8 Ways to Boost Your Self-Control

Some self-discipline strategies, like gargling sugar-water, aren't obvious.

Posted May 11, 2015

Some people seem to have tons of self-control — they stick to diets and budgets and manage their temper. Their real secret may be humility and self-awareness.

Here's some advice on how to boost self-control based on psychology research:

1. Avoid temptations. “People who seem to have iron willpower tend not to expose themselves to as many temptations in the first place,” says Christian Jarrett, editor of the British Psychological Society Digest, pointing to new research. 

2.  Use mental images to change how you see a temptation. This one comes from Walter Mischel, creator of the famed 1960s' study testing which children can delay eating a marshmallow. As you look at a bowl of marshmallows, you might imagine it enclosed in a picture frame as if it were a photograph — and not within reach. You might associate the marshmallows with clouds. In both cases, you are learning to mentally “cool” what Mischel calls the “hot” triggers in your environment.

You might also try making your temptation unpleasant. Even after he had become known for his studies of self-control, Mischel didn’t give up his cigarette habit. One day, in a medical school hallway, he saw a patient with advanced lung cancer — chest exposed, head shaved. Mischel decided to summon up a picture of the patient every time he craved a cigarette. He quit smoking for good.

3. Think about the deeper needs met by an unhealthy habit, suggests Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Your daily trip to the local café for a mocha and cookie might also satisfy a craving for time off and conversation. Instead, be good to yourself, without the sugar, perhaps by calling a friend on your cell while taking a walk.

4. If you’re actually hungry, munch some nuts on the walk. Eating small meals spaced throughout the day is standard dieting advice. Skipping meals, on the other hand, can make your blood sugar drop, along with your  mental fortitude. "No glucose, no willpower," Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister and his co-author New York Times writer John Tierney wrote in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

5. Or gargle sugar water. We’ve all heard the rule not to shop on an empty stomach. Should you find yourself in that situation, Baumeister's work implies that you might down a sweet energy drink to resist loading the cart with ice cream. Now research suggests that simply gargling the sugary drink — without swallowing  — can trigger brain mechanisms connected to self-control. “Gargling probably works by fooling the body,” Baumeister says. The taste of sugar suggests that more will come. “Whether the body will soon figure this out and not be fooled is a big question, but it does seem it can work briefly,” he adds.

6. Distract yourself. Children often cover their eyes or sing to themselves to resist treats. Chimps will play with toys, Georgia State University psychologist Michael Beran demonstrated.

7. Plan ahead how you’ll recover after a setback. We often throw up our hands after a minor lapse, thinking, "I screwed up, to hell with it." To conquer that impulse, form an "if/then" plan: for example, "The next time I miss going to the gym, I will eat a big salad first at dinner." It’s best to keep your if/then mantra simple and specific,according to recent research. It doesn't work to say, “The next time I miss going to the gym or eat French fries at lunch or eat candy in the afternoon, I'll eat a big salad at dinner.” 

8. Make your bed every day. It's best to see self-control as a muscle that you can exercise and strengthen, Baumeister argues. As in any exercise program, don’t push ahead too fast or hard. “Start by making small changes that require discipline, such as making your bed every day,” he says. You might resolve to stop swearing or to avoid exaggerations, he says. Begin where you can and keep plugging away.