Hands up if you have ever tried to:
- lose weight
- exercise regularly
- eat healthy
- stop procrastinating
- give up smoking
- save money, and/or
- earn a tertiary qualification.
Pat yourself on the back if you have been successful!
If your efforts have been less than successful, you probably already know that you lack enough self-control (a.k.a. willpower, grit, fortitude, discipline, determination).
According to the American Psychological Association, people identified a lack of self-control as the number one issue holding them back from achieving their goals.
The professional definition of self-control is:
- The capacity to control your behaviour to avoid temptations and to accomplish your goals.
- The ability to resist what you want in the short-term to achieve what you want in the long-term.
- A finite resource that can be exhausted.
Why Is Self-Control Important?
Psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous Marshmallow Test studied the importance of delayed gratification:
In the test, children could choose whether they wanted to eat one marshmallow straight away or wait a short while and get two marshmallows. The researcher would then leave the child alone in a room with a single marshmallow.
Not surprisingly, most of the kids ate the single marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room. Some kids, however, held out for two marshmallows.
The study went on to show that the children who had the ability to delay gratification in exchange for an increased reward also performed better academically - superior grades, higher academic test scores, and increased educational attainment - than the children who succumbed to temptation immediately.
Researchers, Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, noted that self-control was more important in academic success than IQ. Not only that, but those with greater self-discipline have been found to enjoy better relationships, are less inclined to abuse alcohol and other substances, experience fewer mental health difficulties, have improved overall physical health, and a higher self-esteem.
Barriers to Self-Control
The barriers to self-control are the opposite of the psychological definition:
- The emotional, impulsive side of us that urges us to give in to our immediate desires and act recklessly without considering the likely long-term effects.
- While exercising self-control long-term tends to strengthen it, short-term it is limited. When your willpower reservoir is depleted on one task, you will find it difficult to muster your self-control on other tasks throughout your day.
Before looking at ways to increase your self-confidence, you need to be clear about what your goal is, and why you have set it. Then you need to set up a system to track your behaviour. Every. single. day. It's the only way to make sure that your actions are in line with what needs to be done to reach your goal.
How to Improve Your Self-Control
- "Avoid temptation. This is an effective way of making the most of your available self-control. Avoiding temptation ensures that you do not "use up" your available self-control before it is really needed.
- Plan ahead. Consider possible situations that might break your resolve. If you are faced with temptation, what actions will you take to avoid giving in? Research has found that planning ahead can improve willpower even in situations where people have experienced the effects of itsdepletion.
- Practice using self-control. While your control might become depleted in the short-term, regularly engaging in behaviors that require you to exert self-control will improve your willpower over time. Think of self-control as a muscle. While hard work may exhaust the muscle in the short-term, the muscle will grow stronger over time as you continue to work it.
- Try focusing on one goal at a time. Setting a lot of goals at once (such as making a list of New Year's resolutions) is usually an ineffective approach. Depleting your willpower in one area can reduce self-control in others areas. It is best to choose one specific goal and focus your energy on it. Once you turn the behaviours needed to reach a goal into habits, you will not need to devote as much effort toward maintaining them. You can then use your resources to achieve other goals."
Take the quiz below to firm up your plan to strengthen your self-control: