Self-control has everything to do with being able to resist immediate gratification in order to enhance overall fulfillment. This takes into account the future as well as the present, and considers other people as well as oneself.
People who have good self-control are more successful and happy in life than those who don’t. Research shows they live longer, have more fulfilling relationships, make more money, are healthier, less aggressive, and less likely to become criminals. This is not surprising, as most broken hearts, broken promises, and harmful acts stem from a lack of restraint or self-discipline.
Among students, the correlation between self-control and good grades is twice as strong as that between IQ and good grades. So the ability to follow through in spite of difficulties and temptations is far more important than intelligence. It enables a person to think about long-term consequences.
When self-control gets depleted
People with low levels of self-control can lose their temper or give in to temptation at the slightest irritation or amount of pressure. People with high levels of self-control are able to withstand greater challenges before reacting to stress.
No matter how much self-control you have, it’s important not to deplete your existing store of self-control. Many factors can diminish it, such as stress, low blood sugar, exhaustion, and lack of sleep. Alcohol and drugs will also reduce your willpower and ability to control your behavior. Combining drinking with staying up late depletes your strength faster and increases the likelihood of losing your self-control.
When you are with a crying infant, a rebellious teenager, or an angry client, you are exerting self-control to avoid lashing out. As your store of self-control gets used up on a particular day, you will tend to be more reactive as it becomes harder to hold back harmful or inappropriate feelings, desires, and opinions. In a similar fashion a child who has been well behaved at school all day may come home and fall apart. The same may happen to an adult who has held it together at a stressful day’s work and then becomes over-reactive at the slightest provocation at home. These are examples of people who have used up their daily store of self-control, and feel safer letting go in the security of their home.
If you are trying to lose weight and go to a friend’s house who has chocolate cake and cookies on the table, you are exerting your self-control simply by sitting there. At a certain point you may not be able to stand it any longer and suddenly reach for a large piece of dessert. Or you may continue to resist the dessert but lose your self-control in another arena and perhaps lash out at someone verbally. If you’ve been resisting the bowl of M&Ms at your house all day, it will become more difficult for you to exert your self-control in other matters later in the day.
In short, it is helpful to avoid situations that will demand too much of you. So get enough sleep, eat breakfast, hide the M&Ms, schedule difficult meetings for the morning, take a pleasant break from the kids.
Like most traits, a person’s self-control is influenced by a combination of factors: genetics, personality, upbringing, and life experiences.
The good news is that however much self-control you currently have, you can increase it. It is like a muscle that develops through consistent exercise. The results of strengthening self-control can actually be seen in brain scans. If you practice self-discipline for a short amount of time, increasing the duration each day, it will become easier and easier.
However, just like a physical muscle, if you exert an excessive amount of self-control at one time given your current level, you risk temporarily losing all self-control. Think, for example, how children with severely strict parents, will suddenly let loose and go wild when the parents aren’t looking. Imagine someone on a extreme diet who can’t take it anymore and falls into binging.
So we want to develop self-control by practicing it consistently but without overdoing it. Professor C. Nathan DeWaalself says the key to building up self-control is to undertake stress-inducing activities in gradually-increasing increments. For instance, resist your impulse to eat or drink something unhealthy for five extra minutes the first day, then ten the next day, and so on. Study a new subject or language daily to increase your ability to concentrate despite distractions or anxiety. Start exercising a few minutes a day and gradually increase the minutes you stay with it. You will also enhance self-control by using your non-dominant hand just five minutes a day because of the concentration and slight mental discomfort it takes.
Continuing to do stress-inducing activities despite frustration actually improves your self-control in all areas of your life. The key is to learn to handle discomfort and anxiety without getting angry, giving up, or reaching for something unhealthy to consume. The payoff is improved relationships, work satisfaction, state of mind, health, and happiness.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD