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Last Updated on August 4, 2020

How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life

How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life

Self-control is certainly not a new kid on the block in psychology. It’s been around for a while, but it continues to enchant scientists. Time and again, it proves to be a true star—it brings many benefits to those who can successfully practice it.

Study after study confirms that if we just find the way to strengthen our self-control, our lives will become so much better—we’ll eat healthier, exercise, won’t overspend, overdrink or overdo anything that’s bad for us. We will be able to achieve our goals much easier. Success will not be a distant chimera anymore.

Simply put, if you know how to control your temptations, emotions and behaviors, “the world’s mine oyster,” as Shakespeare told us many years ago.

In this article, we will take a look at how self-control works and how to have self-control to live the life you want.

What Is Self-Control?

According to Psychology Today,[1]

“Self-control is the ability to subdue one’s impulses, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve longer-term goals.”

It is rooted in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain[2] —the area, responsible for planning, decision-making, personality expression, and distinguishing between good and bad.

Self-control is also the ability to resist short-term temptation and to delay immediate gratification, so that you can accomplish something much more worthy and better in the future. “Short-term pain for a long-term gain,” as the Greats teach us.

The most famous manifestation of self-control and its benefits is the famous Marshmallow test.[3] It was a series of studies, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by psychologist Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University. The test was simple—children between the ages of four and six were told that they can have one treat (a marshmallow, candy or a pretzel) now, or wait for 15-20 minutes and get two treats instead.

It’s not hard to guess that more kids chose instant over delayed gratification. But the researchers then tracked the ones who decided to wait, through their high school and adulthood. What they found out was that self-control helped these kids tremendously later in life—they had higher academic scores, better emotional coping skills, less drug use, and healthier weights.[4]

So, it’s quite simple then—to ensure future success, teach kids better self-control.

But it’s not always easy, it turns out.

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Why Self-Control Matters

Ever since the Marshmallow test, self-control has been the protagonist in many other studies. And it generally lives up to its hype. It does give great advantages to those who are able to practice it well.

Self-control tends to be close friends with things as goal-achievement, mental and physical health, and lots of other important parts of life—relationships, academics, sports, career, and self-esteem. Simply put, willpower is a ‘must-have’ when it comes to eyeing any type of accomplishment.

Interestingly enough, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey from 2011, from 2011,[5] 27% of respondents noted that lack of willpower was the most important impediment to change.

Lack of self-control is the major obstacle to maintaining healthy weight too. Studies back this up—children who learn to control their impulses are less likely to become overweight in adulthood.[6]

Willpower is also a major contributor to a leading a healthier lifestyle—it can help prevent substance abuse—alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs.

So, there is no doubt about it—self-control matters quite a lot for everything we do or want to do.

Is Our Willpower Unlimited?

Undeniably, self-control is an “It”-trait to have when it comes to the successful completion of our goals.

In 1998, a team of researchers, led by the American psychologist Roy Baumeister, introduced an idea, which quickly earned its place as one of the most famous contemporary psychology theories. In the study, participants were brought into a room where on a table there were freshly baked cookies and radishes. Some were asked to try the cookies and the others—the radishes.

Afterward, both groups were given a hard puzzle to complete. Guess what? The group who ate the cookies had a go at the puzzle for 19 minutes, while the other group, who resisted eating the tasty cookies, lasted an average of 8 minutes.

Enter ego-depletion.[7]

Willpower is a limited resource, researchers concluded. Using up your reservoir of self-control on one thing (resisting the cookies) can drain your mental strength for subsequent situations.

Another popular study supported the Ego Depletion theory too. We all have heard about “emotional eating,” right? We sometimes tend to overeat, if we feel that our emotions are all over the place—if, for instance, we watch a sad movie or something unpleasant happens to us. But what studies have found is that if we try to contain or hide our emotions, then our willpower will be depleted, and we will be less likely to resist overeating.

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Simply put,

“Willpower depletion was more important than mood in determining why the subjects indulged.”

Luckily you can try this: How to Increase Willpower and Be Mentally Tough

How to Have Better Self-Control

Another outcome of the Ego Depletion theory was the revelation that self-control is like a muscle. It’s not fixed—it can be trained and improved over time with practice.

So, how can we get more of this good stuff? Here are few ideas:

1. Have Something Sugary

Yes, sounds a bit funny but it’s true. Studies show that the strength of our self-control is connected to our glucose levels.[8] The brain needs energy to operate and sweets provide that fuel.

Consuming sugary drinks increases blood-glucose levels and boosts our worn-down willpower.

2. Develop Your Internal Motivation

Other research tells us that when we are driven internally to achieve our goals versus by external motivators or to please others, our levels of willpower get depleted slower.

Simply put, “want-to” goals make us better at self-control than “have-to” goals. Makes perfect sense, of course.

Learn how to find your internal motivation here: Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It)

3. Find Your “Why”

Closely linked to the above advice is the one about the purpose behind what we do. Using a so-called “high-level” abstract reasoning[9] — can help us practice better self-control too.

For instance, if you want to avoid eating a piece of cake, it’s easier to alleviate the temptation if you remind yourself that you want to stay healthy, rather than think how you will just eat a fruit instead.

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4. Have a Plan in Place When Temptation Comes Knocking on Your Door

This technique is also known as “implementation intention”[10] and it simply means going though some “what-if” scenarios beforehand, so that you can have a strategy when you feel the enticement to stray away from your goal and “live a little.”

For instance, if you want to quit smoking, you may consider bringing some nicotine gums with you when going out. This way, when you see others smoking, you take your gum out.

5. Use Your “Wrong” Hand

Using your non-dominant hand to do small things such as operating the computer mouse, opening the door, or stirring your coffee, are great ways to enhance your self-control powers, according to research.

Studies tell us that this can also help curb feelings of anger, frustration and even aggression—after only two weeks of practice, there are some noticeable benefits.[11]

Besides using your “wrong” hand, here’re more ways to train your self-discipline: How to Build Self Discipline to Excel in Life

6. Focus on One Goal at a Time

The Theory of Ego Depletion also advises that “that making a list of resolutions on New Year’s Eve is the worst possible approach” to improve self-control.

Since depletion has spill-over effect and often leaves you exhausted and unlikely to want to do anything more, going after multiple aspirations can only make you frustrated with yourself. Or, As Prof. Baumeister advises, don’t try to quit smoking, go on a diet and to on a new exercise plan all at the same time.

Learn to commit to your goal: How to Commit, Achieve Excellence And Change Your Life

7. Find a Way to Earn More Money

When the Marshmallow test was done with kids from less affluent families, they were unable to engage in delayed gratification—i.e. they chose not to wait for the second treat. Coming from a low-income background forces people to live in the now and seek immediate indulgence,[12] when possible.

In contrast, when someone is better-off financially, they are used to being spoiled and may be less tempted to go after instant rewards. Additionally, although self-control can be taught by letting children be independent, make their own decisions, solve problems, all of these depend on the parents spending time with their kids. And quite often, financially-struggling parents are also “time-poor.”

8. Avoid Temptation Altogether

In the Marshmallow test, the children who closed or averted their eyes from the marshmallow, were more likely to resist than those who were staring straight at the treat.

Gretchen Rubin, the happiness guru, also writes on her blog that often, it’s harder to control your urges when you indulge in something, like chocolate, in small ways, rather than cutting it off completely.[13]

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A resent piece posted in BPS Research also supports the idea that “goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower.”[14] When we know something is “off limits” altogether, we just stop thinking about it over time.

Here’s How to Master Delayed Gratification to Control Your Impulses.

9. Practice

Since willpower is like a muscle, the more we practice, the better we become. While in the short-term we may feel depleted, in the long run, we will be able to build the strength and the stamina we need to successfully achieve our goals.

Exactly like going to the gym. The first few times you may feel exhausted and sore, but after a while, you will be able to fly through the same exercises that challenged you in the beginning.

10. Adopt Healthy Habits

Once we start practicing self-control and engage in healthier behaviors and choices, they, over time, will become habits. And when they do, we no longer will need so much willpower (if any) to do that activity. In fact, research across 6 studies found that people who are better at self-control also have better habits.[15]

Simply put, when our lives are based on habits, we are less frequently faced with making a decision, which require us to tap into our self-control reservoir.

Final Thoughts

Self-control is one of the biggest contributors to goal achievement and leading a better life in general. And although the jury is still out on whether the Ego Depletion Theory is valid across all situations and people,[16] the idea that we still need willpower to get us moving forward, is not in question. But we also need a motivation to start with and a way to monitor our behaviour and progress to accomplish success, as Prof. Baumeister advises.

So, to save yourself from the constant drizzles of disappointment with seeing your dreams crushed and burned over and over, take the time and try practicing some self-control.

The Future You will thank you.

More Tips About Improving Self-Control

Featured photo credit: Free To Use Sounds via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: Self-Control
[2] CNN Health: Where is self-control in the brain?
[3] Mischel, Walter: The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control.
[4] Business Insider: The famous Stanford ‘marshmallow test’ suggested that kids with better self-control were more successful. But it’s being challenged because of a major flaw.
[5] American Psychological Association: The APA Willpower Report
[6] Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.: Self-control as a protective factor against overweight status in the transition from childhood to adolescence.
[7] Case Western Reserve University: Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?
[8] American Psychological Association: What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control
[9] PsyBlog: How to Improve Your Self-Control
[10] Psychology Today: Implementation Intentions Facilitate Action Control
[11] Science Direct: Want to limit aggression? Practice self-control
[12] The New Republic: Poor People Don’t Have Less Self-Control. Poverty Forces Them to Think Short-Term
[13] Gretchen Rubin: Want To Be Free From French Fries? Or, Why Abstaining May Be Easier Than You Think
[14] The British Psychological Society: Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower
[15] J Pers Soc Psychol.: More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes.
[16] Science News: Sometimes a failure to replicate a study isn’t a failure at all

More by this author

Evelyn Marinoff

A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

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Last Updated on October 22, 2020

2 Transformational Ways to Spark Your Creative Energy

2 Transformational Ways to Spark Your Creative Energy

Good things come in twos: Peanut butter and jelly, Day and night, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The same is true for what sparks our creative energy: our thoughts and actions.

Creativity is an inside job as much as it is about a conducive schedule, physical environment, and supportive behaviors. By establishing the right internal and external landscape, creativity can blossom from the abstract to the concrete and we can have fun along the way.

Sparking creativity is all about setting up the right conditions so a spark is ignited and sustained. The sparks don’t fizzle out. They are allowed to grow and ripen.

Think of a garden. Intention alone will not produce the delicious red tomato nor will the readiest seed. That seed needs attention at its nascent stage and as it grows a stalk and produces fruit. If we want to enjoy more than one fruit, we keep at it, cultivating the plant and reaping multiple harvests.

Creativity lives in each of us like seeds in the earth or encapsulated in a nut. Seeds of ideas, concepts, designs, stories, images, and even ways of communicating that surprise and delight await activation.

By sparking our creative energy, we activate these unique seeds. Like snowflakes, they are of a moment and always without a match. The smallest sparks encourage even the smallest, most dormant seeds to sprout.

The good news is that our creative energy wishes to be sparked—to be invited to play. It wants to be our regular playmate.

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1. Be Childlike in Your Thoughts, Attitudes, and Approach

Being childlike in our thoughts, attitudes, and approach is an easy way to internally have our thoughts be gracious prolific gardeners to our creative energy. If we want it to come out and play and hang around as our regular companion, then let’s return to our 5-year-old selves.

Our childhood selves are naturally curious. We still have that curiosity! All we have to do is remind ourselves to get curious. We can do that by simply observing and being with what is in front of us instead of making up a story about what won’t work or why something can’t be done. So, it’s about cultivating curiosity instead of jumping into judgment.

Move Your Inner Judge to the Sidelines

When we get curious, creativity percolates and, ultimately, takes its place in the world. To give a hand in choosing curiosity over judgment, we can move the judge that also lives inside us to the sidelines. The judge squashes our creative urges, even when they are as small as sharing a point of view. It’s that pesky voice that causes us to doubt ourselves or worry about what others will think.

The judge is also risk-averse. The judge likes things to stay the same. Change makes the judge nervous.

Creativity is all about risk and changing things up. It needs risk, even failure, to be its naturally innovative, dynamic, impactful self. The judge likes to convince us failure is something to be avoided at all costs.

To move the judge to the sidelines and let curiosity reign, we can pay attention to who we are in conversation with and who is calling the shots.

Is it the voice of fear, doubt, or anxiety (the inner-critic—the judge’s boss)? Or is it the voice of wisdom, courage, strength, and non-attachment, and of course curiosity (the inner-leader)?

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We can easily tell the difference by how each makes us feel. The inner-critic depletes and slows us down, putting roadblocks in the way. The inner-leader energizes and a natural rhythm develops.

It’s all about who we spend time with. If we wish to exercise, we will seek out our friends who go to the gym or hike. If we want to lose some weight, we will opt to eat dinner with someone who prefers a healthy spot over fast food.

After getting curious, we can honor what our curiosity prompts us to do. The spark can do its job and a fire starts to glow when commitment enters. Our childhood selves were fully committed to being creative. That level of commitment is still something we are very capable of exercising!!

Again, we need to let go of the judge. We can ask ourselves, what do we want to commit to—negativity that depletes our creative energy, depth, and output, or the understanding that our thoughts and attitudes matter and that right thoughts and attitudes are the sparks that really let our creativity come alive?

Learn to Recall Your Childhood Self

To get in touch with that unabashedly committed childhood self, recall your childhood self. If you have a picture, pull one out. Keep it around so you can remember to activate that innate creative nature that was prominent then and wants to be prominent now and always.

Soak in the essence of that being. Commit to their commitment to brave and dogged trial and error because it is yours as well. You are that person.

Remember how tenacious you were when you wanted to build that sandcastle. You kept at it as the waves came in. You built with fury or reconfigured the walls. Also, remember that there was a willingness to fail since you were as invested in the process as well as the outcome—but less with the outcome. You were willing to experiment and start again. There was vitality—the main lifeline of your creative energy—instead of a rigid attachment.

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When you notice you are in conversation with your inner-critic or being held back by it, simply acknowledge, name it, and then switch to your inner-leader by taking a few good deep belly breaths, rubbing two fingertips together, or listening to ambient sounds in the background.

Physical movements shift our negative thoughts over to the positive domain of the inner-leader. As our judge continues to sit on the sidelines, our ability to quiet the inner-critic becomes stronger. We taste freedom. A simple taste emboldens us to say no again to the judge and yes to what makes our hearts and spirits sing—our creativity.

We begin to spark creativity to the point it no longer needs to be invited to play. It becomes our regular playmate—the younger sibling or the kid next door ready to have some fun, maybe even make some mischief by shaking things up.

When we align with our inner-leader and think and act from its promptings, creativity flows up and out with ease, as it needs to!

Letting those initial sparks generate a creativity fire that keeps burning is something we can all do! That’s the inside job.

2. Listen to Your Inner Leaders of Creative Energy

If we listen, our inner-leaders will let us know just what we need to set-up and do in our physical world to maximize that gorgeous, hungry creativity we now have flowing freely in us.

The seed has been unlocked! So, now what?

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To enable our creative energy to take its form and place outside of us, there needs to be spaciousness! Spaciousness in our physical worlds impacts our internal one. It lets the voice of the inner-leader be heard. It lets creativity have room to be sparked and acted upon.

With a little discipline, we can easily create spaciousness in our daily lives—spaciousness that will spark our creativity and let it take shape.

So, no matter who you are and what conditions help your creativity thrive, check-out these easy-to-implement basic suggestions:

  • Reduce or eliminate multi-tasking.
  • Say yes to what matters and what aligns with your big values and goals.
  • Say no to all else.
  • Say no again.
  • Schedule time in your calendar as you do with other things in your life to just be, to ponder, to let ideas percolate, and to create.
  • Spend time doing the things that bring out your creative energy. It could be walking, singing, or simply looking out the window.
  • Meditate.
  • Breathe—long breaths in and long breaths out through the nose.
  • Invite your body and heart into your experiences so your mind is a part of you and not all of you.
  • Try a new thing to spark your creativity. If you spend time running, try a different route. If running feels stale, cruise around a museum, or go for a bike ride.
  • Play a game. Indoors out or outside. Think of what makes you happy that you haven’t done in a while. Is it a physical game like badminton or cards? Maybe it’s storytelling? Play is creative, and it sparks the creative energy, too.
  • Spend time in the places that bring out your creativity. What spot in your home could be your spot for entering into that mode? Do you need to get out? Maybe a park bench is the right spot, with a book of poetry, or even nothing at all.
  • Spend time in nature. Nature brings us to a place of calm and awe and through that our creativity is easily sparked.

Final Thoughts

These are all habits—habits of mind and habits of doing. Experiment with what works for you. Have fun. If you give even 50% to altering your thoughts and actions, then you will begin to spark your creativity. It takes a lot of curiosity and commitment, but it can definitely be done.

Our innate creative energy is a deep source of all that we seek—joy, connection, renewal. It deserves and looks forward to the changes you will make that will let sparks fly and ignite!

More Tips to Spark Your Creative Energy

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

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