Lack of Self-Control: Why Your Brain Makes it Hard to Make Good Choices

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 something is 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 that couch/Netflix combo sure does have strong gravity. And even though you want to treat your loved ones well, that’s not 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 and how we can address it. It starts with how self-control works in your brain.

The Importance of Self-Control

In 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 regions of the brain, and System 2 in the newer, more complex parts.

The oldest parts of the brain (System 1) keep us moving quickly and automatically, reacting to our environment through instinct and habit. This part of the mind works efficiently to keep us safe and healthy with survival mechanisms like negativity bias.

The more recently evolved parts of the brain (System 2) have added new, more complex mental 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 self-control. 

Example: Old brain (using instinct) sees cake and wants those rich calories to fight off starvation. New brain (using reasoning) knows you have limitless access to food, so you’re unlikely to starve. It also knows that the pile of sugar in cake makes it a risk to your long-term wellbeing.

Instinct vs. Self-Control

This internal conflict affects countless daily choices: Instinct wants one thing now, while self-control control says, “hey, hold on a minute.”

If we lived with a complete lack of self-control, our instincts and emotions would drive everything we do. We’d only ever be able to act on what is most valuable at this exact moment. There’d be no such thing as a treadmill, career goals, or a 401(k).

We need to balance these two forces for a healthy and prosperous life. We need harmony between the “what I want right now” urge and the “what I should do for later” voice.

Consequences of a Lack of Self-Control

It’s clear why we may want more self-control: a stronger sense of discipline means an improved ability to stay on track with long-term goals. When you can make better long-term decisions, you can make more consistent progress on what you want to achieve.

But let’s light a little more of a fire under this. Next, let’s look at the downsides of a lack of self-control.

Remember, the instinct-driven parts of the mind can be very helpful, but that doesn’t mean they always have the right idea. A lack of self-control to balance those instincts could leave you 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 those impulses, we make some unfortunate short-term decisions. For instance, we’re more likely to give in to laziness, selfish thoughts, vices, and a variety 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

Self-control is a limited resource, just like willpower is. It takes energy to exert self-control, and that energy can run out, at least temporarily.

Therefore, the easiest way to improve self-control is to avoid draining it all in the first place. Avoiding decision fatigue is a great place to start conserving your mental energy. That way, it’s there when you need it most.

  • Know your triggers and avoid them. Keeping cookies out of sight (or just not going near them) is a great way to conserve self-control energy if you are a cookie lover.
  • Focusing on important work consumes a great deal of self-control. Make this easier on yourself by reducing the distractions in your environment.
  • Make sure you are getting plenty of rest and taking breaks when you need them so that your brain can recharge.

We want our self-control ready when needed, but it’s not infallible. So anything we can do to avoid wearing it out over the day can go a long way.

2. Exercise Your Self-Control, AKA the Willpower Workout

Self-control functions much like a muscle. As we’ve seen, if you over-exert it, it gets burnt out. But on the flip side of that pancake, it can get stronger if you exercise and train it.

But how do we reconcile those two things? How do we manage something that needs to be used less and needs to be used more? Have I gotten us trapped in a pointless logic puzzle? AGAIN?!

In a word: consciousness. 

Think of it as similar to your regular muscles. Exercise is good, but being exhausted all the time isn’t. If you had to jog two miles juggling dumbbells every time you went to the bathroom, your body would be a wreck. So what do we do? We go to the gym, practice sports, and go on hikes and nature walks.

It’s the same thing here. Find little ways to challenge and push your self-control when the stakes aren’t too high. Then, use that self-control muscle in intentional bursts to strengthen it over time!

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 about the other side? Can the automatic and emotional mechanisms of System 1 help, too?

Just because these mechanisms evolved to help with short-term decisions doesn’t mean they can’t help us make long-term changes.

System 1 drives your habits, causing you to do some things automatically without much thought — but not all habits and automatic behaviors are unhealthy. Many help us stay happy and healthy while reducing the burden of complex executive thinking.

Think of toothbrushing: It is vital 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 most people keep up with this regular healthy habit. Of course, there may be times you don’t feel like it. But on the whole, it’s pretty easy to keep with a practice that’s this ingrained.

Habits like these help us keep up healthy, long-term behaviors with little need for conscious self-control. That’s the power of sturdy, lasting habits. Instead of fighting yourself to make good choices, make them automatic!

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created this blog to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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