How to Increase Self-Control: What psychology has to tell us about gaining self mastery
You know how it goes (and if you don’t I envy you): Staying up late when you intended not to, eating too much bad stuff, drinking, lying on the couch instead of exercising, fantasizing about success without working hard toward it, spending more time on Facebook than on your dissertation. Does any of that sound familiar?
Self-control is the key to happiness. Okay, not the key, but certainly a cornerstone. Happily will power has been studied by psychologists. So what does psychological research tell us about willpower and how to increase it?
One or two marshmallows?
You might be familiar with the famous “marshmallow test” research in which a bunch of four-year-olds were left alone for five minutes with one marshmallow and a bell.
Each child was given a set of simple instructions. If they rang the bell, the researcher would come back and they could immediately eat the marshmallow.
If, however, they didn’t ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, he would bring them another marshmallow (as long as they hadn’t eaten the first one), thus providing them two to eat – deferred gratification in action. So what?
The far-reaching benefits of self-control
Researchers then tracked these children right the way into adulthood. The ones who had shown self-control in this simple test were found to be more successful academically and in their careers; have fewer mental health problems; have better, more stable relationships; and be happier and healthier than their less self-disciplined peers.
But does this mean that good self-control is inborn? That we’re either genetically gifted with self-discipline or we have to lead a life of addiction, missed targets, and broken promises and dreams? Not according to research. Self-control can be learned. And here are some of the ways you can do it.
Use it or lose it
Apparently as a young man the nineteenth century explorer Sir Richard Burton (not to be confused with Elizabeth Taylor’s rebounding hubby) would wait until he was very hungry, buy some cream cakes, and put them on a plate.
He would smell them, salivate, really want them, and then…give them away. In this way, he felt, he strengthened his will, which would later serve him well during sometimes terrible deprivation throughout his explorations of Africa and Arabia.
Recent research shows he was onto something. It seems willpower really is like a muscle, in that the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. So remember that even when it feels tough, it will get easier. The more you exercise your will and determination, the more naturally motivated you’ll begin to feel.
In other research, it was found that exercising your will has a similar effect on the body as exercising your body; it depletes glycogen stores. A muscle can only take so much load, and so can your willpower. Drain your muscles of too much glycogen and they’ll stop working until they replenish; it’s the same with willpower.
So avoid activities that needlessly drain your willpower supplies, like hanging out with that really annoying person whom you have to keep (through Herculean efforts) from yelling at. This wasted willpower expenditure may weaken your capacity later to direct your will towards truly productive ends.
You only have so much willpower to go around so be careful what you use it for. So other than exercising it, preserving it for where you really want to use it what else can you do to keep yourself in check?
When the going gets tough, state your core values
Weak willpower makes us do things that are against our core beliefs. This is why we can feel so bad afterward. If my health is important to me, then I’m going to be very disappointed if I drink ten pints of beer and three pizzas of an evening.
Likewise, if hard work matters to you but you spend the night watching garbage TV when you’d intended to work on your book, then you’re going to feel as if you have transgressed your own values.
But it’s been found that purposefully stating your core values during times of willpower weakness can have powerful effects in bolstering willpower.
So next time you feel tempted to smoke that cigarette, say to yourself (or even out loud), “my health is important to me!” or “self-control matters in my life.” It seems doing this hooks us out of our singular weak-willed focus to a wider perspective giving us a brief window to help grasp the reins of our willpower once again.
And talking of taking the wider view…
Think about (and really imagine) the consequences
I recall being with a friend when I was about 12. We had a bag of toffees (candy) and I was unashamedly scoffing away like one of those guys in an “eat as much as you can” competition. Eventually I offered him one. He had a couple and I asked him if he didn’t want more. What he said has stayed with me ever since.
“If I have any more, I’ll feel really weighed down later on.”
Of course! Eating those toffees like a crazed pig at truffle trough would have consequences; he was thinking about them and I wasn’t. This sounds so obvious, but profound things often are.
Getting into the habit of consciously imagining the impact of what you are about to do can bolster your willpower in just the same way as focusing on your core strengths and values during times of temptation. If we only “live in the now”, our willpower will wilt quicker than a flower in a sealed vacuum. So, finally…
Ditch the excuses
Don’t lie to yourself – or at least know that you are lying. Justifying to myself that it might actually help my PhD project if I start next week because I’ll be more relaxed after watching the James Bond TV marathon over the weekend is bull – and part of me knows this. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance” but we can just call it bull. Finding reasons to flatter ourselves is what people do.
Because of course it feels better to tell myself that I decided not to go for a run because it was important I chat on the phone with a friend who needed to talk (therefore making me such a nice and good person) than admitting to myself I used that as an excuse to cover my own weakness.
Once you start being honest with why you really haven’t done stuff that would have been good to do and have done stuff that had bad consequences, it actually becomes much harder to maintain the pretense. So along with stating your core values, tell yourself honestly;
“Okay, I am feeling tempted to be lazy and weak tonight; but actually self-discipline and hard work are really important to me!”
Will power and self discipline are timeless issues. Two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Seneca put it well:
“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”
Now where did I put that second marshmallow?