How Self Control Works, And How To Boost Your Willpower By Better Understanding It

How Self Control Works, And How To Boost Your Willpower By Better Understanding It

Self-control is be a tricky thing, but it’s a necessary resource to understand if you want to make better decisions and life choices. Here’s a look at how it works, and how to produce it.If we were entirely logical, we’d be able to abandon our bad habits, curb temporary moments of insanity, and practice self-control. Our logic is paired with emotion, however, and sometimes our emotions motivate us to make poor decisions. That’s where self control comes in. Here’s a deeper look into how self control works, followed by several ways to more effectively exert your supply of self control in order to make smarter decisions.

How Self Control Works

Back when basic survival was difficult, practicing the kind of self-control we need today wasn’t always necessary. We’d have to hunt for our food if we wanted to eat, and we’d eat what we could find in order to live. Eventually we figured out that this isn’t the most efficient way to work and invented one of the biggest life hacks of all time: agriculture. Suddenly there was food when we needed it, and what was once a constant fight for survival became (relatively) simple. Readily available food made it possible for a surplus of certain foods which made it possible to overeat. It took a long time for this to become a serious problem, but today we face a problem of excess consumption. Shifts such as this helped create a serious need for self-control in new aspects of our lives.

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So why is self control so difficult to produce?We are terrible at predicting the futureright nowand

Practise, Practise, Practise

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Find Adequate Distractions

As we’ve learned from the fairly well-known kid’s marshmallow experiment, conducted by Walter Mischel, distracting yourself can be a good method of self control. When temptation is in front of you, it’s hard to say no. If you can distract yourself and avoid thinking about that temptation, however, it’s often enough to keep you from making a bad choice. Simple distractions, such as sitting on your hands to physically restrict yourself or having a conversation to keep your mind occupied are both easy and effective. The idea is that the more your mind and body are tied up in other actions, the less bandwidth you’ll have available to try and indulge in a particular vice. Simply put: restrict and distract yourself to avoid making poor choices.

Take Care of Yourself

How Self-Control Works, and How to Boost Your Willpower by Better Understanding It
Photo by Lisa Aslund

You have a limited supply of self-control and exhausting it can breed aggression. You don’t want to deplete your reserves or you’re going to become very unlikable. Keeping yourself healthy on a daily basis, however, can make a big difference. Like with anything, proper diet, exercise and sleep make it easier to do what you need to do. If you can manage all of those things to the point of perfection, you’re probably not reading this article. A more realistic trick is just having a snack. Keeping yourself nourished throughout the day — preferably with several smaller meals rather than a few big ones — is one of the easiest ways to keep an adequate reserve of self-control. You’ll still have to exert that control — perhaps when choosing what to eat — but it’s a fool’s errand without adequate energy.

Fabricate Disadvantage

It’s hard to become addicted to cigarettes if you can’t get cigarettes. People without the financial means to purchase a vice like cigarettes can’t participate in that vice. Additionally, people will more readily participate in a vice like smoking if the consequences are far off. If a single cigarette will kill you on the spot, and you know this, you’ll avoid it like you’ll avoid an electric fence. Putting yourself into extreme poverty or giving yourself a deadly nicotine allergy (if that’s even possible) are extreme measures you’d never actually want to pursue as a means to quit smoking. Still, they do offer some helpful clues: difficulty and fear.

If you have difficulty obtaining a cigarette, you don’t have to exert quite so much self control. Often times this means keeping your cigarettes somewhere that’s hard to access so getting them requires additional effort. Basically, if a vice is easy to obtain, you need to find ways to make it harder.

Fear is also a great means of self control. It’s easier to adjust your diet or kick a habit if you truly believe it’s going to kill you or cause immediate harm. If you have a peanut allergy, you don’t eat peanuts, no matter how badly you want to, because you know the immediate consequences are pretty dire. In order to use fear as a self-control mechanism, you need to be able to make the consequences of a particular action feel immediate. For example, I have no trouble controlling my intake of alcohol and I don’t have an interest in drugs because my family has a history of addiction. I’ve seen what it can do first-hand. Before I decide to drink or even take an over-the-counter drug I remember the consequences and it helps me avoid making bad choices. How you make the consequences feel immediate and influence your decisions is highly personal, but it should always be safe. You can eat donuts until you vomit so you’ll never want to go near another donut again, but that’s not really a harmless solution. What you can do is spend time with people who are the poster children for poor life choices and fearfully think of them next time you want to indulge.

(If you’re curious about the science behind fear being an effective method for self-control, read this article.)

Practising self-control isn’t easy for anybody. It takes a lot of work, and you’ll get better at it the more you practise. With the right strategies, like the ones mentioned here, you can avoid temptation when doing so is in your best interest. If you’ve got any other great strategies for controlling yourself, be sure to share them in the comments.


  • Good article!

    I often struggle to control my intake of food, to get around the issue I try and carry no money on me, or at least enough for one coffee and a small lunch.

    I find that by doing this I can’t give into my temptations to buy an afternoon kitkat or any other indulgences.

  • Fear is not always a good motivator for health related behaviour change. It often only works on people who are already well on the way to the desired behaviour. In other words, it may reinforce a behaviour change that has already occurred, but it is unlikely to drive change. This is because fear will often lead to avoidance (not thinking about the problem) or fatalism (I’m already doomed, so there’s no point doing anything now).
    HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns are a good example. The fear-based ones appeal to people who already practise risk-reduction behaviour, but have little effect on those who don’t. At risk people see the frightening images and think it’s too late for them; or ‘other’ them – they rationalise that they are not at risk, so they don’t have to do anything.

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