8 Tips to Improve Your Self-Control

It happens to us all: a well-meaning stab at a virtuous task devolves into an hour of Facebook or six trips to the fridge. This week, the Savvy Psychologist offers 8 tips to help increase your self-control.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #37

Whether you call it willpower, discipline, or self-control, regulating your own impulses--particularly in the face of tempting diversions--is really hard to do.

It’s also something I could stand to work on. Perseverance I have in spades; when I make up my mind to get something done, it will get done. But along the way, I often find myself either standing in front of the open fridge, or realizing, too late, that I’ve lost half an hour of my life to YouTube. Again.

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Other noble tasks that strain our self-control? According to comments from Savvy listeners on Facebook, our self-control fails include keeping up with housework, getting to bed at a decent hour, sticking to a healthy lifestyle, resisting that impulse buy, being nice to difficult people, getting out the door on time, and staying clean, sober, or smoke-free.

What is Self-Control?

Self-control is different from grit, which we covered on the podcast a few weeks ago.  Both self-control and grit fall under the umbrella trait of conscientiousness, but there is a distinct difference. Grit is the ability to pursue long-term goals over years, whereas self-control is the ability to resist temptation in the moment.

Self-control is a self-improvement project well-worth working on. Research shows us that kids with greater self-control make more friends, get higher grades, are protected against unhealthy weight gain, and smoke and binge drink less. Over time, a kid’s self-control emerges as more important than things like intelligence, or how much money his family has.  .

So how can we get off Twitter, resist that nightcap, and get to bed? For all of us, here are 8 tips to increase self-control.

Tip #1: Know That Self-Control Can Be Increased

Self-control is an inborn personality trait, but it’s also a skill--which means it’s flexible. Your innate self-control has a range, and with some practice, you can build it to your own upper limit.

Tip #2: Define What You’re Trying to Control

A never-ending or vague goal like “Never be late again,” or “Stop getting distracted,” is bound to fail. So instead, set a concrete goal, the more specific the better. So for me, I might say “Work for an hour without checking social media.” Or yours might be, “Don’t snack after dinner tonight,” or “Get to my next three social events 10 minutes early.”  

Tip #3: Don’t Rely on Brute Force

Forcing yourself to do something aversive, like being nice to your in-laws or resisting that cigarette, depletes your store of willpower for other tasks.

After you decide what you’re trying to do, don’t just white-knuckle your way through it. Forcing yourself to do something aversive, like being nice to your in-laws or resisting that cigarette, depletes your store of willpower for other tasks. Yes, even though self-control can be improved, it’s fundamentally a limited resource.  

To illustrate, in a now-classic 1998 study, participants sat at a table with two plates: one filled with freshly baked cookies, the other with radishes. Some were directed to eat the cookies, while others were asked to eat the radishes. Then they were given a puzzle that was, secretly, impossible to solve.  

The folks who had eaten the radishes and resisted the cookies gave up on the puzzle in about 8 minutes. But those who ate the cookies--and therefore had self-control to spare--toiled away on the puzzle for almost 19 minutes, more than twice as long as the radish group.

So rather than hacking your way through your self-control task with a machete, use some quick brain hacks to think about your task differently.  Which brings us to...



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.