How to Develop Self-Control

How to Develop Self-Control
Laura Reguera

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Reguera.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

You set goals, you’re motivated to achieve them, and you want to change your habits. You know that it’s a change you need to make, that it will be good for you, but still you fail.

If it’s logically the best thing for you, why do you keep with the self-destructive behaviors?

Because you lack self-control!

Does this sound like you? We’ve all been through it when we try to do things like go on a diet, exercise more, or quit smoking. But don’t worry! You really can improve and maximize your self-control. Keep reading to learn some useful tools.

“Conquering oneself requires strength.”

-Lao Tse-

Use self-monitoring to improve your self-control

The truth is, you can’t always stop yourself from doing something that you know is self-destructive. Rationally, you know that you have to control yourself, but at some point you just give in.

You tell yourself that one hamburger will be okay, that you can go back to your diet tomorrow and keep losing weight. You promised yourself you’d go to the gym at least 3 times a week, but it’s okay if you miss one, just this one time.

In order to start having more self-control in these situations, the first tool you should use is self-monitoring, which consists of writing down all the times you do the behavior you want to avoid. Just try not to obsess over it!

“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”

-Leonardo Da Vinci-

writing down in a journal

This will help you visualize how often you’re slipping and make you more aware that you’re not just doing it “every once in a while.” You can also write down the times you substitute that behavior for a healthier one. That way, you’ll emphasize the effort you’re making and use it as positive reinforcement.


In psychology, researchers have noted that one of the biggest obstacles to self-control is the way you attribute responsibility for your actions. Your attribution style directly affects the way you evaluate yourself and the behavioral changes you make.

If you don’t take responsibility for your behavior, you won’t have as much self-control. You’ll think that you can’t do anything to change the situation, so there’s no point in trying. Consequently, sadness and even depression may develop.

Therefore, you should reconsider who is responsible for your actions. Try the following exercise: think about the positive and negative events that have happened over the last few weeks and assign the degree of responsibility that you think you had in each case.

a woman looking longingly out a window

Determine the percentage that belongs to you, to other people, and to chance. This will help you see the reality of the situation and see where you can change the outcome, which will help you change your behavior.

Set goals

Sometimes people develop problems with self control because they set unrealistic goals. For example, if you tell yourself that you’re never going to eat carbohydrates again, or that you’ll go to the gym 6 times a week, you’ll be much more likely to fail.

That’s why it’s important to adapt to reality. Instead, it’s more feasible to set small goals that you can achieve gradually. That way, you can rise up to your level of self-demand little by little as you achieve each one.

These goals should be positive, realistic, specific, and under your control. For instance, instead of going to the gym 6 times a week, plan to go for 3 days for 2 months, then 4 for the next few months, until you’re able to reach 6. It’s more manageable that way, isn’t it?

“The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself.”



The simplest way to improve and maintain a behavior is through reinforcement. You can reinforce your new habit in many ways, by giving yourself a treat, going shopping, or doing something less materialistic like telling yourself how good you’re doing, all of which will foster more positive emotions.

You could make two lists of reinforcement. First, make one with different degrees of gratifying activities that represent different levels of reward depending on the level of demand of the behavior. This list could range from buying yourself your favorite candy to going on a vacation.

a happy couple working at home

Second, you could write down positive attributes and virtues about yourself (i.e. I’m being consistent, I’m going to achieve this, I’ve been doing a good job, etc.). You’ll tell yourself these things immediately after completing the behavior you’re trying to reinforce.

If you practice using the tools we’ve explained here, it’s very important to be consistent, because that’s the only way you’ll improve your self-control. And it’s worth the effort!

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.