(5-min read) A lack of self-control can lead to a variety of difficulties – from disappointment in oneself, to depression, strained relationships, and even addictive behavior. Yet while it is normal to get off task or give in to temptation, a recurring failure to exercise self-control can feel demoralizing. It can involve difficulties staying away from certain foods, websites, intoxicants, time spent on electronic devices, social media, or shopping. It may even extend into difficulty staying away from places or people. Learning how to improve self-control has the potential to build self-esteem by helping us reach personal goals and avoid destructive behavior. This article describes a strategy for overcoming a lack of self-control.
Definition of self control
Self-control is the ability to pursue a planned course of action despite encountering an alternative. For example, writing a report instead of reaching for the phone that buzzed. Or, resisting the temptation to stop at the ice-cream store that just came into view. Self-control is about the way we behave the moment an opportunity threatens to pull us off track.
How to Have More Self Control
Developing self-control can be broken down in to three steps.
Step 1: Define a goal that is specific and personally meaningful
Step 2: Monitor when the goal is threatened and plan for such occurrences
Step 3: Accept emotions non-judgmentally and view mistakes as learning opportunities
Implementing all three steps with focused intent will make the difference. I will now explain these steps in more detail.
How to Develop Self Control in 3 Steps
We all want to be healthy, gracious, and live life to the fullest. But setting vague goals does not help us. What should we do when offered an exceptional but high-calorie desert? It conflicts with our goal to be healthy but is entirely compatible with our goal to live life to the fullest! We’re more likely to run into these moral conundrums when goals are poorly defined.
Step 1 – Set a goal that is specific and personally meaningful
Make it specific, realistic, and measurable
Goals must be well defined and achievable. For example, a commitment to reduce the time spent on social media should include measurable specifics. Making goals measurable helps us know when we are straying. A realistic goal is one that is neither too easy nor too difficult. For example, a social media user may decide to spend no more than one hour per day on such sites, with a maximum of thirty minutes before 8 am and no more than thirty minutes between 8 pm and 9 pm. They may try this for one week and review their performance before making any adjustments to the goal.
Some tips I have found helpful in my practice. 1) make short-term commitments to change. An eternal commitment to some restrictive behavior can feel discouraging and promote binging prior to starting. 2) Know that it’s always harder to start than continue. 3) If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the goal, trim it down until it becomes achievable. 4) You are competing with you, no-one else.
Connect to a meaningful value
Connect the goal to a deeply held personal value. People work harder when a goal is personally meaningful and intimately tied to self-identity. Take alcohol for example. A problem-drinker may have chosen to cut back in order to appease a concerned spouse or health care professional. But these “external motivations” are only effective while present. When their spouse stops complaining, the drinker is likely to revert to more frequent drinking. On the other hand, cutting back to fulfill a personal value will increase “internal motivation” which is always present and a more effective means of achieving change. Our problem-drinker may see sobriety as consistent with values around physical health, mastery at work, relations with family, or creativity in a hobby they pursue instead.
The central tenet here is to find a meaningful value – one that you already believe in strongly. It is easier to exercise self-control when it aligns with personal values.
Step 2 – Monitor when the goal is threatened and plan for such occurrences
Once we have our goals defined, we need to know if they are at risk. This requires an ongoing awareness of future and current threats. Those who feel they act on automatic pilot should pay close attention to this section.
Anticipate future threats to your goals
When in the future might the goal be in jeopardy? Taking an honest look can help you prepare for predictable and unanticipated events. A person in a committed relationship may take a business or personal trip to where they previously engaged a past lover or particular establishment. They would need a plan long before arriving at their destination. People are much better at recalling a plan of action than generating a plan of action, especially when stressed. Manipulating our surroundings so that we reduce the need to exercise self-control is a simple and effective strategy. An example would be a student not taking their cell phone to the library. When you cannot change the environment, some find it helpful to reflect upon the values fulfilled by exercising restraint.
Identify present threats to your goal
This is the moment we notice a pastry when ordering coffee. When tempted by a phone app as we reach to make a call. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable moment that pushes our attention to the two conflicting options. Do we indulge or exercise self-control? Conflicts such as these should create a feeling of discomfort. And being aware of this discomfort is crucial to learning how to improve self-control.
Mindfulness is basically about becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Research has found that people who practice mindfulness are better at exercising self-control. Furthermore, people who don’t can still improve their self-control by learning mindfulness. Mindfulness helps because it teaches us to look inward, identify various emotions, and notice the discomfort that signals a threat to our goals. However, just being aware of discomfort can lead to rumination and panic. Therefore, it is crucial to accept these feelings, a skill to which we now turn.
STEP 3 – Accept emotions non-judgmentally and view mistakes as learning opportunities
The fundamental skill that meditators and those with good self-control possess is the ability to acknowledge moment-by-moment thoughts and feelings without judgment. Recognizing feelings without evaluating oneself keeps the individual calmly focused on the goal and what action to take. In contrast, strong negative emotions are likely to distract and turn attention toward ways of coping with distress. Engaging in temptation is one of the surest ways of ending this distress but at the cost of self-control. The best course of action, when faced with temptation, is to orient our attention to our original goal, and not to the discomfort caused by conflicting choices. Mindfulness meditation seems to be one of the best ways of preparing our minds to do this.
When attempts to exercise self-control fail, it is important to remember that no-one is perfect. Steer clear of rumination and feelings of despair. Negative feelings place individuals at risk of further destructive behavior. It is wiser to accept our mistakes and focus on what went wrong and what can be learned.
The growth mindset
The ‘growth mindset’, a term coined by professor Carol Dweck, refers to a personal belief that intelligence can develop and to an attitude of learning from mistakes. A team led by Dr. Jason Moser of Michigan State University found that people with a growth mindset demonstrated more activity in brain regions associated with noticing errors. More importantly, they learned more quickly from mistakes and were better able to exert self-control.
Therapy for self control
Learning how to improve self-control requires setting realistic and measurable goals, improving our awareness of conflicting desires, and calmly accepting our emotions without condemning ourselves. Hopefully, this article has provided you with some ideas on how to improve self-control. Everyone’s situation is different in terms of the behavior they are struggling with, the environmental triggers they face, and the steps with which they struggle most. If you would like to explore your specific situation in greater detail and put an end to destructive habits, please get in touch with myself or a professional therapist in your area.