Self-control: The inner conflict with ourselves
Why self-control is often so hard and what we can do to make better decisions.
“One last episode. Then I’m going to start studying. Really…”
There are temptations everywhere in our daily life that we should better resist in order to get closer to our long-term goals. Whether it’s our health, personal or professional goals, our willpower is constantly challenged: Netflix or workout? Pizza or salad? Instagram or studying? Youtube or prepare the presentation?
Why do we often find it so difficult to control ourselves? And how can we improve our self-control?
In this article you’ll learn:
→ What makes self-control so difficult?
→ If our self-control capacity is limited?
→ 11 ways to more self-control
→ What does self-control have to do with experiencing flow?
What makes self-control so difficult?
The problem of self-control is vividly demonstrated in the famous marshmallow test with children. When children have the choice between one sweet now or two sweets later, it corresponds to the well-known trade-off that we often have to deal with even in adulthood:
Experiencing immediate short-term satisfaction or taking a small step towards a greater goal?
The marshmallow test shows that children of a certain age are able to delay gratifications. Unfortunately, gratification deferral and self-control are different from cycling – once learned, it does not mean that we are able to apply them in every situation. But why not?
Self-control conflicts arise when we have to make decisions. Usually, there is a tension between an option that satisfies our immediate needs, but only for a very short time, and a smarter and more productive alternative in the long term. The problem is that at this very moment of decision, the present is usually more important to us than the future. Because the sensations our reward system makes us feel here and now, when we give in to the urge for immediate satisfaction, are so much more tempting than the now vague feeling of achieving some seemingly diffuse goal, perhaps months or years in the future.
Is our self-control capacity limited?
For a long time it was assumed that all acts of self-control rely on a certain power whose capacity is limited. Willpower was therefore seen as a resource that can be exhausted similarly to the power of a muscle and that could only be recharged after a certain period of regeneration. However, this assumption turned out to be wrong.
“The success or failure of our self-control does not depend on how much self-control we have spent before, but on whether we generally believe in the fact that believe that willpower can be exhausted or not.”
For people who believe that self-control is a limited resource, a certain drop in performance can be observed over the course of several tasks that require self-control. On the other hand, people who regard self-control as an unlimited resource, maintain their performance level over several self-control tasks.
Also the consideration of self-control as a universal resource or quality is now outdated. Even if it seems like some people are generally good at controlling themselves, self-control highly depends on the context. Some people show high levels of self-control when it comes to sports and nutrition, while others have a strong willpower in the professional context. This observation can be explained by differences in motivation. While some people are generally more motivated at work, others are more motivated to eat healthy food.
11 ways to more self-control
1. Decide now
To make better decisions, we can use the fact that in the present we prefer to plan self-controlled behaviour for the future rather than putting it to practise now: By making a decision for the future now and committing ourselves to a certain behavior, we can “force” our future self to reason. Maybe you’re one of those people who decide every evening to get up when the alarm clock rings for the first time, but the next morning still press the snooze button once, twice or even five times. In order to prevent this act of self-sabotage, we can, for example, put the alarm clock in a place so far away from our bed that we have to get up in the morning to switch it off. Not every situation offers such a solution which basically forces our future self to a certain action. But often even small incentives are enough to make good decisions easier: If we want to workout in the evening after work, it can help to take the gym bag with us to work in order to avoid the stopover at home and the view of the tempting couch. Or – depending on the job – we can even go to work in sportswear.
2. Change your environment and avoid triggers
By eliminating temptations from our field of vision, we automatically reduce the number of self-control conflicts. If we want to lose weight for example, we should clear sweets away or – even better – banish them completely from our home. In this way, we don’t have to decide between a chocolate bar and a banana. In order to give up an unhealthy habit it can also help to understand one’s own behaviour: What triggers our behaviour? Which rewards and negative consequences go along with it?
As soon as we understand which situations and triggers activate or reinforce our unhealthy habits, we can consciously deal with them.
3. Set goals
The more specific the goal we set ourselves, the easier self-control is. Setting additional intermediate goals and deadlines increases our productivity by reducing procrastination. The definition of goals is even more effective if they are challenging and if we share them with the public or with a group.
4. Make plans
Several studies have shown that “If-then-plans” effectively increase self-control. But what exactly does that mean?
The easiest way to make a good plan is to first set a goal as precisely as possible. If we then consider what obstacles we might be facing on the way to that goal, it will get much easier to conceive appropriate if-then plans. The more concrete these plans are, the easier it will be to put them to practice. Here are a few examples:
If I feel like eating chocolate, then I will eat an apple.
If my alarm clock rings, then I will put on my running shoes.
5. Use existing habits to create new ones
If we manage to combine an activity that needs a lot of willpower with an already existing habit, this activity will be much easier for us after a certain amount of time. If, for example, we decide to do 10 push-ups a day, we will manage to do this more easily if we link this short workout with a very specific action that we do every day. This action could be closing our laptop to leave for lunch, for example. Such a specific trigger is perfect to make a plan: “When I close my laptop to leave for lunch, I’ll do 10 push-ups.”
6. Monitor yourself
On our way to a bigger goal, self-control is easier if we monitor our own behaviour and – even better – document it. If we pursue a specific dietary goal, this “monitoring” could be a food diary in which we write down everything we eat. When pursuing an athletic goal, it might help to keep track of the training and our training progress.
7. Be mindful
Several studies have shown that mindfulness decreases the urge for immediate satisfaction and helps to view one’s own desires in a more distant way. When we are mindful, we are able to notice our needs and impulses without directly following them, which makes it easier to decide in the interests of our long-term goals.
8. Change perspective: What would your future self say?
To successfully solve a self-control conflict, a change in perspective can be helpful. If we put ourselves in the shoes of our future self who looks back on our current decision – What would this future self say? From this perspective, the immediate, short-term satisfaction will usually no longer seem that valuable and attractive. Instead, our future self will ask our present self to align her action with a long-term goal.
9. Fresh-start framing
Everyone knows them: New Year’s resolutions. Do they work? Mostly not. At the latest in February or March most resolutions are forgotten. But for a few weeks we often actually manage to persevere and make better decisions. Studies have found that when when we regard a situation as a fresh start, we make healthier and more controlled decisions. The problem with New Year resolutions, however, is that a whole year is quite a long period of time. Once we have broken our resolutions, we interpret this as failure and drop our plans altogether. That is why we need more than just one new beginning per year. This can be any beginning of a month, any Monday or even any morning. If we look at each day as a single unit in which we can put our resolutions to action and thus be successful, we free ourselves from past failures and give ourselves the chance to count every single day on which we make good decisions as a success.
10. Increase your motivation
When we are highly motivated to achieve a certain goal, self-control is less important. In these cases, we temptations don’t even feel that tempting after all. But how can we increase our intrinsic motivation? Here, too, the setting of goals is of decisive importance. The best thing to do is to set our own goals, as it is much easier for us to work on our own goals than on goals that were given to us by somebody else. However, this self-determined choice of goals is not always possible. But even if our goals are not self-chosen, we can increase our intrinsic motivation by considering how these goals can still lead to desirable outcomes and benefit our personal development.
11. Always remember: Self-control is not a limited resource!
What has self-control to do with the Flow experience?
According to the Flow Cycle, we first have to go through the “Struggle Phase” before we find our way into the Flow State. In this stage, self-control is important to overcome initial difficulties and to keep going.
And once we have managed this struggle without getting frustrated, we will end up being rewarded even more, because experiencing Flow goes hand in hand with utmost well-being and satisfaction.