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Last Updated on December 1, 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, and success will not be a distant chimera anymore.

Simply put, if you know how to control your temptations, emotions, and behaviors, the world will be your oyster, as Shakespeare pointed out 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?

Self-control can be defined as the following:[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 prefrontal 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 could 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. However, the researchers then tracked the ones who decided to wait through their high school years and adulthood.

What they found out was that self-control helped these kids tremendously later in life—they had higher academic performance, better emotional coping skills, less drug use, and healthier weights.[4]

So, it’s quite simple then—to ensure future success, teach kids to develop higher levels of 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. Impulse control does give great advantages to those who are able to practice it well.

Self-control tends to be close friends with 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[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 leading a healthier lifestyle—it can help prevent substance abuse—alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs.

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 short and long-term 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 there were freshly baked cookies and radishes on the table. Some were asked to try the cookies and the others the radishes.

Afterward, both groups were given a hard puzzle to complete. Surprisingly, 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[8].

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    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. However, 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.”

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

    How to Have 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 you can learn how to improve self-control over time with practice.

    1. Have Something Sugary

    Studies show that the strength of our self-control is connected to our glucose levels.[9] The brain needs energy to operate, and sweets provide that fuel.

    Consuming sugary drinks increases blood-glucose levels and boosts our worn-down willpower. Of course, this isn’t a license to overdo it; it’s just a backup when your willpower is running on fumes.

    2. Develop Your Internal Motivation

    Other research on self-control 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.

    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[10] 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

    This technique is also known as “implementation intention”[11] 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 gum with you when going out. This way, when you see others smoking, you already have a plan in place to combat the cravings.

    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 and exert 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.[12]

    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 a 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. As Prof. Baumeister advises, don’t try to quit smoking, go on a diet, and start 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[13] 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, and 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.[14]

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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.”[15] 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.

    This is 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 will, over time, become habits. When they do, we will no longer need so much willpower (if any) to do that activity. In fact, research across six studies found that people who are better at self-control also have better habits.[16]

    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. Although the jury is still out on whether the Ego Depletion Theory is valid across all situations and people,[17] the idea that we still need willpower to get us moving forward is not in question.

    However, we also need a motivation to start with and a way to monitor our behavior and progress to accomplish success, as Prof. Baumeister advises.

    To save yourself from the constant drizzles of disappointment with seeing your dreams crushed and burned over and over, take the time to 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] Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine: 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] Intuit Turbo: What Is Ego Depletion and How Can You Overcome It?
    [9] American Psychological Association: What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control
    [10] PsyBlog: How to Improve Your Self-Control
    [11] Psychology Today: Implementation Intentions Facilitate Action Control
    [12] Science Direct: Want to limit aggression? Practice self-control
    [13] The New Republic: Poor People Don’t Have Less Self-Control. Poverty Forces Them to Think Short-Term
    [14] Gretchen Rubin: Want To Be Free From French Fries? Or, Why Abstaining May Be Easier Than You Think
    [15] The British Psychological Society: Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower
    [16] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes.
    [17] Science News: Sometimes a failure to replicate a study isn’t a failure at all

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    Evelyn Marinoff

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

    Is There a True Measure of Success? How to Define Your Own 30 Practical Ideas to Create Your Best Morning Routine Why Intrinsic Motivation Is So Powerful (And How to Find It) What Is External Motivation and How Can You Use It? How to Define Your Personal Values and Live By Them for a Fulfilling Life

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    17 Traits That Make a Successful Person Stand out from the Crowd

    17 Traits That Make a Successful Person Stand out from the Crowd

    If you are like most people, you probably have big goals and dreams that you would like to succeed in — you want to be the top in your career, live a healthy lifestyle, or flourish in your relationships.

    Everyone dreams of a positive future, but most people don’t realize the secret to a truly successful life:

    You determine your future in the way you spend your everyday moments. If you want to be a successful person, you must consistently develop good daily habits. As Aristotle pointed out:

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

    Building positive daily habits is a huge challenge, but can you imagine the amazing things you could accomplish with just a little commitment and determination?

    Creating lasting, healthy habits is the real key difference between people who are successful in life and those who are unsuccessful.

    You might be wondering which specific habits make the biggest difference. Not to worry, I’ve compiled a comparison list to help you get a jump start on a successful future.

    1. Successful people embrace change. Unsuccessful people fear change.

    Change is a constant for all of humanity, and it is important that you develop a positive relationship with it.

    When unexpected or unwelcome changes arise, ask yourself how you can embrace it instead of running away. A few practical ways to reverse a change-fearing mindset include:

    • Take a moment to recognize and address any fears associated with the upcoming change.
    • Communicate with a person you trust about your negative feelings toward change.
    • Practice positive thinking, which you can read about in the next section.

    2. Successful people exude joy. Unsuccessful people think, say and do negative things.

    A joyful, positive disposition can seem like a distant reality in today’s cynical world, but it may be easier to achieve than you think. All you have to do is notice the good things around you and practice being thankful.

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    Mindfulness and gratitude are not just buzz words – choosing a positive attitude can honestly change your life. Many studies have found that thankfulness leads to greater happiness. Furthermore, research indicates that gratitude may even have a lasting positive impact on the brain and overall mental health.[1]

    3. Successful people forgive others. Unsuccessful people hold grudges.

    As a human being, you have likely been offended or hurt by others plenty of times. Don’t give in to the temptation to hold a grudge. Let it go.

    Note that forgiving someone does not equate to giving up your boundaries (which are very important) or even admitting that the offending party is right. You should choose to let go for your own peace of mind.

    4. Successful people track progress. Unsuccessful people just criticize.

    Some kinds of criticism, such as constructive criticism, are good for personal and professional development. The kind of criticism I’m talking about is the pessimistic, nagging, unhelpful variety. This is the kind of criticism in play when you are unfairly harsh to yourself or others.

    Toss unfounded criticisms aside and consider tracking your “wins” or your progresses, no matter how small. Take mental notes or keep a progress journal.

    If you have a solid sense of what you have achieved, you will be less tempted to be hard on yourself.

    5. Successful people share information, data and ideas. Unsuccessful people hoard.

    If you have useful information or generate brilliant ideas on the regular, your first instinct may be to keep it all to yourself for personal gain and solo recognition.

    Instead of hoarding bright ideas, share them with your team. Your talents will be on display for the team, and the team will be able to support you and make your ideas a reality.

    6. Successful people are humble. Unsuccessful people talk more than they listen.

    Humility is key. The ability to listen to other people, really listen and understand, is essential to success in both work and relationships — and to listen you have to be humble.

    Everyone has experienced the frustration of being in a one-sided conversation. When someone approaches you with a question or concern, put your own world aside for just a moment and give them the kindness of your full attention.

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    7. Successful people take risks. Unsuccessful people take the easy way out.

    The next time your heart is racing and you want to walk away, consider embracing the risk. You never know what might happen if you take a chance.

    Embracing risks looks like accepting the speaking engagement even though it seems a little scary. Success takes the courageous route, not the easy route.

    8. Successful people learn, improve and read every day. Unsuccessful people stop learning.

    Instead of binge-watching a show tonight, save an hour before bed to read a book and expand your mind.

    Unsuccessful people are afraid to be flexible – they don’t challenge themselves to learn new things. Avoid this pitfall by exposing yourself to new thoughts and ideas every day.

    9. Successful people handle problems well. Unsuccessful people act before they think.

    The next time you run into a problem or even an emergency, try to work through your initial panic reaction with a few deep breaths.

    Instead of acting rashly, think through your next actions as quickly but as logically as you can.

    Learning to handle problems thoughtfully is an absolutely essential tool in the successful person’s toolbox (that’s you!).

    10. Successful people accept responsibility for their failures. Unsuccessful people blame others.

    Along with a previous tip about humility, this is one of the hardest things you’ll ever learn to do – but also the most rewarding. When you’ve failed, you must fight the urge to pass the blame. Successful people are able to fail honestly and gracefully.

    And, hey, don’t feel bad about failing. Some of the most successful people in the world have failed too many times to count. It’s all a part of the process.

    You can check out this article for more tips on how to fail well:

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    How Failure Helps You To Succeed and Grow

    11. Successful people work with passion and commitment. Unsuccessful people have a sense of entitlement.

    A short and sweet lesson for you:

    You should never expect to achieve the things you want without working hard.

    Follow your passion and stay committed to pursuing it. Work hard and stick to your habits every day. You’ll earn your reward.

    12. Successful people spend time with the right people. Unsuccessful people think they already know it all.

    A lot of people miss out on useful relationships and information sharing because they think they can do it all alone.

    Spend time with people who inspire you, spur you to be a better person, and remind you that you can’t go it alone.

    13. Successful people make to-do lists and maintain proper life balance. Unsuccessful people waste their time.

    Ah, time management. Unsuccessful people never master the art of organization and planning.

    Here are a few tips for you when it comes to time management:

    • Make to-do lists. Seriously, this will help you. Make time to do it every morning, evening, or whenever you are able.
    • Keep track of your time. Are you happy with the way you are currently balancing things? What changes can you make?
    • Keep a calendar full of your long-term goals (see next tip).

    14. Successful people write down goals and think long term about their burning desires. Unsuccessful people get distracted every day.

    Why is it so important to keep a long-term goal calendar? Here’s the deal:

    The things you are passionate about today need a backbone.

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    Give your passionate ideas sustainability by writing down goals and staying on task instead of succumbing to distraction.

    15. Successful people compliment others. Unsuccessful people try to bring others down to their level.

    There is no greater confidence than saying “no” to sudden jealous or envious feelings and choosing to sincerely admire someone’s talents instead.

    Unsuccessful people live in a world driven by competition, but successful people know that building people up is far more rewarding than bringing them down.

    16. Successful people want others to succeed. Unsuccessful people secretly hope they fail.

    In the same vein as the point above, this tip is all about good intentions.

    Care for the people around you. Encourage them toward their successes. Hoping that others fail will not help you at all.

    17. Successful people know their purpose and mission. Unsuccessful people don’t know what they want to be.

    The last thing that differentiates successful people from unsuccessful people is one of the most important:

    Keep your mission in mind.

    Don’t be swayed to and fro by passing emotions and events. Know who you are and pursue your dreams wholeheartedly.

    Final thoughts

    Above all, stay confident. Truly believe that you can be and are successful. Strive to prove it in your day-to-day habits and activities!

    What are you waiting for? Choose one of the habits above and get started today.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Berkeley University of California: How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain

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