These are the Friends and Foes of Self-Control

Is there a more essential skill than self-control?

You have to admit, it is pretty high up there! Life is guaranteed to be better when you have a handle on your attention, habits and behaviour. 

So are some of us just better at controlling ourselves?

Exercise is the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered Click To Tweet

Yeah I think we all have different starting places and that our specific ego/personality mechanisms play their part.

Some personality types, for example, Enneagram types one and three, the Perfectionist and the Achiever, are more likely to use self-control as a strategy to get what they need.

It has also been shown that when it comes to self-control, we aren’t operating in silos. Self-control has a contagion effect, so we are probably about as self controlled as our family and friends.

But part of having a growth mindset – which hopefully you already do – is knowing that everyone can develop good self-control, whatever the starting place.

This post is intended to give you some ideas for how to develop self-control. It draws on some information from Kelly McGonigal’s book, Maximum Willpower: How to Master the New Science of Self Control. which is probably the most authoritative book currently on the physiology and psychology of willpower.

There is a bio-marker of self-control

This is just some interesting information from the book for the biologists among you.

Kelly’s research has shown that self-control has a footprint in the body: your heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. It might be 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.

Is there a limit to 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.

According to that paradigm, trying to fit into a corporate culture that doesn’t share our values would also drain our willpower reserve. So sitting through yet another painful meeting might make you less likely to resist a chocolate bar later. Anything that involves fighting urges and impulses uses up willpower reserves under the old theory – even navigating the choices we have in supermarkets.

The theory that there is a limit to self-control has effectively been debunked Click To Tweet

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. But we can override that impulse through better self-observation. 

In other words, it may be that there is no real limit there unless we believe in one. 

Friends of self-control

Okay, let’s get to the important information about how to change your self-control levels.

Meditation

We can meditate our way to improved self-control. 

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. People who meditate regularly become finely tuned willpower machines. 

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!

Practicing mindfulness builds your ability to meditate. 

Exercise

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. 

Visualizing the future self

Research has shown that people struggling with willpower benefit from connecting with a vision of their future self. Apparently, doing so 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.

Acceptance

Practicing acceptance, as I wrote about here, is the game-changing habit when it comes to dropping compulsive behaviour out of your life. Trying to avoid unwanted feelings often leads to self destructive behavior.

Practicing acceptance is key to stopping self-sabotaging behaviour Click To Tweet

In fact, psychologist James Erskine thinks ironic rebound (the technical name for it) is behind all of our self sabotaging behaviour. He says 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

Stress

Nothing drains willpower faster than stress; the biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible.

Therefore learning how to better manage stress is one of the fastest routes to improving willpower. (Meditation and exercise are probably the best ways to manage your stress levels.)

Premature excitement

Getting excited too early isn’t only a problem in the bedroom.

Some of us love the process of declaring our goals. 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. I wrote about how to set goals and actually meet them here

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.

If you criticize yourself, the more urgent desire will be to soothe yourself rather than meet your goal Click To Tweet

If you are prone to self-criticism, practice acceptance instead. It’ll make you more compassionate and more effective in doing what you set out.

Discount rate

Your ‘discount rate’ isn’t the price you’d be willing to sell your body for; it is the price you are willing to pay to forget your long term goal and cash in on instant gratification. And yours might be low or 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. Experts recommend that we think about the future reward before we think about the instant reward. Order is important. 

The progress problem

Minor victories can become counter productive, according to research. Making progress can preempt us to abandon a goal because it shifts the balance of power between our competing selves.

The scientists say there are competing selves at work in pursuit of a goal. For example, before losing some weight, our higher self that cares about the goal 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 believe this problem can be addressed with the practice of mindfulness, combined with developing the ability to choose your responses. These two practices teach a person that they don’t need to be at the mercy of every thought and feeling.

Final thoughts

I loved reading Kelly’s book about all the science of willpower. A lot of it made sense.

Human nature includes the self that wants immediate gratification and the self with higher purpose. So often willpower successes and losses come back to who is winning.

We are born to be tempted and to resist and I think it’s important to remember that in our quest for improved self-control.

If there is one ‘secret’ to self-control, it is developing self-awareness. That’ll help you to know what your own obstacles to self-control are. I wrote about the challenges with developing self-knowledge and what to do about them here

Finally, you might also want to read this article on habit change which also comes at things from a psychology and science perspective.