Self-control is the ability to regulate and alter your responses in order to avoid undesirable behaviors, increase desirable ones, and achieve long-term goals. Research has shown that possessing self-control can be important for health and well-being.1
Common goals such as losing weight, exercising regularly, eating healthy, not procrastinating, giving up bad habits, and saving money are just a few worthwhile ambitions that people believe require self-control.
What Is Self-Control?
People use a variety of terms for self-control, including discipline, determination, grit, willpower, and fortitude.
Psychologists typically define self-control as:2
- The ability to control behaviors in order to avoid temptations and to achieve goals
- The ability to delay gratification and resist unwanted behaviors or urges
- A limited resource that can be depleted
Still, some researchers believe that self-control is partly determined by genetics, with some just born better at it than others.3
How important is self-control in your day-to-day life? A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 27% of respondents identified a lack of willpower as the primary factor keeping them from reaching their goals.
Whether your goal is to lose weight, earn a college degree, or quit smoking, it is easy to believe that achieving a goal is simply a matter of controlling your behaviors. The majority of people surveyed believe that self-control can be both learned and strengthened. Researchers have also identified a number of different factors and strategies that can help people improve their self-control.
Researchers have found that people who have better self-control tend to be healthier and happier.
In one experiment, students who exhibited greater self-discipline had better grades, higher test scores, and were more likely to be admitted to a competitive academic program. The study also found that when it came to academic success, self-control was a more important factor than IQ scores.4
The benefits of self-control are not limited to academic performance. One long-term health study found that people who were rated as having high levels of self-control during childhood continued to have high levels of physical and mental health in adulthood.
The ability to delay gratification, or to wait to get what you want, is an important part of self-control. People are often able to control their behavior by delaying the gratification of their urges.5 For instance, a person following a specific diet might try to avoid the temptations of indulging in unhealthy foods. As a result, they may delay their gratification and wait until they are able to enjoy an occasional treat.
Delaying gratification involves putting off short-term desires in favor of long-term rewards. Researchers have found that the ability to delay gratification is important not only for attaining goals but also plays an important part in well-being and overall success in life.
The Marshmallow Test
The psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of famous experiments during the 1970s that investigated the importance of delayed gratification.6 In these experiments, children were offered a choice: They could choose to eat one treat right away (usually a cookie or a marshmallow) or they could wait a brief period of time in order to get two snacks.
At this point, the researcher would leave the child alone in a room with a single treat. Not surprisingly, many of the kids chose to eat the single treat the moment the experimenters left the room. However, some of the kids were able to wait for the second treat.
Researchers found that children who were able to delay gratification in order to receive a greater reward were also more likely to have better academic performance than the kids who gave in to temptation immediately.
The “Hot-and-Cool” System
Based on his research, Mischel proposed what he referred to as a “hot-and-cool” system to explain the ability to delay gratification. The hot system refers to the part of our willpower that is emotional, impulsive, and urges us to act upon our desires. When this system takes over, we may give in to our momentary desires and act rashly without considering the potential long-term effects.7
The cool system is the part of our willpower that is rational, thoughtful, and enables us to consider the consequences of our actions in order to resist our impulses. The cool system helps us look for ways to distract us from our urges and find more appropriate ways to deal with our desires.
Research has found that self-control is a limited resource. In the long-term, exercising self-control tends to strengthen it. Practicing self-control allows you to improve it over time.8 However, self-control in the short-term is limited. Focusing all of your self-control on one thing makes it more difficult to exercise your self-control on subsequent tasks throughout your day.
Psychologists refer to this tendency as ego depletion. This happens when people use up their reservoir of willpower on one task, making them unable to muster any self-control to complete the next task.
Self-control is also important for maintaining healthy behaviors. What you eat for breakfast, how often you work out, and whether you go to the doctor regularly are all decisions that are impacted by your levels of self-control and have the potential to affect your health.
Researchers have found that self-control can have a number of potential influences on health and well-being:
- In one study, children who had higher levels of self-control were less likely to become overweight during adolescence.9
- Another study found that participants who had depleted their willpower on an unrelated task were more likely to give in to temptation when later presented with a treat.10
- Studies have also shown that kids who struggle with self-control during childhood are also more likely to use drugs and alcohol in high school.11
While it is clear that self-control is critical for maintaining healthy behaviors, some experts believe that overemphasizing the importance of willpower can be damaging.
The belief that self-control alone can help us reach our goals can lead to people to blame themselves when they are unable to resist temptation. It may also lead to feelings of learned helplessness where people feel that they cannot do anything to change a situation. As a result, people may give up quickly or simply stop trying in the face of obstacles.
Motivation and Monitoring
According to psychologist and researcher Roy Baumeister, lack of willpower is not the only factor that affects goal attainment. If you are working toward a goal, three critical components must be present:5
- There needs to be a clear goal and the motivation to change. Having an unclear or overly general goal (such as losing weight) and insufficient motivation can lead to failure. You are more likely to achieve a clearly defined goal (like losing 10 pounds) with a specific motivation.
- You need to track your actions toward the achievement of the goal. Simply setting the goal is not enough. You need to monitor your behavior each day to ensure that you are doing the things that need to be done in order to reach your goal.
- You need to have willpower. Being able to control your behavior is a critical part of achieving any goal. Fortunately, research suggests that there are steps people can take in order to make the most of their available willpower.
While research suggests self-control has its limitations, psychologists have also found that it can be strengthened with certain strategies.2
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.
Whether it’s the desire to eat, drink, spend, or indulge in some other undesired behavior, one way to avoid temptation is to find a healthy distraction.
Go for a walk, call a friend, throw in a load of laundry, or do whatever it takes to get your mind off the thing that is tempting you at the moment.
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 ego depletion.
For example, if you know you have a hard time controlling those late afternoon snack attacks, eat a well-balanced lunch packed with plenty of fiber, protein, and whole grains that will keep you full longer.
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.
The classic games “red light, green light” or “freeze dance” can help children practice self-control from an early age.
Focus 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 other areas. It is best to choose one specific goal and focus your energy on it.
Once you turn the behaviors 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.
Meditation is a great way to strengthen your self-control muscle. If you’re new to meditation, mindfulness meditation is a great place to start learning how to be more self-aware so you can better resist temptations. This technique can also help you learn to slow your thoughts, which can help you control any gut impulses getting in the way of your self-control.
Remind Yourself of the Consequences
Just like self-control can help you achieve your goals and improve your physical and mental health, a lack of self-control can have adverse effects to your self-esteem, education, career, finances, relationships, and overall health and well-being. Reminding yourself of these consequences can help you stay motivated as you work to control your self-control.