A Practical Look at Self-Control

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself, and apply myself to them, if they will not apply themselves to me.” – Michel de Montaigne

A great deal of time you know what is in your best interest, yet you find yourself either doing the opposite or simply failing to take action.  Sometimes self-control is to blame for these failures to do what you know is best.  For some people, it feels like there is a small voice inside that is telling them what they should do (“wise mind“), yet they simply do not heed these wise words from within.  For others, there may be an internal struggle between “good” and “bad.”  However you experience your own personal struggle with resisting temptation and utilizing self-control, the result if often a sense of failure, guilt, or disappointment.

In the recent book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney draw upon a wide body of research to make the claim that there are two qualities that are consistently strong predictors of success in achieving personal goals in life: intelligence and self-control.  Unfortunately, it may be quite difficult to significantly increase intelligence.  However, the good news it that it is absolutely possible to increase your capacity for self-control.

Self-control is much like a muscle.  It can be strengthened through focused and diligent practice, just as it can become overworked and cease to function effectively.  We all have finite amounts of willpower, meaning that willpower is depleted each time we actively use it.  For example, if you find yourself using a great deal of your “gas tank” of willpower during the work day, you might experience less self-control and mindfulness of your behavior when you get home in the evenings.  Even though your willpower may diminish throughout the day, consistently practicing and developing self-control will strengthen your self-control resources over the long-term.

Self-Control & Glucose

Self-control really is a finite resource that gets depleted through active exertion.  According to a recent study by Gailliot and Baumeister (2011), blood glucose is a crucial aspect of the energy source of self-control.  Engaging in acts that require self-control actually deplete relatively large quantities of glucose.  They found that control or willpower failures are more likely to occur when glucose is low or when it cannot be mobilized effectively by the brain.  Restoring glucose to normal levels tends to have a significant impact on regaining self-control.

Self-control behaviors impacted by the effect of glucose:

Setting Clear & Realistic Goals

Baumeister and Tierney discuss that the first step on the path towards optimal self-control is to set a clear and realistic goal.  Most people don’t have a problem with setting goals per se… the problem often lies with too many goals, unclear/vague goals, or unrealistic/unattainable goals.  For example, many people will set out to do far more in a single day, week, or even month than is realistically possible.  There is a fine balance to reach between being honest with yourself about finding the middle ground between overloaded/unrealistic expectations and setting the bar far too low (which may be indicative of a deeper fear of failure).

The more that you experience a subjective sense of competing demands for your time and attention, the more time that you will likely spend contemplating these demands.  People who become swept up in a pattern of excessive rumination over their goals have typically replaced action with rumination.  When your goals are clear and not in direct conflict with one another, your resources are free to move forward and forge ahead, as to opposed to getting stuck worrying about how much progress you are making.

Monitoring Progress Toward Goals

While there is clear importance involved with setting clear and realistic goals, they mean very little without actual progress.  Have a clear idea of where you want to be along the path toward your goals one week from now, one month from now, and one year from now.  When you make the decision to map out the steps toward your goals and then actually hold yourself accountable through clear and honest monitoring of your progress, you are increasing your chances of success.

When you have a clear plan for how you intend to reach your goals while simultaneously monitoring your progress in a realistic manner, you are less likely to need to use willpower in the first place because you will be affected by fewer inner conflicts and temptations.  Many of us would “rather” do something that we perceive as fun than something that we perceive as boring or tiresome.  Consider and focus on long-term benefits rather than short-term gratification.  When you deplete your finite amount of willpower through playing a mind game with yourself about what would be more “fun” in the present moment, you are not making progress toward your goals.  Not only that, this inner conflict is draining the energy that could be much more effectively utilized.


According to a longitudinal study by Oaten and Cheng (2006), people who participated in an exercise program consistently for two months significantly increased their levels of self-control.  They experienced this positive change in their lives through watching less television, smoking less, drinking less alcohol and caffeine, eating less junk food, engaging in less impulsive spending, and procrastinating less.  All of these behaviors are clear markers of healthy, mindful, and balanced living.

It is important to recognize that the positive effects of regular exercise extend to far reaching aspects of one’s life that have nothing directly to do with physical exercise.  Not only did participants engage in less impulsve and self-destructive behaviors, they also were more faithful in keeping commitments, studied more, and experienced an increase in emotional self-control.  Researchers explained that “our regulatory ‘stock’ is not set; it can be increased by a number of behaviors.”

These are all practical aspects of developing self-control that are absolutely within your reach.  Real and lasting change generally does not come with the snap of your fingers and require little effort.  If you truly desire to change your lifestyle habits for the better and to develop a stronger sense of self-control, you must be willing to genuinely commit yourself to making behavioral changes.  If you are not truly invested in improving your own willpower, temptation will continue to lure you with its siren song.

The moment that something clicks deep within you that you are no longer willing to continue down the path that you are currently on, change is happening.  Trust in that process of change and keep doing what works.  Listen to the still small voice within that always knows what is truly in your best interest.  Remember that the goal of developing self-control is for it to become second nature with enough practice and nurturance.  How committed are you to creating real change in your life?

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Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). The physiology of willpower: Linking blood glucose to self-control. Personality & Social Psychology Review11(4), 303-327.

Michael, A. W. (2011, October 21). Willpower and temptation [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ethics-everyone/201110/willpower-and-temptation

Oaten, M. & Cheng, K. (2006). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise.  British Journal of Health Psychology 11: 717-733.

Featured image: 85/365 – angel vs devil by lisadragon / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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