Self-control is probably one of the most important elements of a successful life. In The Origins of You, Jay Belsky and his colleagues confirmed its role in fundamental aspects of our lives such as forward planning and time and energy investment. In a forty-year study, they looked for signs of its absence in young children and went on to keep an eye on them as they grew. Low frustration tolerance, distractibility, and lack of persistence in children were unsurprisingly reliable predictors of health concerns, poverty, and criminal activity in adulthood.
Most of us want to flourish in our lives. We want our career to be fulfilling, our social life to be vibrant, and our physical and mental shape to be at its best. Well, here’s the thing. We need self-control to make it happen.
But what is exactly self-control? I’m going to start with a tripartite definition. Self-control is:
The ability to control behaviors in order to avoid temptations and resist urges
The ability to delay instant gratification.
A limited resource that can easily be depleted.
I think that the awareness of each of the above points can have a huge impact on our daily lives. Let me show you a few examples of that.
I stumbled upon this question on Quora: Why is it hard to eat healthy? One of the top answers opens with a quite blunt “You lack self-control”. I don’t think that blaming oneself or others is particularly helpful while trying to lose weight. Actually, it’s harmful, and there are many reasons for that. However, scientists agree that there is in fact a link between the ability to lose weight and self-control. Whenever you’re on a diet, your body signals the energy deficit to your brain, which promotes hunger pangs in response. Successful dieters seem to be able to counteract this impulse through the activation of the lateral prefrontal cortex, which presides over self-control. I know that when I’m stressed I eat junk food. Through self-control and self-awareness, I’ve trained myself to enact a different response and I usually eat a healthy snack instead. There are several other strategies to resist those urges, and they usually involve triggering your self-control system.
Binge-watching TV-shows, quarantine doom-scrolling, drinking alcohol all give you an instant pay off. You may even feel the need for them in these trying times. However, what makes you temporarily feel good can also stop you from improving yourself. We all have to deal with entropy in life. If you don’t move forward, everything slowly starts deteriorating. Entropy works over long times, so you don’t feel its effects on a daily basis. You probably feel the same as yesterday, don’t you? But in one year you look back and you see no progress in your life. That’s the reason why we need to invest in our self-control right now, today.
There is a debate in psychology regarding self-control depletion. It’s the reason why you may feel like your willpower tank is empty after your Monday to Friday routine, making nachos, Netflix, and beers so tempting. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you feel like you need more self-control, I have good news for you. Current findings suggest that you can grow your self-control abilities. All you need is to change your perspective. By mentally framing a task as amusing or beneficial, you can reduce our perceived effort and in turn alleviate the dooming thought that your self-control hinges only on your genetics.
Strengthening self-control is one of those things that has no end goal. My last bit of advice here is to invite you to think about what motivates you. Focus on the why rather than the how. You can adjust to the circumstances, but long-term goals help you keep moving. It’s a process that just leads to a happier life over time.