Do you ever find it difficult to take control of what you are doing? This can describe a wide range of behavior, from losing yourself for an hour on Facebook to succumbing to the temptation of the illegal drugs you’ve just spent three months learning to avoid in rehab. You might be under the impression that a lack of willpower is a character flaw, but it’s actually something that you can practice. If you want to begin taking steps to improve self-control, here are five tips to get you started.
1. Make Your Intention Specific and Measurable
One way to improve self-control is to turn your broad goals into more specific goals which are tangible and measurable. Take a look at the following broad goals and how they can be made into more specific ones.
Broad Goal: To lose weight
Specific Goal: To love 20 lbs within five months
Broad Goal: Spend your time more productively
Specific Goal: Spend no more than an hour per day online
Setting goals this way creates tangible goals which you can achieve, rather than loosely defined goals which might seem too overwhelming and jeopardize your self-control.
What will make it even more likely that you’ll achieve your goal is to put your ideas in writing. Write them down in a journal or hang them on the fridge. It can help if you find someone to be accountable to, so consider partnering up with a friend or family member to help both of you achieve your goals. When you know that you’ll be reporting the number of calories you’ve eaten or how long you’ve spent online to another person, you’re less likely to do anything you’d be embarrassed about later.
2. Don’t Try to Resist Too Many Things at Once
Say that your day started off by making the decision to drag yourself out of bed after a late night. Then, you manage to avoid the doughnuts that someone brought into the staff room at work. By the afternoon slump, it’s likely that you might not have the self-control that you normally would to stay away from the vending machine with the candy bars.
This is a very real phenomenon called decision fatigue, and it can greatly impact your willpower.
When you have to make decision after decision, it’s difficult to make the right choice as the day goes on. Rather than strengthening your willpower muscle, you are having to fight against what you want to do several times in a row. This can lead to you losing much of your self-control. Your willpower is greater when you haven’t already had to use it.
For this reason, it makes sense to take small steps toward your goal.
Let’s say your goal is to lose 20 lbs in five months. If you drastically change your diet and level of activity, you probably won’t be successfully at achieving your goal in the long run. Going from eating what you want and being mostly sedentary to being on a strict calorie restriction and running for an hour before breakfast is not something most people can sustain long-term.
Instead, try taking baby steps and making just one or two small changes at a time. Once eating fruit and yogurt for breakfast is a habit, you can move along to incorporating a walk in the morning, then add salads for lunch and maybe a jog after dinner. Improve self-control by taking it slowly.
3. Modify the Environment
All the self-control in the world isn’t going to help if your environment is chock-full of temptations. Just as an alcoholic should not have a wine cellar or a pantry full of beer, someone who is trying to avoid spending so much time on social media should not have notifications set up on their smartphone for every “like” they receive on a photo. It might come down to:
- disabling social media profiles
- refusing to buy potato chips and ice cream
- avoiding going to certain places
You might have to change the way you do things to make it easier to stick to your plans and improve self-control. That alone can take some willpower, of course, but if you can get past that hurdle, it will make subsequent decisions easier to make.
4. Practice Good Self-Care
You might have noticed that you have more willpower when you’re well-rested, particularly first thing in the morning. It’s true: If you’re sleep-deprived, it’s more difficult to make good decisions. Not taking care of this basic need is one way to make it much harder to have good self-control. Be sure that you get the sleep you need. For teens, this means eight to ten hours, and for most adults, it’s seven to eight hours.
In addition, take care of yourself in other ways.
- Eat a well-balanced diet – A diet of sugary, fatty foods can leave you feeling slow and lethargic, and you might be more likely to make poor choices in other areas of your life.
- Exercise regularly – Get the fresh air and exercise that you need to feel good.
- Relax and enjoy – Make time to do things that relax you and relieve stress, whether that’s yoga, meditation, reading, lounging by the pool, or window-shopping.
Knowing that you have something to look forward to can help you improve self-control and make better decisions during the other parts of your day.
5. Adjust Your Perceptions
You can outsmart yourself by adjusting your perceptions of what you’re doing and what you should be doing instead.
You might have read about the famous marshmallow test performed on preschool children many decades ago. The basic premise of the test is that each child had a choice: He or she was offered a marshmallow. They could eat it immediately, or they could wait a few minutes and have two marshmallows. Some children chose to wait, while others ate their marshmallow right away, choosing to forgo the second treat.
How did some of the kids exhibit self-control?
Some were encouraged to think of the marshmallow in front of them as simply being a picture or a fluffy cloud. They adjusted their perception temporarily and it helped them to resist the temptation of the sweet concoction sitting just inches away.
You might be able to do the same by focusing more on the likely effect of resisting temptation or by framing the object of your temptation as something less desirable.
You can improve self-control by creating measurable goals, writing down your goals and achievements, reducing the number of decisions you have to make, adjusting your environment, and creating different perceptions. You can also find a counselor or therapist to help you learn to make better decisions. This is a skill that will last you a lifetime, so work on honing it now for maximum benefit later.