Based on books, Personal development, Productivity, Psychology, Self-awareness

Mastering self-control

Is there a more essential skill than self-control? I don’t know. It’s high up there. Life (mine at least) is great when I have a handle on my attention, feelings and thoughts. When I don’t, not quite so much.

We want to be in control just enough; not too much. Being too controlling isn’t any good. And actually, trying to control every aspect of our thoughts, emotions and behaviour is too big a burden for our biology. 

Are some of us just better at controlling ourselves? Yes. But I don’t think it’s a natural talent or anything. I think that certain personalities better lend themselves to an ability to control urges.

Say for example you’re really motivated by achieving things and being the best at everything. When it comes to your career, your ‘why’ is going to be stronger than a person who is more motivated by love and connection. Our whys are important when it comes to willpower. 

And we aren’t operating in silos here. Self-control has a contagion effect. So we are probably about as self controlled as our family and friends.

So what else is up with self-control? There is an interesting book about it, Maximum Willpower: How to Master the New Science of Self Control. Here are some things it says about the physiology and psychology of willpower.

a bio-marker of self-control?

Self-control has a footprint in the body. It is your heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. It is also the closest thing we have to a physiological measure of capacity for control. 

There is good science showing that our heart rate variability is predictive of willpower success. The higher it is (as in the more the variation), the better we are at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification and dealing with stress.

limits of willpower?

For a while, scientists believed there were limits to our willpower – that it was a finite resource. So let’s say we spent a lot of our reserves on controlling our emotions. That would mean we were more likely to spend money on things we don’t need.

What else drains the willpower reserve? Trying to fit into a corporate culture that doesn’t share our values. Sitting through another painful meeting. Anything that involves fighting urges and impulses. Even navigating the choices we have in supermarkets can use it up.

The ‘finite’ theory has been discredited now, by a guy named Noakes. Noakes reviewed the evidence and found that the theory of willpower running out was generated by the brain to motivate us to stop.

In other words, there’s never a real limit there unless we believe in it.

friends of self-control #1: meditating our way to better self-control?

Apparently we can. Neuroscience has shown that when we meditate, we improve on a wide range of self-control skills including attention, focus, stress management and impulse control. I guess that it’s to do with not automatically following every single impulse our brains and bodies produce. People who meditate regularly become finely tuned willpower machines.

Those that meditate actually have more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. And the best discovery? Being ‘bad’ at meditation might be even better from a willpower perspective. The worse you are, the more times you have to bring the monkey mind back, the bigger the impact. 

I have yet to come across a better reason to meditate than that.

Are there other lifestyle factors that can influence willpower? Sure. Exercise is the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. Exercising also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart variability and training the brain. Nothing drains willpower faster than stress. The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible.

Learning how to better manage stress is one of the fastest routes to improving willpower.

friends of self-control #2: connecting with our future selves

Befriending our future selves helps us to stick with the higher self’s purpose. It protects us from our worst impulses. If you wanted, you could try emailing your future self. Even contemplating writing to him or her might be enough.

friends of self-control #3: acceptance

Why does everything always seem to come back to acceptance? I don’t know – I just know that it does. Willpower is no exception. Trying to avoid unwanted feelings often leads to self destructive behavior.

Psychologist James Erskine thinks ironic rebound (the technical name for it) is behind all of our self sabotaging behaviour. And that the willingness to think what you think and feel what you feel – without necessarily believing its true, and without being compelled to act on it – is an effective strategy for dealing with depression, anxiety, food cravings and addictions.

enemies of control #1: premature excitement

Some of us just adore the process of declaring our goals. Setting a resolution offers an immediate payoff; a sense of relief and control. That’s why so many people are happier just resolving to start again, rather than finding a way to make a change stick.

In a way, it is happier. From a neurological perspective, it is more rewarding to be in the chemical dance of wanting and setting goals. But from the perspective of the self with a higher purpose, it’s not.

We need to be aware of how excited the brain gets, and not let it mislead us into thinking we succeeded. 

enemies of control #2: self criticism

Self criticism is a big enemy of self-control. Viewing our setbacks as evidence that we are hopeless losers that mess everything up means our most urgent goal will be to sooth ourselves rather than to learn from our experiences. And that unfortunately drives us to comfort coping – junk food, alcohol, Facebook. 

enemies of control #3: discount rate

We all have a discount rate. It is the price we are willing to pay to forget our long term goal and cash in on instant gratification. What’s yours? Maybe you have a low one (you sell out on yourself upon minor provocation). Or maybe it’s high. 

Your discount rate turns out to be a major determinant of your long term health and happiness. People with higher future reward discount rates are more susceptible to control problems.

It helps if we think about the future reward before we think about the instant reward. Order is important. 

enemies of self-control #4: the progress problem 

I definitely have a congratulations mode that I go right onto with the smallest of victories. I spent two hours working on my book! That means I can go easy now for the next day or so. Unless I catch myself, this is what happens. Minor victories are counter productive.

The brain is basically quick to use progress as an excuse for taking it easy. Most of us are lazy when it comes down to it. I reckon it’s to do with our history. We’re hardwired to store fat and rest when available. That hard-wiring doesn’t exactly fit in with modern living.

Making progress can preempt us to abandon a goal because it shifts the balance of power between our competing selves. Willpower, by definition, involves competing selves.

Prior to the victory, our higher self, that cares about the goal (say losing weight) is winning. The victory (losing a few pounds) can be enough for the higher self to fall behind in the race with the instant gratification self. That self – the one that wants to eat 12 donuts – hasn’t been satisfied yet. Psychologists call this overtaking ‘goal liberation’. I call it really fucking annoying.

But then again: this is only a problem if we listen to a feeling. We can accept the feeling but not listen to it. We can let progress act as an incentive to continue.

This perspective is easy to adopt. It’s just not our usual mindset. Usually, we are looking for any reason to stop.

final thoughts

Human nature includes the self that wants immediate gratification and the self with higher purpose. Without desire, life would be bland and meaningless. So maybe remember that the next time you judge yourself for caving in for the millionth time. 

We are born to be tempted and to resist. It is just as human to feel stressed and scared as it is to feel calm and in control. In the quest for more self-control, what helps isn’t shame and guilt, but acceptance.

And if there is one secret to self-control? It’s the power of training the mind to pay attention. Self awareness is the one ‘self’ we can count upon to make a difference. 

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About Rezzan Hussey


Hi, I'm Rez, and this is my personal development blog. The articles here draw on ideas from across psychology, philosophy and spirituality. I'm currently posting once per week. Stay and look around :)