Three Ways to Increase Self-Control According to Science

· January 8, 2019
If we want to increase our self-control, we must take responsibility for our actions and decisions. Read on to learn more!

Many people find it hard to be consistent when it comes to reaching their goals. It’s tough to maintain the willpower we need to continue moving forward towards our goals. If we want to increase our self-control, we must take responsibility for our actions and decisions.

Let’s set the record straight. The main problem when it comes to pursuing a goal is that, along the way, we encounter things that interfere with it. For example, on one hand, we want to lose weight, but on the other, we love to eat. Remembering our goal and resisting temptation is difficult. The same thing goes for many other aspects: we want to learn something new (a skill or a language, for example) but it’s hard for us to make time for it (reduce leisure time or get up earlier).

Increasing self-control (as well as willpower) is necessary for anyone who wants to grow as a person. In the end, the important thing is getting to where we want to be.

How to increase self-control

Self-control is the ability to subdue our impulses, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve long-term goals. The ability to exercise self-control is what allows us to direct our attention to reach all kinds of goals.

There are many ways to increase our self-control and improve our willpower. In this article, we discuss some that science have proven.

A woman thinking.

Keep your stress under control

One of the reasons why we lose self-control and our willpower falls apart is that we feel ‘forced’ to do something. That’s why taking responsibility for our actions is the foundation of self-control. We must realize that it’s our goal and that no one else is going to do our work for us.

In fact, research shows that people function better and are better able to cope with stress when they feel in control. If you think that things are beyond your control, they probably will be.

Moreover, we know that stress can alter the brain and impair self-control when we’re faced with a choice. According to a study, immediate reward attributes have more influence on the decisions made after a stressful period.

Scientists discovered that stressed individuals were more likely to choose unhealthy food compared to people who weren’t in any stress.

Researchers also discovered that the effects of stress were also visible in the brain. The brains of the stressed participants showed altered connectivity patterns between various brain areas, which essentially reduces the ability of individuals to exercise self-control over food choices. Only some of these changes were associated with cortisol, the stress hormone.

Their study indicates that even moderate stress levels can affect self-control. One of the researchers explains that this is important because moderate stressors are more common than extreme events and, therefore, will influence self-control decisions more frequently. This is why it’s important to look for tools and strategies to manage and regulate stress.

In this sense, stopping to take a breath when faced with temptation is always a good way to control our stress levels and strengthen our willpower. Eating properly, exercising, or meditating also helps.

Go through with your plan

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, self-affirmation facilitates self-control. Self-affirmation can increase self-control by promoting higher levels (versus lower levels) of mental construction. Self-affirmation, therefore, is a mental strategy that reduces the likelihood of our self-control failing.

A good example of this is the difference between saying to yourself ‘I can’t’ and ‘no’. It’s been shown that regaining control of the situation using the phrase ‘I don’t have’ is more effective in helping us to follow our plan and kick bad habits.

Every time you tell yourself ‘I can’t’, you’re creating a negative feedback loop since you’re only remembering your limitations. This indicates that you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. Therefore, tell yourself ‘no’ when you think that way instead of punishing yourself by thinking you can’t accomplish your goal.

Man wanting to increase self-control.

Practice mindfulness

Different studies show that mindfulness meditation improves a wide range of skills related to self-control and willpower including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.

Meditation changes brain function and structure to support self-control. Only eight weeks of daily meditation can help improve your self-control.

Other studies have found that meditation is very useful when it comes to trying to kick addictions or bad habits (such as smoking) or trying to achieve personal goals such as losing weight.

  • Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging191(1), 36-43. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
  • Maier, S., Makwana, A., & Hare, T. (2015). Acute Stress Impairs Self-Control in Goal-Directed Choice by Altering Multiple Functional Connections within the Brain’s Decision Circuits. Neuron87(3), 621-631. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.07.005
  • Schmeichel, B., & Vohs, K. (2018). Self-affirmation and self-control: Affirming core values counteracts ego depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 96(4), Apr 2009, 770-782 doi: 10.1016 / j.neuron.2015.07.005