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Last Updated on October 30, 2019

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

How to Improve 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 what you can do to improve your self-control and 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.

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

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]

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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.

Simply put,

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

How to Get Better at 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)

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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.

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]

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.

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.

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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]

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.

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 About 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 November 5, 2019

7 Steps to Start Living Your Dream Life Right Now

7 Steps to Start Living Your Dream Life Right Now

Have you ever heard the question, “what would you do if money was not a factor?” It is one of those questions that people often brush aside, because quite frankly, money is a factor. The doubters will mock you as naive or foolish, but deep down you know it is possible to start living your dream life. You know there is more to life than working and paying bills.

It seems as though most people are just trying to get by. They work because they need to make an income to support their life.

People not only settle in the workplace, but also in their relationships with their friends and family. You may even know people who settle by compromising their integrity and core values.

That is why it is not naive or foolish to start living your dream life, it is essential.

Living your dream life is more than being rich, it is the belief that you are living a life aligned with your purpose. If you are ready to free yourself of the fears that cause you to live your life according to the expectations of others, then follow the below 7 steps found in the book – Champion of Change, the 7 Instrumental Laws of Change:

1. Construct a Plan of Action

The foundation for you to create your dream life is for you to take the time and visualize what that life will look like.

This is more than the normal vision board you may have heard before. This form of visualization requires you to use all your senses. Olympians are well-known for their visualization practices as they prepare for competition. The reason they do this is because everyone is very talented by the mere accomplishment of qualifying for the Olympics.

To gain an edge, Olympians will visualize themselves competing in their actual event. Emily Cook, of the United States free style ski team is quoted as saying she engaged all her senses in her visualization. She moves her body as if she is skiing down the slopes, she feels the air as it blows through her hair, and she hears the roar of the crowd as she crosses the finish line.[1]

Olympians visualize in such detail because they understand they only have one opportunity every four years to compete. The best way they can be ready for the moment is by continually competing in their mind. Studies support this belief as they show you can literally gain muscle by visualizing yourself working out [2]

2. Focus Your Attention

If you want to start living your dream life right now, you are going to need to adjust the way you see the world. Your beliefs create your consciousness, and your consciousness creates your reality, and your reality is maintained by the way your mind filters information.

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Everyday, you receive millions of sensory inputs and your mind filters out most of them to keep you from going crazy. The ones you receive are the ones that your mind believes matter to you based on past experiences.

One of the most popular examples is when you purchase a new car. As soon as you purchase that car, suddenly you notice that car everywhere. Now you probably know that everyone did not purchase the car the same day as you, but what happened?

Well, when you purchased your new car, you told your mind ,”this car matters to me”. As a result, your mind is now showing you the car that has always been there.

Your mind blocks out most of the stuff that is going on while you are driving to help you stay sane. Imagine if you were consciously aware of every line, tree, car, deer, squirrel, reflector and sign while driving.

The same way your mind can adjust your filters based on the action of purchasing a new car, you can take actions to create your dream life. As you take action, your mind will show you new opportunities that were always there (just outside of your previous filters).

    Learn more about how to focus here: How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain

    3. Put the Systems and Processes in Place

    Once you have the proper mindset to start living your dream life, you are ready to shift your focus to maintaining your early wins.

    The mistake most people make is they are excited in the early going, but they are working solely off discipline and willpower. Your willpower and discipline are exhaustible resources that will fade over time. That is why most people quit their New Year’s Resolution 30-days after starting. That is also why people who are on a diet will make nutritious decisions throughout the day, and fail miserably late at night.

    Each time you withstood the tempting call of sweets, the likelihood of you withstanding another call decreased.

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    This is why it is so important that you put systems and processes in place that limit the need for you to use discipline and willpower. In the case of our dieter, it would be better for them to trash all the candy they no longer want to eat.

    The reason is simple:

    Whatever food that is in your house, you are going to eat at some time or another. The only way to truly ensure you will not eat the candy is to throw it away.

    This is also true when it comes to you and your dream life. If you want to ensure that you follow through on your vision, you have to be willing to limit the ability for you to revert back to your previous life.

    If you want to stop relying on your willpower and start making things happen, these tips will help: How to Break a Habit and Hack the Habit Loop

    4. Accountability Is a Must

    When you are accountable to someone or a group, you will find yourself more motivated to continue. Deep down, we all want to be accepted by others. Even though this can work against you sometimes, this particular occasion is not one of them.

    When you proclaim your goal to other people, it improves the likelihood of you following through.

    You may be surprised to know, but you experience accountability on a regular basis.

    • If the CEO asks you to provide a report, you are going to make the best report of your life. You understand the opportunity and value of making a good impression with the CEO.
    • Now imagine if your coworker asked for the report. Will there be a difference in quality?
    • How about if you were going to a class reunion? Would that improve your commitment to get in shape?
    • Even when you know you are going to have company over at your house, you are going to clean better than if you knew no one was coming.

    Accountability works because you want to keep your word and make a good impression of yourself in front of others.

    5. Catalyst for Change

    There are things you can control and things that you cannot control in life. Do not allow the fear of failure or fear of uncertainty keep you from living your dream life. Everything is not going to go smoothly on your journey. You are going to face challenges and setbacks.

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    The good news is failure is a part of success. They are two halves of the same coin. What tends to happen is people spend so much time trying to avoid failure, that they never realize they are undermining their ability to find success.

    By understanding that failure is a part of success, you understand your goal is not to avoid failure, but to build on it: 10 Famous Failures to Success Stories That Will Inspire You to Carry On

    Your dream life does not necessarily need a positive event to start. Oftentimes, it is the negative events (or perceived negative) and a sense of desperation that drives people to reach further than they ever have before.

    Your catalyst for change may be exactly what you wanted or it may be the worst thing that could have happened. Either way, your focus is on what to do next. You want to build on that event by stacking positive events on top of it.

    Positive events are anything that move you closer to your goal. In your case, anything that moves you closer to your dream life. Whether you quit your job or your boss fired you, it is all about what you are going to do next.

    Choose to respond to each situation by taking another step towards your dream life.

    6. Character Matters

    In a study between two schools on opposite ends of the economic spectrum, positive psychology experts created a list of character strengths they believed essential to success.

    Their list included grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

    Some of the character traits were common with how most people view success; such as grit, curiosity or self-control. However, gratitude, zest, optimism, and social intelligence (compassion) were on the list, but their relation to success is often overlooked.[3]

    It is important to remember that change comes from the inside-out. Your core values are the prism through which you accomplish your goals.

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    7. Muster up the Courage

    Once you have completed the first six steps, you have everything you need to start living your dream life.

    Do not allow yourself to procrastinate on your transformation. The fear of change may disguise itself as a thoughtful plan to wait for more information or better timing.

    Keep in mind that you are not looking for the perfect situation, you are only looking to start. One you get started, you are going to be better equipped to make any changes.

    I often compare starting your journey like walking through a fog. If you stand on the outside of the fog trying to see to the other side, you are going to find it very difficult. But if you are willing take the first few steps, you are going to realize that you can see a few more steps into the fog.

    If you are willing to continue walking, before you know it, you can see clearly because the fog is behind you.

    You have an idea of what your dream life looks like and you have an idea of the effort it is going to take to make it happen. However, you do not really know how realistic your expectations are until you experience it.

    Final Thoughts

    There is a lot of work that goes into living your dream life, but you will find it well worth your time.

    Most people regret the things they did not do more than anything they have ever done. Therefore, do not settle for a life that is less than your dream life. Pursue your dream life with effort and resolve.

    More About Living Your Dream Life

    Featured photo credit: Cristina Gottardi via unsplash.com

    Reference

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