Self-control goes by many aliases: willpower, discipline, restraint. It’s even that Frank Ocean song. No matter the name, it has huge influence over our health and our success.
Self-control helps determine whether we study or party, save or spend, keep or lose our temper, or focus on work or get pulled into the black hole of procrastination. Lack of self-control is even a symptom of a host of challenges, including depression, OCD, ADHD, and specific impulse-control disorders like hairpulling or compulsive shoplifting.
OK, now mimic the facepalm you give yourself when you see your credit card bill, the number on the scale, or length of your to-do list after a few weeks of not enough self-control. Not uncoincidentally, the part of the brain responsible for your downfall—the prefrontal cortex—lies directly behind the forehead you just smacked.
The prefrontal cortex allows us to plan, pay attention, regulate our emotions and our bodies, and generally avoid things we’ll regret. In other words, it allows us to resist and redirect our immediate impulses.
Self-control all boils down to one thing: saying ‘no’ to your own impulses. It’s resisting the easy thing to do the hard thing. It’s eating the apple instead of the Hot Pocket. It’s going to bed rather than staying up. It’s doing the anxiety-provoking task that moves you toward your dreams rather than scrolling through Twitter.
Sometimes it’s subtle. You may do things that need to be done, but just not right now. Scrubbing the toilet may be virtuous, but not if it keeps you off task.
So next time you’re tempted to reach for that Hot Pocket (or for the productively impulsive among us, that toilet brush), try these seven tools.
Tip #1: Do your hard stuff in the morning
As the day wears on, our self-control wears out. In a simple but telling study, researchers at Harvard flashed a pattern of twenty dots on a computer screen for one second and asked participants whether there were more dots on the right side of the screen or the left. Participants made a selection, received some money, and then got another dot flash, for a total of one hundred flashes. But here’s the twist: they received ten times more money every time they chose the right-hand side, regardless of whether or not the answer was correct. Therefore, there was huge incentive to choose the right-hand side, even if it was the wrong answer.
Interestingly, those who did the experiment in the morning—between 8 AM and noon—were less likely to throw in a few extra right-hand answers than those tested in the afternoon—between noon and 6 PM.
The researchers called it the “morning morality effect,” but the take-home has less to do with morals than with self-control. Apparently good people find it harder to resist doing bad things, like cheating for some extra cash, as their energy flags throughout the day. It’s not an excuse for bad behavior, of course, but it teaches us not to expect stellar resistance to temptation at the end of a long day.
Since that study, there has been follow-up research showing the morning morality effect may only be true for morning people. If you’re a night owl, it’s possible that your most moral, self-controlled self comes out in the wee hours. The jury is still out on the definitive answer, but the moral (ha-ha) is to know yourself and your energy levels.
Tip #2: Change the environment to change your behavior
So what’s a morning lark to do in the danger zone of evening? What’s a night owl to do in the sleepy haze of morning? The solution: change your environment in order to change your behavior. In other words, the best way to resist temptation is simply to remove it.
The fewer decisions you have to make, the longer your willpower will last. If you can’t resist the siren song of Jelly Bellys at midnight, don’t buy them. If you find yourself on Facebook when you’re supposed to be writing, install an app that keeps you off social media. (By the way, I neither confirm nor deny knowing anything about either of those situations).
In short, don’t set yourself up for failure. Just like you wouldn’t let a toddler loose in a gallery of Ming vases, don’t expect yourself to resist temptation when you’re tired, stressed, or hungry. Remove temptation and release yourself from the burden of exerting self-control when your surroundings can do it for you.
Tip #3: Track your progress
Think back to high school physics—remember the observer effect? Observation changes the phenomenon being observed? Trying to keep your credit card bill in check may not feel like physics, but it’s the same principle.
Keep a log or use a wearable tracker to monitor whatever sucks up your self-control. Keep a food diary, an exercise log, a sleep diary. It’s called monitoring. Indeed, it’s when we’re not paying attention that things tend to slide. So pay attention and track your progress. Simply observing will change what’s being observed, which just happens to be you.
Watching yourself scarf Funyuns or get sucked into interweb slideshows of “Worst Tattoos Ever” makes it less likely to happen.
Tip #4: Literally watch yourself
If you’re trying to stick to good habits while you’re stuck at a desk, try propping a mirror next to you. It works on the same principle as monitoring. Watching yourself scarf Funyuns or get sucked into interweb slideshows of “Worst Tattoos Ever” makes it less likely to happen.
Tip #5: Externalize time
This is a strategy from ADHD behavioral treatment. When you have to make a lot of transitions, like getting ready for school or work in the morning—shower, dress, eat, brush teeth, gather stuff—set a timer to go off every 3 to 5 minutes. Externalizing time with an audible reminder keeps it from sliding by unnoticed. And while 3 minutes, or even 5 minutes, may seem like a small chunk, you’d be surprised at how much you can actually get done. Plus, if you get sidetracked, the next alarm will jolt you back, and you won’t have wasted much time.
Tip #6: Allow yourself your distractions, just not now
“I’ll do it later” is the mantra of every procrastinator. But flip-flop what you’ll do later. Rather than doing your big tasks later, tell yourself you’ll do your distractions later. Jot them down as your impulses occur to you: “Is Bernie Sanders vegan?” “Is Mr. T dead?” “How many beers can a frisbee hold?” (Answer to the latter: four—who knew?) Anyway, the point of writing them down is you can still follow your impulses, just not this instant. Which brings us to the next tip …
Tip #7: Sometimes, just let go
If you’re a workaholic, perfectionist, or another type who expects 110% at all times, let yourself follow your impulses at least sometimes. Bright shiny items are particularly alluring when we don’t ever allow ourselves to pick them up.
So allow yourself some pointless, indulgent time-wasters, especially when your brain is fried anyway. Go ahead and google “duct tape prom dress,” watch New Edition videos, or otherwise gratify whatever you get distracted by. And hey perfectionists, guess what? It’s not so pointless and indulgent after all. In fact, it’s called rest.