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Success Mindset

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

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


[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]The British Psychological Society: “Strongest evidence yet” for ego depletion – the idea that self-control is 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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