Self control is a slippery term that often creeps back into conversation around the New Year. Food is often the subject of much of this kind of conversation, in which people find themselves chocking up their bad habits to “a lack of self discipline” or “impulse issues” that often seem out of their control.
While self control is an aspect of behavioral regulation that effects everything from diet and exercise to sleeping patterns, it also influences social interaction, “guilty pleasures,” and our preferences. However, it is not an aspect of our personalities that is innately fixed.
In fact, the latest research suggests that self control is a learned behavior, one that needs to be practiced regularly in order to be maintained. This is good news for people who think they can’t learn to have more self control. While business magazines like Forbes suggest that “self discipline is the number one trait needed to accomplish goals, lead a healthy lifestyle, and ultimately be happy,” self control is a little more nuanced than that. And this is a good thing!
Our ability to regulate and restrict our behavior, when necessary, is a fundamental aspect of how we interact with the world. If we can’t seem to put down our phones during our free time, for example, it might be beneficial to reevaluate what other aspects of our self control could use a tune up.
Here are five ways to improve your self control– according to psychologists, life coaches, and the world’s most disciplined thought leaders.
5 – Identify Your Goal Conflicts
People with more self control tend to take the emotion out of their decision making calculous. Instead of using up lots of mental bandwidth agonizing over a decision, they make one quickly and roll with it. They see food as fuel; not an antagonistic temptation. They see awkward conversations as necessary means to a bigger end; not cringe-worthy moments to obsess over later.
People with high self control might see getting up early as a necessary part of getting to the gym on time before work, so they don’t harp on how tired they might feel in the moment.
Moreover, people with high self control have learned to move past momentary discomfort by viewing their goals as something they can achieve by following logical steps. They focus on these logical steps, and take luck and their own feelings of self worth out of the equation. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say– and neither is an improved capacity for self discipline.
What Are Goal Conflicts?
“Goal Conflicts” arise when misplaced emotions muddy up the real problem at hand– the thing that is actually getting in the way of you achieving your goal. If, for example, you are an emotional eater, you may allow outside circumstances– like losing your job or a stressful day– dictate how hungry you “think” you are. (For more info on how to cope with this impulse, read our 5 Step Guide to Identifying Misplaced Emotions.)
When actively trying to improve your self control, write out a list of potential goal conflicts on a piece of paper. This includes pre-existing goals that may get in the way of your new goal. Then, write out one thing you could do to address each conflict. (E.g. If your girlfriend is always baking cookies and you can’t resist eating them, ask her to give them away, or bake less. This will allow you to simultaneously support her interests while making sure that this doesn’t sabotage yours.)
Once you have identified a few strategies for avoiding goal conflicts, tear up the paper. You’ll remember what you need to be wary of, and no one else needs to know unless you want them to.
After you’ve done this, make it a habit to check in with your goal conflicts regularly, like on a weekly or monthly basis. Additional studies show that evaluating your goals as a process, not a final destination, makes you more likely to stick with the discipline necessary to achieve them.
4 – Accept The Challenges
It’s not easy, nor is it possible, to upend learned behavior overnight. This is why it’s important to understand that becoming a more disciplined person is a process. Get in the habit of forgiving yourself for present, past, and future transgressions. We promise: nothing will make reaching your goals further out of reach than expecting the process of getting there to be quick.
Most people who you perceive as “having it all together” are struggling with their own issues. Many successful people have to work very hard to get to where they are now. It’s the same for all of us. We all need to put in the work.
If you reframe the way you see challenges, they will be easier to accept. Consider viewing challenges and setbacks as stepping stones that help you get to where you are going.
We’re not saying you should rejoice when things don’t go your way. But there IS a benefit to taking these challenges in stride, and asking yourself: What can I learn from this? This ethos can be summed up in a common expression: “If you focus on the pain, you will continue to suffer. But if you focus on the lesson, you will continue to grow.”
3 – Forgive Yourself
I know, I know: this sounds cheesy. But it’s essential that you do not beat yourself up if you fail to achieve your goal– or make progress towards reaching it.
If you do something that you deem as being antithetical to progress– like eating a cookie when you told yourself you wouldn’t eat any sugar today— then it’s best to just forgive yourself and move on. There is zero benefit to beating yourself up in this situation. Let. It. Go.
2 – Reward Yourself Early and Often
Barack Obama supposedly had a saying inside the White House: Better is Good. Meaning: Don’t beat yourself up if things aren’t perfect. Even moving 20% in the direction of your goals is “good”– the alternative is not having moved forward at all.
Research conducted at the University of Chicago suggests that the presence of immediate rewards is a strong predictor of persistence in goal-related activities (as opposed to looking forward to delayed rewards as motivation). So, reward yourself early and often.
Did you go three days without practicing that bad habit you’re trying to kick for a year? Great, time to celebrate. Building more self control is hard, but like a snowball it builds on itself over time. Reward yourself every time you notice yourself making steps in a positive direction.
1- Remove Temptations
Unlike other aspects of self evaluation where it’s considered “avoidance behavior” to actively remove the thing that causes you harm, removing temptations is almost essential for those who want to improve their self control. For example, if you can’t avoid cookies, keep them out of your house.
Another example: If you’re trying to build more confidence but can’t help but compare yourself when you see other people doing cool things on Instagram, go on social media less. There is no down side to removing temptation if it is severely impacting your life.
Newly recovering alcoholics, for example, are advised not to keep alcohol in their homes– even if it’s for another person, like a gift. Overall, no matter what you’re looking to improve, the expression “out of sight, out of mind” really does apply here. Use it to your advantage.
Want more self-improvement guides? Read our article on How to Identify Misplaced Emotions.