Self-control—or the ability to manage one's impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-term goals—is what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Self-control is primarily rooted in the prefrontal cortex—the planning, problem-solving, and decision making center of the brain—which is significantly larger in humans than in other mammals.
The richness of nerve connections in the prefrontal cortex enables people to plan, evaluate alternative actions, and ideally avoid doing things they'll later regret, rather than immediately respond to every impulse as it arises.
The ability to regulate one's emotions and behavior is a key aspect of executive function, the suite of skills that allow an individual to plan, monitor, and attain goals. There is debate surrounding the degree to which self-control is an innate individual difference, versus a learned skill. Most experts believe that people who are disposed to lower levels of less self-control can still cultivate healthy habits and take counter-measures to control their behavior.
The idea of self-control as a stable trait isn’t always true. A person's level of self-control tends to wax and wane over the course of a day, suggesting that self-control is less like a mental capacity such as intelligence and more a fluctuating resource along the lines of physical energy.
Always avoid situations where you know you will confront temptation. For instance, if you’re tempted to eat junk food, stay away from fast-food restaurants, and don’t bother heading down the snack or baked-goods aisles of the supermarket. Avoiding triggers is key.
Self-control is not about self-deprivation, and it’s certainly not about punishment. But it is often about redefining what is pleasurable to you to keep destructive behaviors in check. It is about taking power over your own actions and learning to ignore immediate impulses, no matter how powerful they may be.
The ability to exert self-control is often referred to as willpower. It allows people to direct their attention despite the presence of competing stimuli, and it underlies all kinds of achievement, from school to the workplace. It benefits relationships as well.
There is significant debate in science as to whether willpower is a finite resource. Some studies indicate that exercising willpower makes demands on mental energy. This concept, called ego depletion, is one possible explanation for why individuals are more apt to reach for a chocolate chip cookie when they're feeling overworked.
Recently, however, scientists have failed to replicate some of the studies underlying the concept of ego depletion. A better understanding of why individuals give in to some impulses—but are able to successfully resist others—is critical for helping people who suffer from addictive behaviors, impulsivity, and eating disorders.
In the early 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted what is now known as the marshmallow test; he found that children who, left alone in a room with a plate containing a marshmallow, were able to resist eating the candy in order to be rewarded with two in the future, later showed numerous positive life outcomes. Notably, these children and fewer behavioral problems and better grades than did those who were unable to delay gratification in the test.
The famous test may not actually reflect self-control, which is a challenge to the long-held notion that the test does just that. There’s a temptation to over-generalize and jump to conclusions about how to give children a competitive advantage. Some researchers favor looking more closely at a variety of developmental influences, instead.
A person who thinks that self-control is a limited resource will be more likely to give in to temptations. Plus, when we perceive a task as effortful, we show poorer self-control. This may mean that you can have more control simply by shifting your perspective.
Whether the temptation is drugs, food, or scrolling through Twitter instead of working, everyone has domains of life in which they wish they could exercise a little more willpower. How can an individual build this critical skill? Recent research points to the use of rewards, routines, and mindfulness practices as possible ways to establish better habits and regulate behavior over the long-term.
Another approach is to develop an awareness of the triggers that derail self-control. The sights and smells emanating from a neighborhood bakery as one walks by can weaken the determination to maintain a healthy diet, but taking a different route that avoids the bakery can fortify it. Strengthening willpower may not always be easy, but doing so can significantly improve health, performance at work, and quality of life.
Practicing good habits is more impactful than having strong willpower. People who have better self-control rely on good habits more than willpower, which leads to better progress on our overall goals.
People who think about “why” they do something are able to exert greater self-control and persist longer at a task than those who think about “how” to do something. When we know the goal we seek, rather than the means of getting there, we’re more likely to put down the slice of pie and build up will
Researchers have found that under certain circumstances, pride increases self-control. But in other circumstances, pride gives people a license to indulge. The difference depends on the source of one’s pride. Self-control gets a boost when pride stems from feeling good about who you are.