Improving self-control is essential to avoid excess behaviours such as overeating or addictions, among others. People who can control themselves are more successful in many areas of their lives. However, as we all know, self-control is often absent. Part of the problem is overestimating our ability to resist temptation. Self-control can be exercised like a muscle, but we have to do the proper mental work. That is why today, we point out ten research-based techniques to improve self-control.
#1. Detect Low Levels Of Self-Control
Research has found that self-control is a limited resource (Vohs et al., 2000). To understand it, we must imagine the amount of self-control we have as if it were a deposit. If we have been controlling ourselves for a long time, the reservoir’s self-control reserves will have diminished, and we will be more vulnerable to falling into temptation. Learning to recognize when we have the “deposit under minimum” is essential to avoid the situations in which we must control them and allow time for the deposit to recover.
#2. Decide In Advance
Deciding to maintain self-control before finding ourselves in a concrete situation is a good tool. Pre-committing to challenging goals can contribute to higher performance. In a study by Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002), it was found that students who set strict deadlines perform better than those who do not. Examples of this technique would be not to carry a credit card when shopping to avoid significant expenses or to sit in the interior room of a restaurant instead of on the terrace if you are quitting smoking.
Rewards can help build self-control. Trope and Fishbach (2000) found that participants were better able to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits when they had a self-imposed reward in mind. Setting rewards can help you maintain self-control, even if you give them to yourself.
#4.… But Also Punishments
And it is that we should not only reward ourselves for our good behaviour, but we must also “fight” when we do not comply. When Trope and Fishbach (2000) tested self-imposed sanctions experimentally, they found that the threat of punishment encouraged people to act in the service of their long-term goals.
#5. Fight Unconscious Self-Control
Part of the reason we’re geared toward temptation is that our unconscious is always ready to undermine our best intentions. Fishbach et al. (2003) found that participants were quickly unconsciously tempted by the mere suggestion of temptation. On the other hand, the same can be said for goals. When goals were unconsciously triggered, participants focused on their goals. The practical result is simple. We should try to keep temptations away, both physically and mentally, and be close to the things that promote our goals. Each unconsciously activates the associated behaviour.
#6. Adjust Your Expectations And Increase Self-Control
At this point, we mean trying to be optimistic about our ability to avoid temptation. Studies such as that of Zhang and Fishbach (2010) suggest that being confident about avoiding temptation and achieving our goals can be beneficial. Optimistic participants remained more focused on their tasks than those asked to make realistic predictions about reaching a goal. So we can allow ourselves to overestimate our ability to control ourselves as long as we don’t get into the realm of fantasy, which could kill our motivation.
#7. Cultivate Your Values , And You Will Cultivate Self-Control
In the same way that we can try to be more optimistic, we can change our value goals and temptations. Research suggests that devaluing temptations and increasing the value of plans increases performance (Fishbach et al., 2009). When we value our goal more than obstacles, we automatically orient ourselves towards it. In the same way, devaluing temptations helps us avoid them automatically.
#8. Use Your Heart
The heart can direct reason to use emotions to increase self-control. In one study, participating children resisted eating candy sponges by thinking of them as ‘white clouds’ (Mischel and Baker, 1975). Thus, one way to avoid temptations would be to cool the emotions associated with them. In the same way, we can increase the attraction of our goal if we think about the positive emotional aspects of reaching it, such as pride or satisfaction.
Sometimes we use self-control to avoid a bad habit. One way to do this is through self-affirmations, that is, reaffirming our fundamental beliefs. Reaffirming our thoughts can help “refill our reservoir of self-control” when it is depleted.
#10. Abstract Thinking
Part of the effectiveness of self-affirmation is that they make us think in the abstract, and this thinking has been shown to help increase self-control. Fujita et al. (2006) found that people who think abstractly (versus those who use concrete thinking more) were more likely to avoid temptation and were better able to persist in complex tasks. To believe in the abstract would be to think about why we are doing something rather than how we are doing it.
Another Good Reason Not To Fall…
We tend to have an erroneous thought that consists of thinking that if we allow ourselves to fall only once, then we will return to the objective of resisting with much more force. However, research has suggested that this is not true. Students who had a long break in the study (versus a poorer one) to ‘regain strength’ did not show increased motivation when they returned (Converse and Fishbach 2008, described in Fishbach et al., 2010). Gaining self-control involves increasing impulse control. When one does not feel capable of taking control of this control, a professional must analyze the origin of the loss of that control and design a work plan so that the patient develops the tools that allow him to take control of the situation…