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 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 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. 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 starvation is unlikely. It also knows that the pile of sugar in cake makes it a risk to your long-term wellbeing.

woman choosing apple or donut self control choice

Instinct vs. Self Control

This is the same internal conflict we feel over countless daily choices: Instinct wants one thing now, while self control says, “hey, hold on a minute.”

If we lived with a complete lack of self control, like none at all, we would be completely driven by instinct and emotion. We’d only ever 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).

For a healthy and successful life, we need to create balance between these two forces. Between the “what I want right now” voice and the “what I should do for later” voice.

Consequences of a Lack of Self Control

It’s pretty 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’re equipped to make better long-term decisions, you can make more consistent progress on the things you really want to achieve.

But let’s light a little more of a fire under this. 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. 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 end up making some unfortunate 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

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 really need it.

  • Know your triggers and avoid them. If you are a cookie lover, keeping cookies out of sight (or just not going near them) is a great way to conserve self control energy.
  • 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 we need it, but it’s not infallible. Anything we can do to avoid wearing it out over the course of 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, if you exercise and train it, it can get stronger.

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

In a word: consciousness. 

Think of it like 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 got up to go to the bathroom, your body would be a wreck. So what do we do? We go to the gym, we play sports, we go on hikes and nature walks (I mean, at least in theory we do, amirite).

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

self control strategies title pin

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, emotional, and instinctive 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 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 most people keeps up with this regular healthy habit. 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.

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

Where do you struggle most with self control? What are you doing to work on it?

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