Top 10 Self-Control Techniques

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The science of self-control: use rewards, commitments, self-affirmation, adjust values, fight the unconscious and more…

Self-control is vital to our success.

People who have good self-control tend to be both more popular and more successful in many areas of life. Those with low self-control, though, are at risk of overeating, addictions and underachievement.

Unfortunately, as we all know to our cost, self-control frequently fails. Part of the problem is we overestimate our ability to resist temptation (Nordgren et al., 2009).

Self-control can be built up, like a muscle (Baumeister et al., 2006). But you need to do the right types of mental exercises. So, here are ten techniques to boost your self-control that are based on psychological research.

1. Respect low ego

Research has found that self-control is a limited resource (Vohs et al., 2000). Exercising it has clear physiological effects, like lower glucose levels (Gailliot et al., 2007).

At any one time we only have so much self-control in the tank. When you’ve been tightly controlling yourself, the tank is low and you become more likely to give in to temptation. Psychologists call this ‘ego-depletion’.

Recognise when your levels of self-control are low and make sure you find a way to avoid temptation during those times. The first step to greater self-control is acknowledging when you’re at your weakest.

2. Pre-commit

Make the decision before you’re in the tempting situation. Pre-committing yourself to difficult goals can lead to increased performance. In one study by Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002) students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves performed better than those who didn’t.

Only take a limited amount of money with you to curtail spending, or only have healthy foods at home to avoid the temptation to go astray.

It’s difficult to pre-commit because normally we like to leave our options open. But if you’re harsh on you future self, you’re less likely to regret it.

3. Use rewards

Rewards can really work to help strengthen self-control. Trope and Fishbach (2000) found that participants were better able to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains when they had a self-imposed reward in mind. So setting ourselves rewards does work, even when it’s self-imposed.

4. …and penalties

Just like the carrot, the stick also works. Not only should we promise ourselves a reward for good behaviour, we should also give ourselves a penalty for bad behaviour.

When Trope and Fishbach (2000) tested self-imposed penalties experimentally, they found the threat of punishment encouraged people to act in service of their long-term goals.

5. Fight the unconscious

Part of the reason we’re easily led into temptation is that our unconscious is always ready to undermine our best intentions.

Fishbach et al. (2003) found that participants were easily tempted outside their conscious awareness by the mere suggestions of temptation. On the other hand, the same was also true of goals. When goals were unconsciously triggered, participants turned towards their higher-order goals.

The practical upshot is simple. Try to keep away from temptations—both physically and mentally—and stay close to things that promote your goals. Each unconsciously activates the associated behaviour.

6. Adjust expectations

Even if it doesn’t come naturally, try to be optimistic about your ability to avoid temptations.

Studies like Zhang and Fishbach (2010) suggest that being optimistic about avoiding temptation and reaching goals can be beneficial. Participants who were optimistic stuck at their task longer than those who had been asked to make accurate predictions about reaching a goal.

Allow yourself to overestimate how easy it will be to reach your goal. As long as it doesn’t spill over into fantasy-land, being fuzzy on the tricky bits can motivate.

7. Adjust values

Just as you can try to think more optimistically, you can also change how you value both goals and temptations. Research suggests that devaluing temptations and increasing the value of goals increases performance (Fishbach et al., 2009).

When we value our goal more we automatically orient ourselves towards it. In the same way devaluing temptations helps us automatically avoid them.

8. Use your heart

The heart often rules the head, so use your emotions to increase self-control.

In one study children were able to resist eating marshmallows by thinking of them as ‘white clouds’ (Mischel & Baker, 1975). This is one way of avoiding temptations: by cooling down the emotions associated with them.

You can increase the pull towards your goal in the same way: think about the positive emotional aspects of achieving it; say, the pride, or excitement.

9. Self-affirmation

Sometimes exercising self-control means avoiding a bad habit. One way of doing this is by using self-affirmations. This means reaffirming the core things you believe in. This could be family, creativity or anything really, as long as it’s a core belief of yours.

When participants in one study did this, their self-control was replenished (the study is described here: self-affirmation in self-control). Thinking about core values can help top-up your self-control when it’s been depleted.

10. Think abstract

Part of the reason self-affirmations work is that they make us think in the abstract. And abstract thinking has been shown to boost self-control.

In research described here, Fujita et al. (2006) found that people thinking in the abstract (versus concrete) were more likely to avoid temptation and better able to persist at difficult tasks.

We are more likely to think abstract if we think about the reasons why we’re doing something, rather than just how we’re doing it.

Another good reason not to give in…

There’s a comforting thought that if we give in to temptation just this once, we’ll come back stronger afterwards.

However psychological research has suggested this isn’t true. Students who had a good (versus mediocre) break from studying to ‘replenish’ themselves didn’t show increased motivation when they returned (Converse & Fishbach, 2008, described in Fishbach et al., 2010).

If all else fails, know that giving in won’t bring you back stronger. Worse, giving in to temptation may well just increase your tendency to crumble again in the future.

Image credit: Shivenis

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 6 April 2011

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Images: Creative Commons License