What lies behind most success stories? Healthy, smart habits, discipline and work ethic, goal-oriented behavior, positive mindset, and self-control.
The real struggle behind every feel-good, happy-ending success story is in learning how to conquer oneself––how to be more disciplined or how to build healthy self-control and finally achieve your dreams. Bettering ourselves has always been challenging, but rewarding work. Ups and downs, success and failures, this is what we need to power through when we decide to go on a journey of growth. That also includes learning how to develop and build our self-control.
Self-control refers to our ability to regulate ourselves and consciously change the way we respond in certain situations. Self-control helps us control our reactions and be more proactive. Learning self-control is crucial for achieving your goals, as it keeps you on track for a longer period of time. It can also help you improve your well-being and take ownership over your emotional health.
When it comes to forming habits, self-control and emotional intelligence are indispensable. But what is self-control really? Is it a personality trait or a skill? Can you learn it or are some people simply born with more self-control than others?
What Is Self-Control?
Self-control is the ability to manage our behavior in a way that allows us to resist temptations and remain goal-oriented. It involves many other related concepts:
- Frustration tolerance;
- Gratification delay;
- Rational decision-making;
- Emotional intelligence, and so on.
It is one of those cognitive processes or abilities that have developed only recently in the history of humankind. Humans managed to establish self-control once they developed the frontal cortex––something that makes us self-aware and capable of complex and rational decision making.
The frontal cortex and the abilities that came with its development are completely opposite to what we call the lizard brain––the instinctive, survival-driven part of our brain that makes us emotional and impulsive.
When it comes to self-control, the formula would look something like this:
Inherited neural and endocrine capacity for self-control
Sum of all the interactions with the environment in which we had or didn’t have enough self-control
Verbal messages from our close circle of family and friends
Educational self-control training + cultural values, etc…
Where we are on the self-control spectrum.
The idea that traits like these are solely dependent on our genes would make education and the growing up environment almost meaningless, right? Thanks to our neural system’s amazing plasticity, sensitivity, and ability to change when interacting with the environment, we are able to train and modulate certain traits. Self-control is just one of them.
The Importance of Self-Control in Our Lives
Many philosophers and psychologists will agree with the claim that one of the main drivers of human behavior is the desire to be happy. What happy means to each and every one of us is a different story, yet happiness is most commonly related to self-understanding, goal achievement, low levels of stress, vitality, connection to other people, etc.
Research conducted in 2011 in the US found out that the lack of willpower is the most common reason why people don’t achieve their goals. On the other hand, the same research discovered that most people believe that self-control and discipline are the way to accomplishing their goals and that these can be learned and improved.
A more recent research paper from 2013 revealed that self-control is positively related to life satisfaction and affective well-being. They even determined the reason why this is so. Apparently, people with higher self-control are better at conflict management but also better at postponing affect and stress reactions. Self-control seems to be able to boost our well-being because it helps us avoid frequent conflicts and contribute to our happiness as it helps us solve motivational conflicts (e.g. should I go to a party now or study?).
In 2005, Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, and his colleague Anglea Duckworth, published the results of a longitudinal study, in which they discovered that self-discipline is at least two times more important than IQ when it comes to final grades in school, but also for high school selection, test scores, attendance, and homework. This study indicates that using your maximum intellectual potential is much more about self-discipline than it is about conventional intelligence.
The story doesn’t end here. Self-control is so important in life that it affects our physical health as well. Greater self-control in childhood is related to having a better health status in adulthood along with better financial management.
It appears that self-control is very important for success in life. But which abilities is it comprised of?
The Structure of Self-Control
There are two very important aspects of self-control: gratification delay and frustration tolerance.
In most cases, it refers to people’s ability to wait when it comes to satisfying their urges. For example, you may be very hungry on your way home from work, but you’re not likely to get off the subway and stop at a random coffee shop because you know you’ll get home soon, where a nutritious, healthy meal awaits.
Being able to delay gratification means prioritizing long-term goals and rewards over short-term ones. As you may have figured out by now, this ability is crucial for success in life and your overall well-being.
The phenomenon was examined for the first time by Walter Mischel via his famous Marshmellow test experiments with children. In these experiments, a child would be put alone in a room. The experimenter would bring them a marshmallow and place it on a plate in front of them. They would tell the child that they can choose if they wanted to eat the marshmallow right now, or wait for 10 minutes and then get two marshmallows.
The results? Well, many children couldn’t wait for the second marshmallow to come, but those who could later had a higher chance of achieving good academic performance and success in life.
It appears that there are individual differences between people when it comes to their ability to achieve gratification delay. However, the system much more likely works dynamically. If we’re overpowered by our impulsive and emotional system (a.k.a. the lizard brain), we will probably find it difficult to delay gratification. However, when we are calm, rational, and thoughtful, we are likely to find the strength to delay our urges for the sake of a better outcome.
Frustration tolerance is another important aspect of self-control. It’s similar to delaying gratification because it also requires resisting our urges but, in this case, it’s about withstanding an unpleasant situation (instead of breaking down or quitting).
Frustration tolerance refers to the ability to regulate ourselves when faced with adversity, to work under pressure, and to face challenges and obstacles without melting down or losing faith in yourself.
Low frustration tolerance is typically exhibited as irritable behavior, fatigue, lability, aggression, lack of emotional regulation, and refusal to participate in activities. High frustration tolerance, on the other hand, is commonly described as persistence, discipline, emotional stability, calmness, etc. Another great example of growth versus fixed mindset.
How to Exercise and Improve Your Self-Control
As we mentioned earlier, every human being is capable of establishing better self-control, and so are you. All you need to do is follow these steps.
Plan Your Time Ahead
Since the lack of self-control is most commonly exhibited as impulsive momentary behavior that leads to risky and/or irrational decisions, we need to think about it like this: what is the opposite of momentary decision-making and impulsive behavior? Having a plan, of course.
If you have a structure and a clear plan on what you want to do, even if you don’t manage to stick to it fully, you are still at a huge advantage, as it’s much easier to establish self-control and will-power if you know what awaits.
A good example is the desire to stop snacking in the evening. If you create a proper meal plan that will keep you feeling full in the evening, you will find it easier to control your urges.
Exercise Your Self-Control
Our self-control ability can vary depending on the circumstances. For example, when we are overloaded with tasks and information, it’s more difficult to combat urges and think clearly. This is where having a plan can also help––if you structure your daily life, from communication to work assignments, it’s less likely that you’ll become overwhelmed.
However, if you know that you want to improve your self-control, it can be good to engage in situations that require you to self-control instantaneously. Think of this trait as a muscle that you need to practice over time. For example, instead of avoiding, you can try engaging in a conversation with someone you know you have opposing opinions with and focus on staying calm and respectful.
A study conducted by APA revealed that training your self-control is often not enough to establish it, because our brains are not fully wired to resist our urges at all times (we wouldn’t be having them then), which is why you need to remove the urge to help yourself establish some discipline.
For example, if you know that you have to work, but you feel like watching just another episode of that Netflix show, install a website blocker and restrict yourself from using Netflix for a certain number of hours.
Monitor Your Progress
If you want to make informed decisions and become a master of your own behavior, monitor your progress in establishing better self-control.
Take a journal or create a note on your phone and keep track of different situations and then assess yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 and define what each grade means. Write notes about your inner processes: how did a certain situation make you feel, at what point did you feel emotionally overwhelmed, and so on.
This will help you define your triggers and gain a better understanding of the situations in which you tend to perform better.
Do One Thing at a Time
If you have five big goals that you’re trying to achieve at the same time, you’ll be feeling overwhelmed and struggling to establish self-control. Multitasking is almost never the way to go because you’re not committing to anything fully, and self-control requires awareness, focus, and commitment.
Instead, switch to gradual planning. When you reach one goal, you can move to the next one, and, as you go on, maintaining discipline and self-control will get much easier, because you will be working on cultivating smaller reinforcements of self-controlled behavior at each step of the process.
Set Achievable Goals
It’s futile to talk about establishing self-control if you haven’t set your intentions and don’t know your goals. We’ve devoted a fair share of time designing simple yet effective tools for setting achievable personal and professional goals––from creating your yearly vision with Best Year Journal and planning your quarters using Quarterly Planner to scheduling your days in Daily Desk Pad.
Life is what you make it. A huge part of our reality can be successfully influenced, designed, and shaped to our liking. How, you ask? With setting right priorities, informed decisions, and making smart choices.
There are several ways to prioritize and get more done in less time (even if you don’t feel like it). You can either focus on the most important task for the day first (as suggested in our best-selling Productivity Planner), or you can do the small, easy tasks first to get a grip on productivity for the day.
Keep Calm and Meditate
We can sometimes get upset or overwhelmed by our urges for a myriad of reasons: we’re overworked, we’re having personal or interpersonal issues, we’ve been unable to overcome a challenge for a long time, etc.