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.


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].


    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.


    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]


    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


    [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.

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    Last Updated on January 15, 2021

    8 Time-Tested Confidence Buildinng Habits You Can Start Now

    8 Time-Tested Confidence Buildinng Habits You Can Start Now

    Confidence is one of the greatest things you can learn and practice. But it can be confusing, overwhelming and hard. It is a skill and it does take practice but by making some things into habits, you can help your confidence blossom. 

    Confidence is “a belief in one’s own self and one’s ability to succeed.” It is made by a simple process:

    First, you have to want to achieve a goal or improve, then you are afraid of the change. But you do it anyway, fail and do it over again over until one day, you aren’t afraid of it anymore. You are confident in your ability to succeed at a task.

    Just like learning to ride a bike or any skill really, you took a deep breathe and you tried, you fell off your bike and cried, but eventually, you got back on.

    Until one day, you cycle without even thinking that you are going to fall off. It is same for any area of your life, if you want to be more self confident, do more things that scare you and incorporate these 8 essential habits into your daily life.

    1. Reminding Yourself of Your Victories

    Stop reminding yourself of your failures that you habitually do it — putting yourself down, criticizing yourself and over-exaggerating your failures. It is time to draw a line in the sand and start letting that old mindset go, it is undermining your confidence.

    It’s scary and new and you may feel afraid, but it is the best choice you will make. Instead of reminding yourself of your failures and how you aren’t good enough, remind yourself of your wins, all you have overcome. Remind yourself of all the good you have done and all the good you can do.

    Focus solely on the positive and what you can do and when the hating thoughts come up, just let them pass by or argue with them.


    If it says “you aren’t good enough.” You say “actually I am.”

    “You aren’t perfect.” You say “No I am not perfect but that is more than good enough, I am enough just as I am, I don’t have to be perfect.”

    Your confidence depends on it so get into the habit of reminding yourself that actually, you are pretty great and have a lot of reasons to be confident.

    2. Ask Yourself: What Did You Learn?

    Moving forward with changing your inner narrative, you have to start to ask the question: What did I learn?

    With practicing confidence, you come across a lot of failure. Instead of beating yourself up and going “why me?” Ask yourself:

    “What did I learn? How did that not work? What can I do better?”

    Nothing undermines your confidence more than you beating yourself up all the time. Instead of focusing on how you have failed and not achieved the result you wanted, make it a habit to ask yourself questions so the next time around, you can try again from a new angle. Ask yourself how you fell off the bike so next time, you can avoid potholes.

    By getting in the habit of questioning your failures instead of bullying yourself, your confidence will become unbreakable because failure won’t shatter your confidence. Just keep learning and keep moving forward.


    3. Don’t Judge Others

    This is such a key habit when it comes to building confidence. When we judge others, especially negatively, we create a negative cycle in our head that encourages insecurity. When you judge someone negatively, it makes you think that someone else is negatively judging you. Breeding this type of insecurity will only ever undermine your self esteem and confidence.

    People are wonderful but they aren’t perfect. It isn’t their job to perfectly adhere to the way you want the world to be. So to put it simply, don’t judge and let people be as they are. Don’t get caught in that negative mental cycle.

    On the flip side of this, you have to understand that people are going to judge you and that their opinion of you, is none of your business. You can’t control how other people choose to see you, you can only control how you judge others. Don’t play a game you can’t win by trying to control other people’s thoughts. It’s like trying to play chess underwater at night. If you tried really hard, it could possibly be done but what is the point.

    4. Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone

    If you want to get into a habit that will help you become more confident, this is it. Everything you want is on the other side of your comfort zone; this applies to confidence.

    You gain confidence by challenging yourself and overcoming obstacles. Don’t shy away from challenges and things that make you uncomfortable. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

    Get into the habit of saying “Oh this makes me uncomfortable, better tackle it head on then” and get in the habit of saying Yes and No: Saying Yes to things you would like to do even if it scares you and No to things you would not like to do.

    By saying Yes to things you enjoy and challenge you, you grow in confidence as you overcome them. By saying No to things you don’t want to do, things that bring your down or make you feel low, confidence can also bloom. By standing up for yourself, you assert yourself and your self confidence can blossom.

    5. Have the “I Can Handle It” Mindset

    This is a beautiful habit to get into in general and it will help your confidence bloom and your anxiety go down.


    Get into the habit of having a I Can Handle It Mindset. You have overcome so many things in your life but we still have the overwhelming fear that we can’t handle bad things coming your way.

    But you can, you can handle it because you have handled it time and time again. Stop telling yourself that you can’t and start telling yourself that you can. Whatever comes your way, whatever adversity. You Can Handle It. With this habit, confidence can blossom and grow because you are unstoppable.

    6. Find Validation From Within

    If you rely on other people for constant validation and praise to give you a confidence boost, you will struggle. As soon as they don’t validate you, you will feel less confident than before. This is whyThe Desire to Be Liked Will End You up Feeling More Rejected.

    Get in the habit of validating yourself, whatever you want to hear from someone else, say it to yourself. When you accomplish something, pat yourself on the back, don’t go looking for outward validation. This simple change of supporting yourself and search within for the support you need will help your confidence bloom!

    There is one very simple logic to this, your happiness and your confidence are your responsibility. Why would you put your life in the hands of someone else? It isn’t their job to make you happy or validated, it is yours. You also can’t control them at all, which means your confidence and self worth are completely out of your control.

    Change that. Find support and validation from within – Don’t Wait for People to Praise You. Do It Yourself Every Single Day.

    7. Get Fit

    Fitness is the perfect habit to get into if you want to grow confidence because everytime you go, you get better. You grow, you learn new things, you fail and then you amaze yourself with what your body can do, over and over again.

    Nothing has helped my confidence bloom as much as taking up a sport. There are so many options for you. Running is the perfect example, the first one is awkward, hard and exhausting. But the next run is a little easier, a week later, you start looking forward to it and then finally, you are running 5K without stopping.


    If you want to get into a habit that reminds you that you are capable, find a sport that interests you and start.

    8. Practice Gratitude

    Now this isn’t groundbreaking I know, but gratitude is such an important habit to get into if you want to be more confident.

    When you practice gratitude, you put yourself in a much better headspace which will in turn, help you feel more confident. Most importantly, when your confidence gets knocked by something or someone, you can always come back to gratitude and be happy for all that you have. It helps keep you aligned and focused on all the good and positive in your life, stopped all the negativity from creeping in and keeping you down.

    If you practice gratitude once a day, your life will change because it reminds you of the reality that you are good enough as you are — that is never up for debate.

    Try these 40 Simple Ways To Practice Gratitude.

    Final Thoughts

    These habits might be small but they can create an intense boost to your confidence and your rebound when you have had your confidence knocked. You are exceptional and you should be confident in your ability to do things and in who you are.

    If you are still struggling with that, spend some time working out what you’re afraid of and go and do it right now, overcome it and remember that you are unstoppable.

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    Featured photo credit: Olivier Rule via

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