If you are human being, it is very possible that occasionally you encounter a challenge of self-control or willpower. Self-control refers to the capacity of shifting one’s own responses, especially to bring them into line with standards, such as ideals, values, morals, and social expectations, and to support the pursuit of long-term goals. However, even we know what is good and what is bad, or what we should do and shouldn’t do, sometimes our mind plays tricks and seduces us with vague arguments to enjoy instant pleasure, forcing to ignore possibility of the bigger benefits in a long term perspective.
While scholars discuss if self-control is a skill or an innate ability, we are emphasizing the importance of imagination that creates different ways to resist temptation. When people distract their minds from temptation, they are more likely to resist destructive behaviour. Social psychologists like to present a Marshmallow experiment as an example how self-distraction works in favour for self-control. In this experiment, each kid was given one marshmallow with a condition: they could eat it immediately, or to wait for 20 minutes and to get the second one. These kids who applied various distractions were able to resist from eating the marshmallow, and later did better in college and life. Hence, the ability to resist temptation is a universal ability, which could be improved under specific measurements. And it is worth improving as this ability strongly correlates with better physical health, lower rate of criminal activities, bigger financial stability and quality in personal relationships.
And yet, sometimes we still give up for instantaneous weakness and take a tiny pleasure now, even we know that such behaviour is harmfully interferes with our goals in a long-run. Thus, self-control is a problem between now and later.
The situations when people might be vulnerable in losing their self-control:
- Controlling thoughts
- Managing emotions
- Overcoming unwanted impulses (e.g., not eating tempting candies because of being on a diet)
- Fixing attention
- Making many choices
- Aggression after being provoked
- Sexual impulses
- Intelligent and logical decision making
- Kindness in response to someone’s bad behaviour
- Dealing with demanding, difficult people
- Heightening motivation to achieve a goal
How many of you have procrastinated with your tasks at work? How many of you texted while driving? Or did less exercise during the last month than you think you should have done? People put efforts in applying self-control to resist impulses to go back to sleep, to eat unhealthy food or to play/ watch TV instead of working.
By now, probably you already have realized that this routine of resistance is part of your daily life. Harmful activities might give an immediate pleasure, but in a long-term the cost or violation of the rules will cause bigger loss or deprivation.
Inadequate self-control has been linked to behavioural and impulse-control problems, including overeating, alcohol, overspending, smoking and etc., but it is also linked to school underachievement, lack of persistence, various failures at task performance, relationship problems and etc.
But for now, let us talk about procrastination. People postponed duties until the last minute, then worked in a rush and later they are not happy with the results. They promise to themselves “no more again!”, but the next time, even when people start with the best intentions, they often end up falling behind in their work. Why is that? Scholars call it present focus bias: the tendency to give more weight to our current environment or state. We see ourselves as better people in the future, we think we will work more, will be living more healthy life, will obey all rules and etc. But… we live in a presents and realize that efforts for self-control at the moment are greater than efforts that we think will be required next time, next month or next year.
Naïve people think they will not be tempted and are unaware of self-control problems (procrastination, giving up, etc.), while sophisticated people are aware of self-control problems and can take steps to resist temptation.
One of the steps is to apply self-imposing deadlines. When people realize they have self-control problems, they tend to take measures, which would help to control them. Self-imposed deadlines are costly, but help people to reduce procrastination. On the other hand, these deadlines are not as effective as some externally imposed ones in improving task performance.
Another step is to apply Ulysses contract. According to the fairy-tale, Ulysses knew he will not be able to resist sirens and will give in to the temptation to follow sirens, so he asked other sailors to tight him up and to clog his ears, that he could avoid the temptation. The wish to hear sirens was obstructed with conscious decision to apply particular restrictions. Hence, people like Ulysses, know that there are situations when they will be tempted and that they need to restrain current self in order to prevent the future self from misbehaving and loosing benefits. Are you Ulysses type person? Can you remember when was last time you restrained yourself? Maybe you prepaid your sport instructor without ability to return back many. Or went to a library to study. Does your “morning me” look better in the evening (I promise, I will wake up easily, will go for a run, eat healthy breakfast)? But then the morning comes and most likely you press snooze for ten times and then run late for work without any breakfast. With a regret you swallow the shame of weakness and once more promise yourself in the evening “no more again”.
People come up with various creative methods to prevent their “current self” from temptation of doing something that will deny their “future self” to get a better/bigger award later. For this reasons people constantly make contracts with themselves. However, Ulysses contract is only effective if a person cannot get out of it, which is not always compatible with human rights. Consequently, people must find a balance between the amount of freedom they crave, and the controls they need to shield themselves from the particular temptation.
Another method helping people to improve their self-control is a reward substitution. This theory says that using an alternative reward, which is immediate and therefore more motivating, will increase chances to resist the temptation and will amplify an ability to repeat unpleasant act. Activities, which require willpower, could be followed by something enjoyable. This connection will appease current self and will help to continue in pursuing activities leading to bigger profit for the future self.
Considering other methods, especially in cases when we want to encourage someone else’s obedience on a particular agreement, we could apply these techniques:
- Making convenient
- Making prestige (relating it to reputation)
- Using the authority
- Provoking the feel of guilt
- Creating a competition
- Creating obstacles
- Creating instant connection with something nice, enjoyable
One of the common ways to evoke someone’s self-control is to capitalize on people. However, the better option is instead of paying day by day, pay full-planed amount and subtract a “daily” fee after each day a person misbehave. People may not value gaining small money each day, but they will definitely feel miserable losing it.
These and many other methods could be applied to restrain someone’s temptations, but the obvious thing is that you need to create an incentive to make it happen. Otherwise, their creative mind will find a “reasonable” argument to convince them in taking instant pleasure.
Probably you are wondering, why people being aware of the fact that taking short-term pleasure blocks our chances to get long-term benefits still lose their self-control? Especially, when it is scientifically proved that self-control is an important key to success in life. And if self-control is the deliberate, conscious action, the question is what causes us to lose self-control and how to solve it?
The question reminds of Adam and Eve problem. Have you ever wondered, what would it take you to sacrifice eternity in the Garden of Eden for an apple? Well, I guess it depends on how hungry you are, right? Most of the time people are into dilemma of two questions: what’s good now and what’s good in the future. Apparently, self-control is an exhausting act, which weakens your ability to project possible benefits of the future. And if the activity requiring self-control is unpleasant and without 100 percent guarantee of success in the future, people easier give up on it. The short-term motivational or framing factors can block the deleterious effects, but will not reduce ego depletion.
Ego depletion happens when people are continually exerting self-control, which weakens their ability to resist temptation. In other words, when the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired, which is considered as a state of ego depletion.
People can exert self-control despite ego depletion if the stakes are high enough. However, it has own price. The science suggests that effortful self-regulation depends on a limited resource that becomes depleted by acts of self-control, which later causes poorer performance on other self-control tasks. Therefore, when you have more than one task for which you need willpower or to apply self-control, you should do the most important tasks firstly.
According to Gailliot and others scholars, self-control is not just a mental act, but also is related to the role of glucose in the bloodstream, which can be converted to neurotransmitters and thus furnish fuel for brain activity. Acts of self-control reduce glucose level in blood, which leads to poor self-control on behavioural tasks. These scientists affirm, that drinking lemonade with sugar restores glucose in the blood and presumably helps counteract these effects.
Apart from the importance of keeping glucose in the blood, another self-control improving act is a constant exercising. As physical exercise can make muscles stronger, there are signs that regular exertions of self-control can improve strength of willpower. Probably you will never get rid of temptation to take a momentary satisfaction, but constant practice of self-control can weaken it. Moreover, targeted efforts to control behaviour in one area, such as spending money or exercise, lead to improvements in unrelated areas, such as studying or household chores. And daily exercises in improving attitude, changing verbal behaviour, and etc., gradually produce improvement in self-control as well.
Many researchers have proved that self-control is one of the ways to live healthier, more successful, and more satisfying life. Self-control similarly to intelligence can contribute to success in human life across a broad variety of spheres. The good news is that unlike intelligence, self-control appears amenable to improvement from psychological intrusions, even in adulthood.
Hence, if you want to improve your life it is still not too late, just start practicing your self-control now! We wish you best of luck in your endeavours at work and personal life.
Gailliot, M.T., Baumeister, R.F., DeWall, C.N., Maner, J.K., Plant, E.A., & Tice, D.M., et al., “Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 2007
Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Dianne M. Tice, “The Strength Model of Self-Control”. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 2007
Dan Ariely, lecture on “Self-control”, Duke University, 2014
Dan Ariely, Klaus Wertenbroch, “Procrastination, Deadlines and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitement”, Psychological Science, vol. 13, no.3, May 2002