Self-control is undoubtedly crucial to both our well-being and survival. It allows us to internalize a sense of ourselves as the masters of our own fate and the captains of our own ships. Without a strong sense of self-control, we lose the ability to trust ourselves to make healthy choices and reject unhealthy ones.
The good news is that self-control can be cultivated through diligent practice. There is a multitude of psychological research out there to guide us towards more stable choices.
10 Effective Strategies to Develop Self-Control
(1) Respect low ego
Like most things, self-control is a finite resource. Recognize when you are feeling depleted. A big part of developing self-control is learning to be honest with yourself. If you tend to head straight for the bag of potato chips after a stressful day, acknowledge this to yourself and have a back-up plan.
We are better prepared to stave off temptation when we have pre-committed to a goal. An example of this is deciding that you are going to stop eating junk food and then pre-committing to this goal by refusing to purchase junk food in the grocery store. You are essentially warding off disaster before it has a chance to strike.
(3) Use rewards
Rewards work even when we set them for ourselves. If you’re trying to push through some tedious tasks to reach a deadline, it is helpful to visualize a healthy positive reward awaiting you at the finish line.
(4) … and penalties
I personally prefer the carrot over the stick, but the stick works, too. If you find that you’re not meeting personal goals that you set for yourself, self-imposed punishment (without getting too extreme about it, of course) has been shown to encourage people to act in alignment with long-term goals.
(5) Fight the unconscious
Ahh, the unconscious. Just when you thought you knew what you wanted (e.g., the promotion, the relationship, the new exercise routine), your unconscious puts its two cents in. Studies have found that the unconscious can be lured towards higher-order goals in the same way that it can be triggered to desire self-destructive events. Moral of the story? Immerse yourself in things that bring you closer to your goals. Your unconscious will play along with whatever you serve up. Really.
(6) Adjust expectations
Start expecting that your goal is attainable. Studies show that increasing optimism about being able to both avoid temptation and reach goals results in sticking with the task longer. One caveat: don’t get carried away with Pollyanna-like unrealistic expectations.
(7) Adjust values
How do you expect to shift your habits away from idle leisure time towards goal-oriented productivity if you don’t value the very productivity you claim to seek? It sounds simple, but if you want to achieve a particular goal, start valuing it more. It follows that it is equally important to start devaluing the things you are trying to avoid. We automatically move towards that which we value, and away from that which we do not. Shift your thinking in order to shift your behavior.
(8) Use your heart
We can’t pretend that our emotions don’t often get in the way of our better judgment. Why not use this to our advantage? Practice by shifting your emotional response towards goals (e.g., focusing on the excitement of reaching the goal).
This goes back to values. Practice this by reminding yourself of your core values and their importance to you through self-affirmations. Reflecting on the personal importance of your core values can help replenish self-control when it is waning.
(10) Think abstractly
Self-affirmations encourage us to think more abstractly, which is shown to boost self-control. Practice thinking more abstractly by reflecting on why a particular goal is important rather than simply on how to accomplish the goal. Remind yourself of the point of it all. There is one, right?
Strong self-control isn’t created overnight. Many of us have a whole lifetime of repeated experiences of either giving into temptation or failing to reach positive goals ready to convince us that we “just don’t have self-control.” This is a lie. We have as much self-control as we are willing to have. It is not something we are born having or not having – it is developed over time.
Each day is a new opportunity to start undoing however many years you may have of self-destructive tendencies or unmet goals. As mentioned previously, your unconscious is ready to get on board with whatever you give it. Start feeding it with what you really want. It does not discriminate between “good” and “bad.” It just responds. It’s that simple. Think differently … behave differently … begin to feel different … until one day, you are different. You are now the captain of your own ship. The possibilities are endless.
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Featured Image: Happy Ramadhan by Hamed Saber / CC BY 2.0