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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.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #037
girl looking at cupcakes

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.  

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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...

 

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.

Tip #7: Self-Talk

Literally talk yourself out of temptation. Talking out loud helps “facilitate metacognitive representations"--or in other words, helps you think about your own thinking.

So many of the rewards of resisting temptation are abstract, like better health, a strong work ethic, or a job well done. So hearing yourself talk about your goals can make them more real, and better able to compete with the concrete temptation of that jar of cookie butter. For more on talking to yourself, check out the episode, Talking to Myself--Is That Normal? in the podcast archives.

Tip #8: Cut Yourself Some Slack

Strong emotion, like anger or anxiety--or another task that takes willpower, like being on a diet or staying with demanding relatives--will strain your self-control. So forgive yourself a self-control fail (or five) when your competing needs are depleting your limited resources.

So with some practice, you’ll be waiting for marshmallows with the best of them! Let me know on Facebook if any of these tips work for you. In the meantime, I’m going to go peer in the fridge. Or not.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

References

Baumeister, R.F, Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M. & Tice, D.M.  (1998).  Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

Chen, C. & Stevenson, H.W. (1989).  Homework: A cross-cultural examination.  Child Development, 60, 551-561.

Duckworth, A.L., Gendler, T.S. & Gross, J.J. (2014).  Self-control in school-age children.  Educational Psychologist, 49, 199-217.

Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance in adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944.

Milkman, K.L., Minson, J.A. & Volpp, K.G. (2014).  Holding The Hunger Games hostage and the gym: An evaluation of temptation bundling.  Management Science, 60, 283-299.

Mischel, W. & Baker, N. (1975).  Cognitive appraisals and transformations in delay behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 254-261.  

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E.B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972).  Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 204-218.

Moffitt, T., et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 2693-2698.

Moore, B., Mischel, W. & Zeiss, A.  (1976).  Comparative effects of the reward stimulus and its cognitive representation in voluntary delay.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 419-424.

Tangney, J., Baumeister, R., & Boone, A.L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271-324.

 

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