35 Ways to Strengthen Your Willpower and Self-Control
Self-control: the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate pleasure so you can enjoy the deeper and more meaningful satisfaction of achieving a long-term goal. Put that way, doesn’t self-control sound like a no-brainer? Simply use your willpower to say ‘No” to whatever is tempting you, and you will enjoy a life of untold riches.
So why is it that every last one of us wages an exhausting daily battle with ourselves, sometimes many times a day? We want to pay attention to the angel on our shoulder who is encouraging us to remember our best selves and to think of the future. But when the devil on the other side whispers, “Live for the moment. You can be good tomorrow,” it’s awfully tempting to fold like a house of cards. Do we have to be superheroes to make any progress in our lives?
Is There Something Wrong With You?
No and yes. There’s nothing wrong with you, the individual Susan or Donna or Anna. When you suffer a failure of self-control, it’s not because of a flaw in your personality. Rather it is human nature and, specifically, your very human brain.
“Our human nature includes both the self that wants immediate gratification and the self with a higher purpose. We are born to be tempted, and born to resist” writes Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and author of an excellent book, The Willpower Instinct.
Willpower is seated in the prefrontal cortex of your brain, the part right behind your forehead. That’s the part of your brain responsible for behaviour, attention, judgments, decisions, and emotions.
When there is a failure of self-control, it is because your brain is struggling with one or more of the following:
- All-or-nothing thinking. Relentless self-control is simply impossible.
- Overestimating your ability to exert your will regardless of circumstances or time of day.
- Underestimating the massive difficulty of changing entrenched patterns of behaviour.
- Depleting your energy with fears of the worst that could happen if you keep on failing to control yourself.
- Moral licensing, meaning that when you follow up the tub of icecream with the dinner of carrot sticks you convince yourself that balance has been restored.
- Optimistic fantasies about how easily your future self is going to be able to handle the willpower challenges that are clobbering your present self.
You Aren’t the Only One Doing Battle
There are two big theories in the study of self-control.
The ego depletion theory is the idea that willpower is a limited resource. Since willpower comes from one place in your brain, it can be used up. If you use your willpower to force yourself to exercise, for example, there might not be any left when, an hour later, you are tempted with a bag of your favourite potato chips.
Ego depletion has been the prevailing self-control theory since it was developed in the mid-90’s by research psychologist, Roy Baumeister. But in 2015, researchers reviewed all of the studies that supported ego depletion. Concerned that the results seemed too supportive of the theory to be accurate, researchers attempted to replicate the studies using tasks that were different from the original experiments. They were unable to find evidence of ego depletion. Baumeister claims that the tasks used in the new study are foolish. He is setting up new tests to reprove his theory.
A few years ago Carol Dweck, another research psychologist, stepped forward with her theory of fixed and growth mindsets. She says that willpower is all about what you believe. If you believe that your willpower is limited and can be exhausted, you will look for evidence to support that belief. When confronted with the bag of potato chips, you will cut yourself some slack for eating them because you think your willpower has been depleted.
On the other hand, if you believe that willpower is renewable and that you are capable of achieving your goals, you will view the bag of potato chips as just another obstacle to your goal, one that you are determined to overcome.
Baumeister disagrees, saying that if the willpower depletion is minimal you may be able to push your way through a new challenge. However, if the depletion is significant, “belief in unlimited willpower is no help. In fact, it makes things worse.”
35 Ways to Improve Your Self-Control
We don’t know yet whose theory is correct. Perhaps they are both right, or both wrong. Let’s leave the theorists to battle it out and turn our attention to actions we can take that will strengthen our self-control. I have reviewed dozens of studies and culled thirty-five excellent strategies for your consideration. The suggestions are not in any kind of priority order. Dip in and try whichever tips work for you and your unique circumstances.
1. Choose and Define Your Goal
Lose the all-or-nothing thinking. Don’t attempt to control your every move. As Kelly McGonigal tells us, “Trying to control every aspect of your thoughts, emotions and behaviour is a toxic strategy. It is too big a burden for your biology.”
Choose a goal that you really want to achieve, frame it positively, and define it clearly. For example, you might have a goal of sitting down to a delicious breakfast that includes all food groups.
Do some research to make sure that whatever routine or behaviour you want to put in place is one of the vital 20% rather than the trivial 80%.
Cut yourself some slack if you are in the midst of a particularly difficult situation, or dealing with lots of competing demands. Mid-divorce, for example, may not be the time to give up wine and chocolate.
2. Pay Attention
Take another look at the list of what your brain struggles with in ‘Is There Something Wrong With You?’ above. We all have a tendency to spend most of our lives on autopilot, running the same behaviours and the same scripts over and over and over. To succeed at a self-control challenge, we have to recognize when we are making a choice that requires willpower. If we don’t, it is guaranteed that our brains will always default to whatever is easiest, which means our impulses rather than our goals.
Notice when you are making a choice and remind yourself of your goal. Posting your goal in prominent places can help.
3. Conduct your own Experiment
Commit to watching yourself fail. That sounds negative and not very helpful for strengthening your willpower, but it does work. Train yourself to notice what you are thinking, feeling and doing when you give in to an impulse. This is Kegan’s immunity to change work that I’ve written about here and here. The idea is that the more you can become a curious observer of your own behaviours, the easier it will be to catch yourself early in the process and reverse your self-defeating behaviours.
4. Eat Sugar
I’ll bet you didn’t expect to see this suggestion! This one comes from the Ego Depletion camp. Their idea is that when your willpower is used up, it’s actually glucose or energy in your brain that is depleted. If you swish a sugary drink around in your mouth, you can trick your brain into believing that more glucose is available to it.
Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.Marcus Aurelius
You can use a candy mint instead of a sugary drink, but you need to make sure the mint contains sugar not aspartame. Apparently both your mouth and your brain can tell the difference.
5. Be Optimistic
And from the Mindset camp, you are encouraged to be optimistic about your ability to resist temptation. Research suggests you will stay with a task longer if you are optimistic rather than realistic.
6. Say “I Don’t”, Not “I Can’t”
This suggestion is about giving you greater agency, a sense of control over your life. When you say “I don’t,” you are affirming your determination. When you say “I can’t,” you are suggesting that someone or something is controlling and depriving you. The difference is obvious when you consider these two statements: “I don’t eat potato chips” versus “I can’t have potato chips.”
7. Get Some Sleep
If you aren’t getting 6.5–7.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, self-control is going to be really hard to come by. When deprived of sleep, the cells in your body have trouble absorbing glucose from your bloodstream. Your body and brain will crave energy which you will attempt to provide in the form of either sugar or caffeine. Neither substance works over the long haul because your body and brain can’t use them efficiently.
As McGonigal reminds us, “Running low on energy biases us to be the worst version of ourselves.”
8. Feed Your Brain
Good nutrition is required to give your brain good energy. Superfoods for a healthy brain include: blueberries, wild salmon, nuts and seeds, avocados, whole grains, beans, pomegranate juice, tea, and dark chocolate. The great news, as if dark chocolate wasn’t enough, is that eating the right foods for your brain boosts your willpower for any challenge and can help you achieve any weight loss goal.
Physical exercise has been proven to increase endorphins and therefore improve mood. Exercise also increases blood and oxygen flow to your brain, with the prefrontal cortex showing the greatest effect. Research on children, adolescents, and adults up to age 35 has shown that short, intense bursts of exercise boost self-control by improving concentration, planning, decision making, and memory.
Like food and sleep, exercise offers the dual benefit of being both a self-control goal for many people and an important part of achieving a self-control goal in any area of your life.
Relaxation for better self-control has nothing to do with couch surfing and everything to do with true physical relaxation. You will know that you’ve achieved complete relaxation when your heart rate and breathing slow, blood pressure drops, and muscles release any held tension. Your brain will also be relaxed, neither planning the future nor analyzing the past.
To relax body and brain, take 5-10 minutes for yourself. Lie on your back with pillows under your knees to slightly elevate your legs. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your belly to rise and fall. If you feel any tension in any part of your body, intentionally squeeze or contract that muscle then release.
11. Forgive Yourself
Many of us are Olympic calibre when it comes to self-criticism. It’s important to remember that slipping up on a self-control goal is nowhere near the magnitude of, say, selling a baby into slavery.
Self-criticism has been shown, time and again, as absolutely lethal to both motivation and self-control. Instead of reviving our will to improve, self-criticism produces a ‘what-the-hell’ effect where we do more of whatever got us into trouble in the first place.
When you feel inclined to beat yourself up, reread “Is Something Wrong With You?” at the beginning of this post and remind yourself that you are human. You might also try thinking about what you would say to a friend facing a similar struggle. How would you encourage her to keep going?
12. Keep Track
Keeping track is a proven strategy if you are trying to lose weight. Multiple studies have shown that people who write down everything they eat in a food journal lose double the weight of those who don’t record.
But weight loss isn’t the only self-control goal to benefit from tracking. If you don’t think you have the time to achieve a goal, take a few weeks and track your time to see where it’s going. There are apps you can use for this – Rescue Time and Toggl are two of the big ones. (Update: You’ll find an excellent review of Toggl on the Freelance Effect site.) Or you can go old school and complete this 168 hour timesheet that has been divided into 15 minute increments. Once you know what’s happening to your time, you can make new decisions.
Tracking your time, your food, or your exercise frequency reminds you of your goal (see #1 and #2). Tracking can also remind you to remain optimistic (see #5). When you start saying things like “I haven’t exercised in ages,” you can look back at your tracking and see that ‘ages’ was actually just three days ago.
We do this one day at a time in a row.posted on a recovery website
Finally, keeping track can actually help you stay on track. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is credited with popularizing the concept of “Don’t break the chain.” When a young comic asked for advice about how he could be successful, Jerry replied that success required good jokes. Good jokes come from practice, from writing every single day. So Jerry told the comic to get a big wall calendar and x out every day that he wrote. He explained that once momentum was achieved and there was a row of x’s, the goal was simply to not break the chain. There are several “Don’t break the chain” apps available or you can use this simple 365 day chart.
13. Distract Yourself
The Marshmallow Test is the classic test of self-control in children. This 2 minute video explains it.
The Marshmallow Test was part of a longitudinal study started back in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. Years later, Mischel followed up with the children and found that those who were able to wait to eat the marshmallow were also, as adults, able to delay gratification and resist temptation when pursuing their goals. As a result, they reported successful long-term marriages, good health, and high career satisfaction compared to the children who didn’t wait.
The Marshmallow Test has been repeated dozens of times. In one of the experiments, researchers made an interesting observation. Some children were instructed to think about the marshmallow as being like a fluffy white cloud. Those children were able to wait twice as long before eating the marshmallow as children who were told to think about how chewy and good the treat was going to taste.
How might you use distraction, or thinking about a temptation differently, to serve you and your self-control goal?
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14. Commit in Advance
In one fascinating study, college students were told they would need to hand in three papers that would comprise much of their term grade. Students were assigned to one of three conditions. Some students were:
- Invited to choose their deadlines, committing to them on a simple schedule sheet.
- Told to hand in the papers anytime they wanted as long as they were in by the end of the semester.
- Assigned specific dates spread out evenly over the semester.
When papers were graded, students in the last group did the best. Students given complete freedom performed the worst. And students given some flexibility finished in the middle.
The researchers concluded that for the first group, the act of precommitting had a significant positive impact on the students’ work. Results would have been even better if students had known themselves well enough to set deadlines that would give them the best chance of excellent performance.
What are the implications of this research for you? Avoid the heat of the moment, the lure of temptation, by choosing in advance. Decide what you are having for dinner before you get hungry. Sign up for the multi-month membership at the gym or weight-loss club rather than pay as you go. Schedule the personal training sessions. Ask your employer to automatically deduct money from your paycheque to put into your savings account.
15. Make Changing Your Mind Difficult
Tweak the environment to support your goals. If you are determined to not use credit cards, don’t carry them when you go out to shop. If repeatedly hitting the snooze button is a problem for you, put the alarm clock on the other side of the room.
16. Eliminate Unnecessary Decisions
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wears grey t-shirts every day. President Obama always wears a grey or blue suit. Steve Jobs was famous for his all-black ensemble of turtlenecks and jeans. Art director Matilda Kahl wears a white shirt and black dress pants.
If the Ego Depletion theory has any merit at all, it’s a good idea to reduce the number of decisions you need to make in a day. You might not want to simplify your wardrobe, but how about eating the same breakfast every morning? I do that and it is such a relief to not have to make that decision every day that I’m now experimenting with rotating through seven different dinners. My breakfast, in case you are curious: oatmeal with flax seed, nine almonds, fresh or frozen berries, half of a banana and a bit of brown sugar. Delicious and satisfying.
17. Increase the Attractiveness of the Task
In an effort to log more time on my treadmill, I buy myself entire series of television shows when they are on sale. They are shows I haven’t seen and am interested in watching. The catch is that I only allow myself to watch them when I am walking on the treadmill. I’ve watched The West Wing, ER (over 330 episodes!) and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I’m in the middle of Parenthood with The Newsroom on deck for the near future.
18. Do Something Different
Search out small ways to practice self-control. For example,you might brush your teeth with the opposite hand. Or you could sit up straight if you are used to slouching. There is evidence of transfer from these small practices to increased willpower for self-control goals that matter to you.
One writer claims that there are 78 benefits to meditation; another that there are 100. I haven’t begun to do enough research to feel comfortable citing a particular number. However, I can confirm that meditation improves the four big characteristics important to willpower and self-control: concentration, focus, self-awareness, and self-management. (If you’re interested in other ways to improve concentration and focus, here’s an excellent summary of possibilities.)
I will be writing more about meditation in future posts. For now, if you are unused to meditation consider starting meditating by staring at a candle flame. It’s simple, effective and doesn’t take much time. Ten minutes will do.
20. Slow Your Breathing
This suggestion comes from Kelly McGonigal. She says you can boost your willpower by spending a couple of minutes slowing down your breath to the point that you are exhaling only 4-6 times in a minute. It’s important that you not hold your breath, just slow down on the exhalation. Note that it would work just as well if you were to slow down on inhalation instead, but most people have trouble doing that.
21. Exaggerate Your Choices
Realize that the way you behave now is likely the way you will continue to behave. For example, I love a particular candy from my childhood. Called Rockets (or Smarties in the United States), these rolls of sugary tablets were only enjoyed on Hallowe’en until I found out that my local bulk food store sold them year round. Bad news!
Now when I buy myself a bag of Rockets, I ask myself if I’m really okay with eating a bag of Rockets every single week for the rest of my life. Occasionally the answer is a defiant, “Hell, yes!” but most of the time the question does change my behaviour.
22. Reward Yourself
I have a problem with this suggestion. I understand and support the idea that rather than grind yourself into the ground with self-criticism (see #11), you should make a point of celebrating small achievements. My problem is that the lists of rewards I’ve seen all belong in my category of self-care. In my opinion, we do far too much delaying of pleasures until tomorrow and that tomorrow never comes.
However, if you aren’t at a point where you feel free to enjoy self-care activities as an ongoing part of your life, please at least grant yourself some of these activities as rewards for any and all steps you take in the direction of your goal.
23. Enjoy Life
This one follows naturally from #22 above. When you enjoy positive experiences, your emotional reserves are replenished and your willpower is strengthened.
One of my favourite studies speaks to this suggestion. Although the study is about causes of drug addiction, it offers insights about the difference between how we respond when we feel like we are living life in a park versus a cage. You can read about the Rat Park study in this exceptionally great comic strip.
24. Penalize Yourself
As you might imagine, I’m not a big fan of this suggestion either. I do enough penalizing through self-judgement and self-criticism, thank you. Still, some people have had good results with commitment contracts–agreements whereby they set a goal, a time frame for achieving it, and a sum of money they are prepared to pay out if they fail. If you think this might work for you, check out Stickk for any goal or Pact for food or fitness goals.
25. Talk to Yourself
Talk yourself out of temptation by speaking out loud about your goals. The idea is that talking out loud to yourself about an abstract goal makes it more real. The more real the goal is, the more readily it can compete with a very real and concrete temptation. A word to the wise –You might want to try this suggestion when there’s no one without earshot. Just saying.
26. Think About Your Core Values
Think about your positive traits, the aspects of your personality that are remarked by friends and family. This form of self-affirmation elevates mood and reinforces your conviction that you are able to achieve your self-control goal. It is therefore a suggestion that belongs in the Growth Mindset theory of self-control.
27. Manage Stress
Alcoholics Anonymous and various other recovery groups use the acronym, HALT. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. When you feel any of these, you need to halt and fix the problem. When you are under stress, your body and brain use all available energy to make decisions that will make you feel better in the short-term (see #7 and #8). McGonigal reminds us, “In the long term, nothing drains willpower faster than stress. The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible.”
28. Be Ready with a Script
Are you familiar with the children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? It begins, “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.” Think of your own “if-then” patterns and be ready with a script in your head for how you will deal with them. “If you give Karen a handful of Rockets, then she is going to want a wagonload of them.” (I have yet to write my script.)
29. Name the Problem Part of Your Mind
I first learned of this strategy when I went to a writing course at a Zen monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s where I was told about monkey mind, the busy chattering, screeching that goes on in all of our brains. You can give name to the different monkeys – fear monkey, anxious monkey, critical monkey, or you can decide on your own cast of characters, animal or human.
Naming a problem part of your mind can help you to recognize when this part is taking over. Then you can make use of other strategies in this list to quieten that monkey.
30. Remember Why
When you have a good reason for pursuing your goal, a powerful why, you experience the following benefits:
- willingness to delay gratification in favour of your goal
- greater physical endurance
- stronger intention to exert willpower
- less positive feelings about the temptations that undermine self-control
Rather than denying yourself outright, wait out a desire. If you can, just say to yourself, “Not now. I’ll do that (or have that) later.” If that’s too much to ask, delay for ten minutes.
If you delay when your desire is at its strongest point, chances are good that the desire will diminish within ten minutes. The chances are even better if you distract yourself during that time (see #13), bring to mind your core values (#26), or talk to yourself about your goal (#25).
32. Give It All You’ve Got for Four Days
Talking about commitment, Jack Canfield said, “99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.”
Go for 100% commitment to your goal for four days. Why four days? Life coach Martha Beck, in her wonderful book The Four Day Win, explains that four days is the period of time it takes for a new behaviour to feel like “business as usual.” In four days you will have blasted through the initial resistance and find it easier to keep going, easier to not break the chain (#12).
33. Visualize Your Future and Your Future Self
Let’s say you follow a specific sequence of steps to score a hole-in-one during a golf game. That sequence of steps forms a neural pathway in your brain. So what happens in your brain if you just visualize hitting that white ball from the tee right into the cup? Even then, a neural pathway is formed. Here’s the surprising part: Your brain can’t tell the difference between a neural pathway created by doing an action and one created by visualizing it.
When you are trying to achieve a goal, it is absolutely vital that your future matters. If it doesn’t, there would be no reason to delay gratification and resist temptation in the present.
So you want to make your future as real and vivid as you possibly can. The way to do that is through visualization. Daydream, write down, or create in some artistic form the most vivid and detailed image you can of how you are going to feel in the future when you have achieved your long-term goals. If you wish, you can write a letter to your future self and arrange to have it emailed to you at a date of your choosing.
34. Spend Time in Nature
Researchers took college students into a lab and showed them photos of nature, geometric shapes, or urban settings. Then they gave them a test of self-control that asked them to decide if they’d like a smaller amount of money now or a larger amount later (the adult version of the Marshmallow test – #13). The nature scenes resulted in greater self-control.
The researchers don’t have conclusive answers about why this might be, but they do speculate. One possibility is that we pay more attention when viewing nature (#2); another is that nature slows down our perception of time so we find it easier to delay gratification.
These results came from less than ten minutes of exposure to photographs in a laboratory. Surely time in the real thing would be even better.
35. Don’t Enter the Battle
This final suggestion is a great example of an expression I detest – “Think outside the box.”
There’s a lot of talk of this right now in online posts about morning routines. The idea is a simple one. Rather than using any of the other 34 strategies, proactively arrange your life to prevent problems from happening in the first place. Determine the vital 20% of behaviours that are going to help you achieve your goal and put them in place.
As researcher Brian Galla concludes, “People who are good at self-control…seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.”
I remember being on a first date at a Chinese restaurant years ago. It was an authentic place in Chinatown, where the staff didn’t speak much English. The menu had numbers beside English descriptions of the dishes. We placed our order by writing down the numbers on a slip of paper. Our waitress looked at the paper, said “Too much food! Too much food!” and stroked out half the items.
In the comments section below, let us know which strategies you have tried or want to try. Not too many though. Too much food.