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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

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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 August 10, 2020

15 Simple Things You Can Do To Turn Your Life Around

15 Simple Things You Can Do To Turn Your Life Around

Life can be difficult. It can seem like nothing goes your way and the world is against you. The world can be a very cruel and lonely place. But there are things that you can do to begin turning your life around.

Whether you’re in a job you hate, struggling with a loss, or just not on the path you expected, only you hold the key to turning your life around. Here are 15 simple things you can do to turn your life around.

1. Read Daily

Reading lets you escape to a different place within your mind. It can be relaxing and calming. And it helps stimulate brain activity and keeps you sharp.

Reading daily can help you spend time away from the problems of the day and allow you to escape into a world of endless possibilities. Changing your perspective can help you turn around your life, and reading is a great place to start.

Here’re some recommendations: 20 All-Time Best Motivational Books to Inspire You

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2. Put Your Goals in Writing

When thoughts are banging around in our heads, they can easily slip away. Walk from one room to another and you forget what you were doing!

Make sure your goals are concrete and written down. This will help you stay accountable to yourself and is the first step in completing your goal. By writing it on a piece of paper, you must put in the thought of how you should word it, what exactly you want to accomplish, and will make you consider if it’s truly worth it.

3. Prune Your Relationships

Too often, relationships can be destructive. This is often looked at through the scope of romantic relationships, but also consider life-long friends, family, and acquaintances. Are the people you spend time with bringing you down? Are they helping you achieve your goals or hindering? It can be difficult, but pruning your relationships can be the quickest catalyst in turning your life around.

4. Make New Friends

Don’t underestimate how a new person or group of friends in your life can change your outlook. Be open to meeting new people, both at work and in your personal life.

5. Get Healthy

When you feel great, good things seem to come your way. Working out helps you feel better about yourself and can help change your outlook on life. Eating right can help you have the energy to do more. Getting healthy can improve your entire outlook on life and help turn your life around.

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6. Start Saving

For many, financial struggle can weigh heavy and be the cause of many problems. Without a change of job or career, changing your financial situation will take time and effort. Start saving with each paycheck to help build toward your future. Even if it’s a small amount each check, consistency in saving can help you change your path in the future.

7. Start a Business

Working for others can be tough. You may be underemployed, under-utilized, and under-appreciated. Starting a business can help you take control of your financial future.

Understand that you don’t have to quit your current job to start a business. Find something you love and have skills at and do it in your free time. If you’re in creative services, freelance. If you’re great at carpentry, build tables to sell. If you are a talented painter or crafty, start an Etsy store.

You may find that your side passion business can turn into more. Or, if you have the opportunity and skills, take the plunge and go all in. Working for yourself is challenging, but a great opportunity to change your life.

Here’re some tips for you: How to Start a Small Business with Little to No Money

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8. Find Opportunities to Help Others

Helping others can change your outlook and help turn your life around. Changing the way you think about the world can play a part. But helping others can also open up doors you never had available. Being a good person can help you get out of a funk and can be the catalyst for change.

9. Learn a New Skill

When you have more skills, additional opportunities will be presented. If you’re tired of your blue collar job, take classes to learn computer skills. If you’re struggling to move up in your company, find a skill that makes you more valuable. And if you want financial freedom, learn a skill that can help you change your life. Knowledge is power.

10. Stop Watching TV

Watching TV can keep you distracted and take up a lot of time. Cutting out the time you spend watching TV and replacing it with more productive activities can help you accomplish more and stay focused.

11. Listen to Inspirational Content

You can learn much about yourself from others. Find inspirational and educational content that matches your needs and give it a listen. You may find that the advice from others in similar situations can give you the boost you need to change your life.

12. Stop Complaining

Negative thoughts and talk can turn people against you and make your outlook grim. Stop complaining so much and make the best out of your situation.

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13. Find or Rekindle Your Passion

Doing what you love can change your entire outlook on life. When you’re doing things you hate, you can be more stressed and make life much harder than it needs to be. Find things you’re passionate about and rekindle the love for what you enjoyed in the past. Doing what you love can turn your life around and make each day more rewarding.

14. Take a Vacation (or Staycation)

Sometimes, hitting the reset button is all it takes to improve your situation. Taking a vacation, or staycation, is a great way to get away from the stress of the daily grind and recharge your battery. A vacation can give you the perspective you need to change your life.

15. Re-evaluate Your Attitude

How you view the world will often reflect in how you treat yourself. Re-evaluate your attitude and ensure that you’re doing all you can to make the most out of every situation. A change in how you view your situation can often be the push that helps you change your life for the better.

More Tips to Help You Change Your Life

Featured photo credit: Conner Ching via unsplash.com

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