Self-control is often seen as a trait that you either have or you don’t. You either have the power to control your impulses, or you’re impatient and undisciplined.
But that’s not entirely true. And understanding how it works is super important to being able to consistently achieve your goals.
Studies have shown that self-control is more accurately described as a limited resource. Once you’ve spent enough of it resisting temptation and completing certain tasks, maintaining self-control becomes increasingly more difficult throughout the day.
If that’s true, then self-control can be strengthened. Why is that important? The benefits of self-control have been well-documented over the past few decades. And while scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how the brain handles it, we know that as a character trait, self-discipline is massively undervalued.
Most of us aim to be more focused and goal-oriented as a means of being successful. But rarely do we stop to consider how and why self-control affects that success. Here’s how it works.
Self-control means regulating your emotions, thoughts, and behavior, and governing your impulses, temptations, and desires as a result. In other words, it’s your capability to resist negative behaviors and bad habits despite wanting to indulge in them.
A single self-control definition isn’t enough to capture the essence of the term. As you probably already know, it’s a concept that comes by many names.
In everyday life, we might refer to self-control as discipline, self-discipline, self-constraint, self-government, repression, or strength of character—just to name a few.
In philosophy and religion, self-control often shows up as temperance or sophrosyne. In Hippolytus, Euripides paints sophrosyne as the building block of sanity and excellence of character. In the Bible, it’s often associated with the Holy Spirit, and it’s a sign of pureness, holiness, and divine transformation.
In the modern world, self-control has often been studied as a limited resource that can expand over time. In the brain, it’s correlated with an area in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex - a part of the frontal lobe. This part of the brain is involved in decision-making and problem-solving, and it develops slowly - which is probably why we see a lack of impulse control in children.
Most psychologists agree that self-control is built during childhood. Some children struggle with self-control because they have trouble understanding social rules.
But for most children—and adults—who show signs of low self-control, it’s usually a matter of habit; a way of dealing with stress and anxiety.
That said, recent studies on twins and other genetics research have come up with a compelling argument for the potential hereditary nature of self-control. Psychological factors play a huge role for sure, but genes may also be to blame. This might explain why some people naturally demonstrate impressive levels of self-constraint, while others don’t think twice about devouring a bag of chips despite being on a strict diet.
Self-control has been correlated with improved academic performance. It has also been linked to better health habits, better interpersonal relationships, and better quality of life.
Religion and philosophy have championed self-control as an integral virtue for millennia, but science and psychology have only just begun examining its benefits.
Countless studies outline the benefits of self-control in academic settings. It contributes to better performance and limits counterproductive behavior as students stick to their goals. Which is understandable, right? The student that says ‘not tonight’ to the party invitation, and instead works on their essays, is more likely to get better grades.
The relationship between health and self-control has also been extensively documented. One 2019 study found negative relations between self-control and impulsive drinking.
(Those with poor self-control are more likely to drink impulsively). Those with low self-control were also more likely to eat impulsively and less likely to exercise. Participants with higher levels of self-control drank less alcohol and exercised more frequently.
Researchers have gone as far as to claim that people with trait self-control (TSC, or the tendency to exercise self-control more often than not) may experience greater life satisfaction or happiness. In 2014, the Self-Regulation Lab of Utrecht University published a large study involving hundreds of people, demonstrating that TSC can positively predict happiness.
Conversely, lack of self-control has been associated with financial debt, impulse buying, and maladaptive eating habits. People who struggle to control their impulses tend to procrastinate more and have problems with the law more often.
It’s important, then, that you recognize the importance of self-control and the huge impact it has on your life.
A self-controlling person is in charge of their impulses, emotions, and desires. They are in full control of their thoughts and actions, even in the face of unexpected events and unforeseen circumstances.
Self-control comes in many shapes and forms. There are three distinct types to identify:
In most cases, people use several types of self-control to deal with stressful situations effectively.
For example, emotional self-control is necessary to maintain a balanced life after a life-changing event (getting fired, breaking up, losing a loved one); it helps people push negative feelings away by focusing on the bigger picture (e.g., finding happiness, leading a fulfilling life).
Impulse control is also important, as it shields you from bad habits and dangerous reactive behavior. You might want to stock up on snacks after a devastating breakup, but your impulse self-control will convince you to buy healthy stuff instead—you might miss out on a little pleasure and distraction, but it’ll make you feel better in the longer term.
As we’ve discussed already, self-control isn’t a character trait you either have or don’t have. Instead, it’s something that’s built and cultivated over a long period of time. Just like you can learn to be focused, kind, and empathetic, you can learn how to control your impulses and desires as well.
So, self-control is kind of a big topic. The research is extensive, but what do we make of it, and how do we make use of it in our daily lives?
You can develop your self-control by taking advantage of certain tried-and-tested strategies. It’s not easy, but learning to keep your impulses and desires in check will bring about positive change in your life.
If you know that exposure to certain situations will likely activate an unwanted response, you can simply bypass the problem by avoiding temptation altogether. If, for example, you can’t say no to unhealthy snacks but want to lose weight, keeping your chips and chocolate out of sight can minimize cravings. (Even better - don’t buy them in the first place.)
Temptation and desire’s effects are fleeting. If you hang on long enough, they simply dissipate as your mind moves on to different things.
The truth is that you can’t always avoid unwanted responses. When you can’t avoid temptation, it’s good to let your mind do all the hard work.
Giving in is easy when the desire’s still fresh. But if you can take a moment to consider the consequences of your actions, you’re much more likely to resist temptation. According to psychologist Kentaro Fujita, people’s mental state impacts their self-control success. High-level thinking will allow you to see the forest beyond the trees, but your mind needs to be clear in the first place.
Before acting on your impulses, take a moment to stop, and evaluate the situation. Those few seconds are enough to push those primal instincts away. As your higher cognitive functions take control, you quickly begin to consider not just the consequences of losing self-control but the many benefits of maintaining it. Before you know it, temptation and desire slowly lose their grip on you.
There’s a common example of this in the personal finance world. The advice goes, if you’re about to make a big purchase (say, over $1000), give it 24 hours before committing. If you can do without it for a whole day, then can you do without it forever? Giving yourself some distance away from your impulses might help you see things much more clearly.
Remember the correlation between self-control and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe? Well, according to studies done by Clemson University, sleep deprivation drains glucose in the prefrontal cortex. Glucose is a monosaccharide (the simplest of carbohydrates), and along with fat, it’s one of the body’s preferred sources of fuel.
Essentially, this means that not sleeping well limits the fuel of the brain region responsible for self-control. Even small amounts of lost sleep had significant effects on participants’ behavior in the study.
Getting eight hours of sleep every day isn’t always easy. If you work early in the morning, try to avoid screens and devices before lying down. Blue wavelengths emitted by most modern screens today suppress melatonin secretion, disrupting our circadian rhythms as a result. Sleep hygiene is an entire discipline in itself, and getting better at it can massively improve your mental performance.
According to research published in the British Medical Journal, short bouts of exercise increase blood and oxygen flow to the prefrontal cortex. More blood and oxygen to the part of the brain responsible for controlling self-control means more energy to withstand unwanted urges and desires. In short: exercise makes your self-control stronger, as well as your body.
The good news is you don’t have to sign up for an intense workout program to see some results. The study indicated that moderately intense exercise a few times a week is enough to boost brain function and increase self-control. All three age groups in the study (from six to thirty-five years) improved their memory, concentration, planning, and decision-making by taking part in various workout programs.
We often think of self-control as an internal fight to control impulses and push away temptation. While it’s true that you need to exercise willpower to see results, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be on edge all the time.
Research has actually shown that people willing to take a step back and relax are more likely to keep their impulses in check. A study conducted at the University of Illinois found that people primed with strong action words (like start, fight, and begin) had more trouble controlling their behavior than those primed with passive, inactive words (like stop and pause).
It’s hard to think right when you’re under extreme pressure—and with everything going on in the world right now, who can really blame you? Meditating and practicing mindfulness can help you fight stress and build the resilience required to say “no” when temptation strikes.
Strong impulse control is a sign of high emotional intelligence. The more you know about yourself, the easier it’ll be to manage your feelings and emotions. Do you have trouble controlling your anger? How patient are you? Do you find yourself cracking under pressure a bit too often? How do you react when under extreme stress?
Finding the right answers to these questions won’t be easy if you haven’t taken enough time to look inward. You can begin your self-awareness journey by assessing your emotional intelligence and looking for ways to learn more about the real you.
Remember to think of self-control as a limited resource. Both decision fatigue and ego depletion describe a state in which an individual has used up all their available willpower and can no longer practice self-control.
Instead of going all out and using up your energy on trivial matters, try to preserve it for when it’s needed most. For example, don’t spend all your energy trying to come up with healthy breakfast ideas when you’ve got an important meeting ahead. Instead, plan ahead and make a diet plan for the week.
Stay organized and avoid trivial distractions. With time, your self-control ability will strengthen, and you’ll be able to do more of your available willpower. Never make big decisions at the end of the day, when all your self-control reserves have been depleted.
Learning self-control takes time and effort. Understand the source of your anxiety, and fight your desires and temptation from within. Avoid temptation when you can, and make sure you spend more time relaxing, meditating, and finding yourself.
You can easily improve self-control by sleeping better, exercising, and making an effort not to ignore the bigger picture when things get tough.
Just think of where those better decisions might take you.
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