Boosting Self-Control


In the last of my current series on self-control, let’s focus on how to boost it.  Fortunately, there appears to be several ways to manipulate or improve ones self-control.  The first is perhaps the most obvious…


It’s not terribly surprising that the more motivated you are do something, the stronger your chances of actually doing it.  If you decide at work that you’ll follow-up on your actions straight after every meeting, rather than waiting for them to build up, a recent opportunity for promotion (or indeed, for demotion) is likely to increase your chances of actually doing it, over simply deciding that it’s a good idea.

Doing some form of regular exercise is a common challenge. The discipline needed to regularly perform your new exercise regime needs to last long enough for the regime to become part of your daily routine.  Whereas we all know that exercise is good for us, often that isn’t motivation enough.  But, what if you are doing it for someone else?  What if you want to stay healthy in order to take care of your family, perhaps to be around long enough to see your children make good lives for themselves?  Each time you face a struggle to exercise, remember who you’re doing it for.

Related to motivation is seeing the big picture.  In the moment back at work where you’re faced with checking your email or following up on those meeting actions, the email might be the easy option.  But, considering the big picture: when will you do the follow-up, what’s the impact on you or your team of doing the follow-up, how will you feel at the end of week if these actions are out of the way, what do they mean to your career, etc..  Seeing the big picture, can give you the jolt of motivation you need, to stick to your promise to complete your actions straight after the meeting.

Whatever your approach, considering and even manipulating your motivation can be a useful tool to fight the urge for instant gratification over the longer term good.


I briefly covered this in “Why does the chocolate win after a hard day?Roy Baumeister and colleagues created the analogy of a muscle to self-control strength.  One thing we know about muscles is that when they work they use energy, and at some point you have to stop and eat to refuel.

Just like the Judges making parole decisions (“Even Judges decision making ability fades”), making hard decisions often requires self-control, to properly examine all the options and avoid procrastination, which burns energy, just like a muscle.  So, after using it for a while, you need to take a break and refuel your energy reserves before exercising it again.

I like the idea that the original experiments investing self-control and energy, used Lemonade as the fuel – sweetened with either sugar (giving an energy boost) or an artificial sweetener (no energy boost).


Continuing the muscle analogy, you can build strength through exercise practice.  For example, Megan Oaten and Ken Chang, researchers in Australia showed how practicing self-control in money management, or regular exercise or by students following a structured study program, could build self-control strength.  Following one structured approach (e.g. monitoring finances), built their self-control muscle such that it benefited other areas of their life – for example the students following the study program consumed less alcohol and caffeine, smoked less, increased healthy eating, monitored their finances, and it even helped them do more household chores!

The self-control exercise doesn’t have to be terribly meaningful.  Here are some of the tasks that have been used to exercise and build self-control: setting yourself the task of sitting up straight, not using slang words, using a non-dominant hand for regular tasks like cleaning your teeth and regularly practicing the stroop test.

One of tips that comes out of the many studies considers that, because self-control is both general (it’s the same self-control that helps you follow-up on boring actions, and go to the gym) and it depletes with constant use, you should only tackle one new self-control testing thing at a time.  If you want to start an exercise regime, don’t try and change your diet at the same time.  Working on one thing, will initially conserve your self-control strength for that one thing, and at the same time, will increase it’s strength. So once you’ve followed your new regime long enough for it to become a habit, you’ll be in a good position to take on a new, perhaps tougher, challenge.

Good luck boosting your self-control, remember it’s one of the most important, general strengths there is!

Be remarkable,