7 Ways to Have More Self-Discipline

Self-control (or lack of it) plays a role in choosing a salad or a soda, working out or staying on the couch, and moderating alcohol or getting trashed on a Tuesday. There are times we all wish we had a little (or a lot) more self discipline. Therefore, this week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 ways to stretch your self-control.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #151

Self-control goes by many aliases: willpower, discipline, restraint. It’s even that Frank Ocean song. No matter the name, it has huge influence over our health and our success.

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Self-control helps determine whether we study or party, save or spend, keep or lose our temper, or focus on work or get pulled into the black hole of procrastination. Lack of self-control is even a symptom of a host of challenges, including depression, OCD, ADHD, and specific impulse-control disorders like hairpulling or compulsive shoplifting.

OK, now mimic the facepalm you give yourself when you see your credit card bill, the number on the scale, or length of your to-do list after a few weeks of not enough self-control. Not uncoincidentally, the part of the brain responsible for your downfall—the prefrontal cortex—lies directly behind the forehead you just smacked.

The prefrontal cortex allows us to plan, pay attention, regulate our emotions and our bodies, and generally avoid things we’ll regret. In other words, it allows us to resist and redirect our immediate impulses.

Self-control all boils down to one thing: saying ‘no’ to your own impulses. It’s resisting the easy thing to do the hard thing. It’s eating the apple instead of the Hot Pocket. It’s going to bed rather than staying up. It’s doing the anxiety-provoking task that moves you toward your dreams rather than scrolling through Twitter.  

Sometimes it’s subtle. You may do things that need to be done, but just not right now. Scrubbing the toilet may be virtuous, but not if it keeps you off task.

So next time you’re tempted to reach for that Hot Pocket (or for the productively impulsive among us, that toilet brush), try these seven tools.

Tip #1: Do your hard stuff in the morning

As the day wears on, our self-control wears out. In a simple but telling study, researchers at Harvard flashed a pattern of twenty dots on a computer screen for one second and asked participants whether there were more dots on the right side of the screen or the left. Participants made a selection, received some money, and then got another dot flash, for a total of one hundred flashes. But here’s the twist: they received ten times more money every time they chose the right-hand side, regardless of whether or not the answer was correct. Therefore, there was huge incentive to choose the right-hand side, even if it was the wrong answer.

Interestingly, those who did the experiment in the morning—between 8 AM and noon—were less likely to throw in a few extra right-hand answers than those tested in the afternoon—between noon and 6 PM.

The researchers called it the “morning morality effect,” but the take-home has less to do with morals than with self-control. Apparently good people find it harder to resist doing bad things, like cheating for some extra cash, as their energy flags throughout the day. It’s not an excuse for bad behavior, of course, but it teaches us not to expect stellar resistance to temptation at the end of a long day.

Since that study, there has been follow-up research showing the morning morality effect may only be true for morning people. If you’re a night owl, it’s possible that your most moral, self-controlled self comes out in the wee hours. The jury is still out on the definitive answer, but the moral (ha-ha) is to know yourself and your energy levels.

See Also: 8 Tips to Improve Your Self-Control

Tip #2: Change the environment to change your behavior

So what’s a morning lark to do in the danger zone of evening? What’s a night owl to do in the sleepy haze of morning? The solution: change your environment in order to change your behavior. In other words, the best way to resist temptation is simply to remove it.

The fewer decisions you have to make, the longer your willpower will last. If you can’t resist the siren song of Jelly Bellys at midnight, don’t buy them. If you find yourself on Facebook when you’re supposed to be writing, install an app that keeps you off social media. (By the way, I neither confirm nor deny knowing anything about either of those situations).  

In short, don’t set yourself up for failure. Just like you wouldn’t let a toddler loose in a gallery of Ming vases, don’t expect yourself to resist temptation when you’re tired, stressed, or hungry. Remove temptation and release yourself from the burden of exerting self-control when your surroundings can do it for you.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.