How Self-Control Works, and How to Boost Your Willpower by Better Understanding It
Adam Dachis — 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.
Of course we needed to learn to control ourselves before this point, as sex, wealth, and power are inherent desires, but the primary manifestations of these desires lead to immediate consequences. For example, if you go out and kill somebody to steal their property, you’re likely going to make an enemy who will want to kill you (and potentially succeed in doing so). On the other hand, more contemporary desires don’t have such immediate consequences (like being murdered), and so there isn’t necessarily anything scary to keep us in check. For example, computers and other personal technology made all kinds of work much easier, but their side effects include tech addiction, shortened lifespans from too much sitting, and even a few pesky etiquette issues. As technology continues to satisfy our desires—for anything from food to information—we have to practice self-control in new and different ways. The problem is, this isn’t easy to do.
So why is self control so difficult to produce? A lot of things contribute to self-control issues, and we’ll get into them more below, but the main reason is that indulgence is much easier than the alternative. If you want to eat healthier, a meal you cook yourself and can control is often going to be the better option. That option requires work, however, and it’s easier to make a phone call to order takeout. Is this the smarter option? Probably not, but the short-term effect of fatty takeout is the temporary satisfaction of enjoying your meal—potentially the same effect as cooking—and so the long-term effects of frequent indulgence is easy to ignore. We are terrible at predicting the future, and we like to make decisions that will make us feel good right now because that result is more urgent. If you don’t enjoy doing something (like cooking), making yourself exert the energy required to cook is a lot harder and much more unpleasant than doing nothing. But this is obvious if you’ve ever tried to make yourself do something you didn’t want to do. The primary problem is stopping yourself from making a bad decision based on immediate desire and also motivating yourself to make the smarter choice. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The simplest way to get better at anything is to practice. As a weekly exercise, pick something you do in excess and stop for a week. Stop watching television, don’t eat out, or keep technology out of the bedroom so you can sleep better. While a week isn’t going to kick any particular habit, it’s pretty easy to stop anything for such a short period of time and making it through the week will give you the confidence that you can control yourself. After you’ve practiced for several weeks, try for longer. If you can make it a month, that’s often enough time to actually change your behavior (which is where the name of the movie 28 Days comes from). Googler Matt Cutts suggests that you can more easily improve your life 30 days at a time. It’s not a new concept but it can be a big help. Tell yourself you’re going try to cut out a particular behavior for a month and reassess once that month is over. Knowing you don’t have to stop can make a big difference, and by the time you get to the end of that month you may not care to go back at all.
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
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.
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 exercising a vice is significantly easier than practicing self-control, you need to find ways to make it harder to make the wrong choice.
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.)
Practicing self-control isn’t easy for anybody. It takes a lot of work, and you’ll get better at it the more you practice. 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.
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