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

Tip #4: Reduce the Attractiveness of Your Temptations

You may be familiar with the classic 1972 “marshmallow study,” in which researchers sat preschoolers in front of a marshmallow. Each kid could have the marshmallow when she wanted, or, if she could exercise self-control and wait, she could have it and another treat in a few minutes.

Followups to the study found that kids who were able to delay gratification did better in emotional situations, were more competent overall, and even got higher scores on their SATs. This made the researchers wonder if self-control strategies could be taught.

So what worked? First, making the temptation abstract was helpful. Kids who were cued to pretend the marshmallow was just a picture, by imagining a frame around it, waited twice as long as kids who were asked to focus on a real marshmallow.  

Second, encouraging kids to think about abstract, descriptive, “cool” features of the marshmallow, such as “how the marshmallows look like white puffy clouds,” were able to wait twice as long as kids who were encouraged to focus on the temptation--or the “hot” features, like “think about how sweet and chewy the marshmallows taste.”

Tip #5: Increase the Attractiveness of Your Task

And here’s the other half of Tip #4: now that you’ve devalued your distractions, increase the value of your task. A cross-cultural study found that American students often frame homework as a dreaded chore, whereas many Chinese students frame it as useful practice. If that’s a bit of a stretch for your task, you could instead think about how good you’ll feel when you’re done, that it will finally be off your to-do list, or that you can skip feeling guilty.  

Or you could simply make your task more fun. A 2014 study found that when people listen to really good audiobooks only at the gym, they go to the gym 51% more often. You could do the same for housecleaning or yardwork.

Now that you’ve devalued your distractions, increase the value of your task.

Tip #6: Modify Your Environment

In other words, make like Ulysses when faced with the Sirens. But you don’t need to lash yourself to the nearest mast; thankfully, little changes make a big difference.

Indeed, a 2006 study found that secretaries ate more candy when the bowl on their desk was clear versus opaque, and when it was on their desk versus 6 feet away. In the same vein, you could consider installing an anti-social media app on your computer, putting your smartphone in a drawer, or storing the Pirate’s Booty in an opaque container.  

And environment modification doesn’t just work for M&Ms--it can apply to more high-stakes self-control situations, as well.  For example, in several studies, environmental cues have been found to be the most important determinant of staying clean for individuals in recovery from substance dependence. Hanging around the old crowd or visiting one’s neighborhood bar is a Siren in a bottle or syringe for those trying to stay clean or sober--so much so that many recovery programs encourage moving to a new neighborhood.


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.