How to Improve Your Self-Control

Psychology of self control

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Self-control is the ability to regulate and alter your responses in order to avoid undesirable behaviors, increase desirable ones, and achieve long-term goals. Research has shown that possessing self-control can be important for health and well-being.

Common goals such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, being more productive, giving up bad habits, and saving money are just a few worthwhile ambitions that usually require self-control to achieve.

This article discusses how self-control is defined, why it is important, and some of the health benefits of having self-control. It also covers how to improve yourself and your ability to manage your behavior and resist temptation.

What Is Self-Control?

People use a variety of terms for self-control, including discipline, determination, grit, willpower, and fortitude.

Psychologists typically define self-control as:

  • The ability to control behaviors in order to avoid temptations and to achieve goals
  • The ability to delay gratification and resist unwanted behaviors or urges
  • A limited resource that can be depleted

Some researchers believe that self-control is partly determined by genetics, with some just born better at it than others.

Importance of Self-Control

How important is self-control in your day-to-day life? A Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 27% of respondents identified a lack of willpower as the primary factor keeping them from reaching their goals. The majority of people surveyed (71%) believed that self-control can be both learned and strengthened.

Researchers have found that people who have better self-control tend to be healthier and happier, both in the short term and in the long term.

In one influential experiment, students who exhibited greater self-discipline had better grades, higher test scores, and were more likely to be admitted to a competitive academic program. The study also found that when it came to academic success, self-control was a more important factor than IQ scores.

The benefits of self-control are not limited to academic performance. One long-term health study found that high levels of self-control during childhood predicted greater cardiovascular, respiratory, and dental health in adulthood, as well as improved financial status.

Delaying Gratification

The ability to delay gratification, or to wait to get what you want, is an important part of self-control. People are often able to control their behavior by delaying the gratification of their urges.

For instance, someone who wants to attend an expensive concert might avoid spending their money on weekend shopping trips. They want to have fun, but they know that by waiting and saving their money, they can afford the exhilarating concert instead of the everyday mall trip.

Delaying gratification involves putting off short-term desires in favor of long-term rewards. Researchers have found that the ability to delay gratification is important not only for attaining goals but also for well-being and overall success in life.

The Marshmallow Test

The psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of well-known experiments during the 1960s and 1970s that investigated the importance of delayed gratification. In these experiments, children were offered a choice: They could choose to eat one treat right away (usually a cookie or a marshmallow), or they could wait a brief period of time in order to get two treats.

At this point, the researcher would leave the child alone in a room with a single treat. Not surprisingly, many of the kids chose to eat the single treat the moment the experimenters left the room. However, some of the kids were able to wait for the second treat.

Researchers found that children who were able to delay gratification in order to receive a greater reward were also more likely to have better academic performance than the kids who gave in to temptation immediately.

The "Hot-and-Cool" System

Based on his research, Mischel proposed what he referred to as a "hot-and-cool" system to explain the ability to delay gratification. The hot system refers to the part of our willpower that is emotional and impulsive and urges us to act upon our desires. When this system takes over, we may give in to our momentary desires and act rashly without considering the potential long-term effects.

The cool system is the part of our willpower that is rational and thoughtful and enables us to consider the consequences of our actions in order to resist our impulses. The cool system helps us look for ways to distract us from our urges and find more appropriate ways to deal with our desires.

Recap

The ability to delay gratification is linked to a number of benefits, including better goal attainment and positive life outcomes. Finding ways to distract yourself from temptation can help you strengthen your ability to delay gratification.

Ego Depletion

Research has found that self-control is a limited resource. In the long term, exercising self-control tends to strengthen it. Practicing self-control allows you to improve it over time. However, self-control in the short term is limited.

Focusing all of your self-control on one goal makes it more difficult to exercise your self-control on subsequent tasks throughout your day.

Psychologists refer to this tendency as ego depletion. This happens when people use up their reservoir of willpower on one task, making them unable to muster any self-control to complete the next task.

Health Benefits of Self-Control

Self-control is also important for maintaining healthy behaviors. What you eat for breakfast, how often you work out, and whether you have a consistent sleep schedule are all decisions that can be affected by your levels of self-control.

Researchers have found that self-control can have a number of potential influences on health and well-being. One longitudinal study found that adults who had greater self-control in childhood were less likely to have:

  • Airflow obstruction
  • Elevated inflammation
  • Metabolic abnormalities
  • Periodontal disease
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Substance dependence or addiction to tobacco, alcohol, or cannabis

While it is clear that self-control is critical for maintaining healthy behaviors, some experts believe that overemphasizing the importance of willpower can be damaging.

The belief that self-control alone can help us reach our goals can lead people to blame themselves when their health is influenced by factors beyond their control. It may also lead to feelings of learned helplessness. If people feel that they cannot do anything to change a situation, they may give up quickly or simply stop trying in the face of obstacles.

Motivation and Monitoring

According to psychologist and researcher Roy Baumeister, lack of willpower is not the only factor that affects goal attainment. If you are working toward a goal, three critical components must be present:

  • There needs to be a clear goal and the motivation to change. Having an unclear or overly general goal (such as "getting stronger") and insufficient motivation can lead to failure. You are more likely to achieve a clearly defined goal (like bench-pressing 150 pounds) with a specific motivation.
  • You need to track your actions toward the achievement of the goal. Simply setting the goal is not enough. You need to monitor your behavior each day to ensure that you are doing the things that need to be done in order to reach your goal.
  • You need to have willpower. Being able to control your behavior is a critical part of achieving any goal. Fortunately, research suggests that there are steps people can take in order to make the most of their available willpower.

Recap

Willpower alone doesn't determine whether or not you will reach a goal. A range of other factors, including your motivation and ability to monitor your progress, also play a critical role.

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How to Improve Self-Control

While research suggests self-control has its limitations, psychologists have also found that it can be strengthened with certain strategies.

Avoid Temptation

This is an effective way of making the most of your available self-control. Avoiding temptation ensures that you do not "use up" your available self-control before it is really needed.

Whether it's the desire to eat, drink, spend, or indulge in some other undesired behavior, one way to avoid temptation is to find a healthy distraction.

Go for a walk, call a friend, throw in a load of laundry, or do whatever it takes to get your mind off whatever is tempting you at the moment.

Plan Ahead

Consider possible situations that might break your resolve. If you are faced with temptation, what actions will you take to avoid giving in? Research has found that planning ahead can improve willpower even in situations where people have experienced the effects of ego depletion.

For example, if you are trying to reduce your sugar intake and you have a hard time controlling late afternoon hunger pangs, eat a well-balanced lunch packed with plenty of fiber, protein, and whole grains that will keep you full longer.

Practice Using Self-Control

While your control might become depleted in the short term, regularly engaging in behaviors that require you to exert self-control will improve your willpower over time. Think of self-control as a muscle. While hard work may exhaust the muscle in the short term, the muscle will grow stronger over time as you continue to work it.

The classic games "red light, green light" or "freeze dance" can help children practice self-control from an early age.

Focus on One Goal at a Time

Setting a lot of goals at once (such as making a list of several New Year's resolutions) is usually an ineffective approach. Depleting your willpower in one area can reduce self-control in other areas. It is best to choose one specific goal and focus your energy on it.

Once you turn the behaviors needed to reach a goal into habits, you will not need to devote as much effort toward maintaining them. You can then use your resources to work on other goals.

Meditate

Meditation is a great way to strengthen your self-control muscle. If you're new to meditation, mindfulness meditation is a great place to start learning how to be more self-aware so you can better resist temptations. This technique can also help you learn to slow your thoughts, which can help you control the gut impulses that can get in the way of your self-control.

Remind Yourself of the Consequences

Just like self-control can help you achieve your goals and improve your physical and mental health, a lack of self-control can have adverse effects on your self-esteem, education, career, finances, relationships, and overall health and well-being. Reminding yourself of these consequences can help you stay motivated as you work to increase your self-control.

Recap

You can improve your own self-control with effort and practice. Avoiding temptations, making a plan, focusing on specific goals, and remembering the consequences of your actions can help you regulate your behavior more effectively.

Summary

Self-control refers to your ability to manage your behavior in order to achieve goals, improve positive outcomes, and avoid negative consequences. Self-control is an important skill that allows us to regulate behavior, and it is vital for attaining goals While self-control is a limited resource, there are things that you can do to improve and strengthen your willpower over time.

A Word From Verywell

Having good self-control can mean a number of benefits, including better academic success, better health, and greater success in life. If you are struggling with self-control, there are steps you can take to get better at managing your impulses, delaying gratification, and regulating your actions in order to achieve your goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does it mean if I don't have self-control?

    There are many factors that can influence your self-control. Some mental health conditions can play a role in making self-control more difficult, including ADHD, substance use, sensory processing issues, social skills problems, and impulse control disorders.

    It is partially influenced by genetics, but experiences can also play an important part. This means that you can strengthen your abilities to control your own behavior with effort and practice.

  • How do I practice self-control?

    Learning how to plan effectively can help with self-control. When you want to accomplish something, think through the steps you will need to follow and develop a plan that will help you stay on track. Thinking about the consequences before you take an action can also help you control yourself in the moment and think more about your long-term goals instead of being swayed by immediate gratification.

  • What does it mean when a child has no self-control?

    It is common for young children to lack self-control because it is an ability that develops as children learn and grow. Different aspects of self-control also begin to emerge at different ages. Research suggests that emotional and behavioral control begins to develop between the ages of three and four years.

    Conditions such as ADHD can make it more difficult for kids to control their impulses. Parents can encourage the development of healthy self-control in kids by practicing activities that involve self-control, setting appropriate limits, and using natural consequences.

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13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Baumeister R, Tierney J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Press.