll do your distractions later.

Jot them down as your impulses occur to you: "Is Mercury in retrograde?" "What does Eminem look like now?" "How many beers can a frisbee hold?" (Answer to the latter: four—who knew?) Anyway, the point of writing them down is you can still follow your impulses, just not this instant. Which brings us to the next tip...

6. Sometimes, just give in. If you're a workaholic, perfectionist, or another type who expects 110 percent at all times, let yourself follow your impulses at least sometimes. Bright, shiny items are particularly alluring when we don't ever allow ourselves to pick them up. 

So allow yourself some pointless, indulgent time-wasters, especially when your brain is fried anyway. Go ahead and google "duct tape prom dress," take the quiz to find out which Hogwarts house you really belong in, or otherwise gratify whatever you get distracted by. And guess what, perfectionists? It's not so pointless and indulgent, after all. In fact, it's called a rest.