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Struggling with a lack of self control is one of the most common human experiences we face. And luckily for us, there are simple steps we can take to fix it.
When self control isn’t working quite right, it feels like you’re caught in a trap, fighting against yourself. Despite knowing what you want yourself to do, it’s like there’s something pulling you in the other direction at the same time.
You know you want to eat better, but that doesn’t make a platter of cookies any less sexy. You wish you could push yourself harder in your career, but damn if that couch/Netflix combo doesn’t have some strong gravity. And even though you want to do well by the people you care about, that’s not quite enough to stop you from making selfish, short-sighted choices now and then.
These are natural challenges we all deal with, and there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why this happens, as well as how we can address it. It starts with how self control works in your brain.
The Importance of Self Control
In one of my favorite psychology books of all time, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman characterizes the human mind as being made up of two systems: System 1 originates in the older, more primitive parts of the brain, and System 2 in the newer, more complex parts.
Simply speaking, the oldest parts of the brain (System 1) keep us moving quickly and automatically, reacting to our environment through instinct and habit. These basic survival mechanisms work efficiently to keep us safe and healthy.
The more recently evolved parts of the brain (System 2) have added new, more complex survival tools into the mix. One of these is the ability to use reasoning when the short-term impulses of System 1 conflict with longer-term survival concerns. This little utility is what we call willpower or, you guessed it, self control.
Example: Old brain (using instinct) sees cake and wants it, because it is rich in calories and a great defense against starvation. New brain (using reasoning) knows you have basically limitless access to food, so starvation is unlikely. It also knows that the pile of sugar in cake makes it a risk to your long-term wellbeing.
This is the internal conflict we feel over countless unhealthy choices: Instinct votes yes, while self control votes no.
If we operated with a complete lack of self control, that is to say none at all, we would be completely driven by instinct and emotion — only ever able to act on what is most valuable at this exact moment. There’d be no such thing as a treadmill, a promotion ladder, or a 401(k).
For healthy operation and reaching our full potential, it is imperative that we create balance, and use both systems to our advantage.
Consequences of the Lack of Self Control
It’s probably pretty obvious why we may want more self control: a stronger sense of discipline means an improved ability to stay on track with long term goals. But before we go further, let’s slather on a little more motivation. Let’s look at the straight-up downsides of having a lack of self control.
Remember, the instinctive, emotion-driven parts of the mind are critical to our survival, but that doesn’t mean they always have the right idea. With a lack of self control to balance them out, you could end up with:
- Weakened resistance to cravings of all sorts
- Inability to keep bad habits in check
- Poor management of emotions like anger and frustration
- Difficulty making long-term decisions
- Diminished focus, especially on complex tasks
- An overall sense of fatigue
The efficiency of our impulses is their strength, but it’s also what makes them dangerous. Without rational thinking in place to check our impulses, we end up making ugly short-term decisions. We’re more likely to give in to laziness, selfish thinking, vices, and all manner of bad habits.
Improving your self control is a great thing, not just because it helps with long-term changes, but because it also protects us from some of our human shortcomings in the short term.
3 Ways to Improve Your Self Control
1. Reduce Decision Fatigue
Above all, the thing to acknowledge is that self control is a limited resource. The complex reasoning that occurs in the modern parts of the brain takes up a lot of energy. When that energy runs low, you’re physically exhausted and it’s difficult to summon further self control.
Therefore, the easiest way to improve self control is to avoid draining it all in the first place. Conserve energy by avoiding or mitigating situations that require significant self control:
- If you are a cookie lover and there is a tray of cookies out, saying no to the cookies will consume willpower every time you walk by it. Put the trigger (cookies in this case) out of sight if you can, or avoid that area otherwise.
- Combat procrastination with a workspace that encourages focus. Remove distractions from the environment altogether so that you won’t need to rely on willpower to resist them.
- Moderation takes major willpower. To cut back on alcohol, carbs, sweets, or anything else, try setting windows of time for yourself where they are freely allowed, and other times where they are off-limits. This way you make one decision ahead of time, rather than using self control to weigh each individual drink or cupcake.
Only you can know what your specific triggers are; what drains your self control the most. But odds are, there are steps you can take ahead of time to diminish those triggers — so you can conserve your supply of self control energy for when you need it most.
2. Exercise Your Self Control, AKA the Willpower Workout
So self control, AKA willpower, functions very much like a muscle. If we rely on it too heavily, it wears out and needs rest. But on the flip-side of that pancake, what happens to a muscle that gets nothing but rest? It atrophies. It withers and gets sad and floppy.
If you use your self control too much, it will weaken. And if you don’t use it enough, it will also weaken.
So how do we reconcile these two properties? Have I simply gotten us trapped in a pointless logic puzzle? AGAIN?! How do we balance something that both needs to be used less and needs to be used more?
In a word: consciousness.
In the first point, I said to reduce triggers that require you to use self control. To avoid mindlessly draining your self control over the course of the day. Here I’m saying that we can also choose times to deliberately engage this muscle, and push it. This makes it stronger over time.
Think of it this way: people train for marathons by running. But that doesn’t mean they run everywhere they go without thinking. And they certainly wouldn’t jog the ten miles to get to the event on the day of the race. They conserve and use their energy intentionally. And so should we.
Exercise your willpower by doing things that are hard for you sometimes. Challenge your impulses and take pride in exercising self control. Just be mindful of how and when you choose to do it, so that you don’t leave yourself too vulnerable to your self control soft spots.
3. Capitalize on Habits and Routines
So far, we’ve focused on building better self control in the fancy modern part of the brain (System 2). But what of the other side? How do the automatic, emotional, and instinctive mechanisms of System 1 play into this?
Just because we developed these mechanisms to make short-term decisions, doesn’t mean they can’t help us make long-term change.
System 1 drives your habits, causing you to do some things automatically without much thought — but not all habits and automatic behaviors are bad ones. Many help us to stay happy and healthy while reducing the burden of complex executive thinking.
Think of toothbrushing: Obviously important for healthy teeth, and it may even be good for your cardiovascular health. But it’s not that much fun, and we don’t do it for an urgent survival need. Yet nearly everyone keeps up with this habit twice a day. There may be times you don’t really feel like it. But on the whole, it’s pretty easy to keep with a habit that’s this ingrained.
Imagine you didn’t have this habit already. Imagine hearing today, for the first time, that we should all start brushing our teeth twice a day, every day, forever. It would be REALLY hard, at least in the beginning, to keep up with. Most people would struggle to do it consistently.
Yet, because most of us have been brushing our teeth twice a day since childhood, most people successfully brush their teeth everyday with very little effort or use of willpower.
This is the power of sturdy, lasting habits. If we can convince our self control and our own internal automation to work together, we can build habits and systems that create lasting change, without needing to fight against ourselves every step of the way.