The path to a healthier lifestyle isn’t always simple. There are days when we lose sight of our goals and, in those moments, we often lack self-control. This article gets into the nitty-gritty about why we fall back on old habits and how self-control can be learned.
What is Self-Control?
Self-control is your ability to manage your actions, to weigh factors in making decisions, and to modify your behavior to reach your goals.
For example: You’re at a birthday party, and politely refuse a piece of cake because you’re determined to avoid refined sugar. Saying no in this situation means exercising self control, instead of impulsively giving into temptation or social pressure.
In short, you’re in control of yourself. The term self-discipline is also used as a synonym for self-control. It describes the same principle of restraint: pursuing your personal goals without giving into internal temptation or external resistance.
Why is Self-Discipline Important?
Going for a run even though it’s raining outside; giving up the last glass of wine when everyone else is still drinking. If you let your impulses take the lead, you’d probably skip the jog this time, or give in to temptation and keep drinking. The results are obvious: you’re behind in your fitness plan, and you’ve got pangs of regret and a hangover, to boot.
Self-control, on the other hand, helps you make good decisions, achieve your goals and live a healthier and more successful life in the long run. Choosing to practice self-discipline means your mental, physical, and emotional health are important to you.
Social Psychology Experiment: Self-Control Leads to Success
The influence of self-control on a successful life is shown by the so-called Marshmallow Test, which was carried out in the 1960s and is still used as a reference today. As part of a study directed by American psychologist Walter Mischel, researchers gave preschool children a choice: They could eat one marshmallow immediately or wait until the test supervisor returned, and then get two instead.
The majority of the participants accepted the delay in the reward and exercised patience, while a few chose to eat the marshmallow right away. About 14 years later, a closer look was taken at the lives of these students: The students who’d been patient preschoolers were more self-confident, socially adept, and able to deal with setbacks. The “instant snackers,” in contrast, displayed insecure, indecisive behavior. Regardless of their intelligence, they also had less success at school.
The study concluded that the ability to be patient, resist instant gratification, and control one’s actions is a key driver of success. In this case, self-control seemed to be even more important than IQ.
An important point to note is that the study focused only on a small sample group of children with a similar economic background. Recently, a group attempted to repeat this study and came to very different conclusions: when adjusted for the children’s social backgrounds, most kids showed about the same amount of self-control2.
At What Point is Self-Control Counterproductive?
Self-control also has its limits: To some degree, discipline helps us to be healthier, happier, and more successful. But if you overdo it with self-control, the opposite can happen.
If self-control means permanently sacrificing everything according to a principle like “from now on, no more sugar, alcohol, or coffee,” the pressure can get too high at some point. People who constantly control themselves, and don’t allow themselves any missteps, risk failing to meet their own high standards.
This hypothesis has also been confirmed by a study from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers under the leadership of Christy Koval demonstrated that self-control has many advantages and brings people closer to their individual goals, but that many of them then also suffer from their own success. They work more and harder to improve themselves than others, feel more pressure from their own high expectations, and go beyond their limits more often. One consequence of all this can be burnout.
Intermediate conclusion: Self-control may be the key to a healthy, successful, and happy life but, from time to time, you should also relax your restrictions and follow your impulses.
What Factors Influence Self-Control?
Two factors make up the foundation of self-control: goal setting and willpower.
Setting Realistic Goals
At its core, self-discipline means giving up one thing because you want something else that’s more important. You’ve got a concrete goal in mind for which you’re willing to make sacrifices.
For example: to reach your fitness goals, you wake up early and go to the gym before work; or you go without meat, because animal welfare is more important to you than satisfying a craving for steak.
So if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to follow through on your good intentions, the problem could be your goal: Maybe it’s too ambitious, too vague, or just not important enough for you. Or maybe it’s not really your goal at all, but your partner’s or your Instagram idol’s.
Training Your Willpower
To keep going through difficult tasks, you also need willpower. Exercising patience and resisting temptation takes effort. The stronger your willpower, the easier it is to maintain your self-control. The good thing is that willpower can be trained like a muscle.
You can train your willpower by, for example, regularly refusing to take the easy way out – take a cold shower, do two more reps, or jog for five minutes longer. Even small things can have a big effect. In addition, it’s easier to step out of your comfort zone one small step at a time than to take a massive leap all at once.
A sufficient energy supply can also strengthen your willpower. Much like your muscles, your brain needs glucose to perform at its best. However, sugar isn’t the best way to achieve this, since it works quickly, but only for a short time. Foods with a low glycemic index are better, such as whole-grain products, legumes, dairy products, nuts, fresh fruit, and vegetables.
Sleep is just as important as nutrition: If you’re suffering from a lack of sleep, your brain can’t metabolize the energy supplied in an optimal way, and your willpower is weaker.
What Factors Can Weaken Self-Control?
In addition to these internal elements, there are a number of external factors that can sabotage your self-control:
- Mental or physical illness
Why Do We Fall Back Into Old Habits?
You’ve been disciplined in following your training or nutrition plan for so long and suddenly the moment comes when your willpower weakens. After work you just can’t bring yourself to exercise, or you can’t resist that second piece of cake.
Suddenly situations appear where it’s difficult to maintain control over your impulses. Why is that? Why is it that we fall back on things we don’t really want to do and resort to old habits instead of maintaining our new, healthier routines?
Basically, everything new and unfamiliar means “danger” at first. Our brain is oriented toward working as efficiently as possible. Everything familiar that can be executed automatically, i.e. impulsively, is tried and tested and therefore safe. Every delay, every step into the unknown could cost you your life – this automatic behavior has been part of humanity for millennia. No wonder we find it difficult to implement changes.
Other stumbling blocks can also lead to giving in to temptation or reaching a standstill:
- Associating a new habit with sacrifice or punishment instead of positive aspects.
- Lack of strategies for dealing with your inner slacker during your “moments of weakness.”
Your repertoire of new behaviors isn’t large enough yet so, at that critical moment, you have no alternative but to go for the cake, etc.
- Factors you can’t control get in your way: You can’t go running because there’s a storm outside or because you’re sick.
- You’re physically exhausted, stressed, or mentally worn out, so you lack the strength to follow through on your good intentions.
- You want to improve for someone else’s sake, so your motivation isn’t really coming from you.
- You tell yourself that you’re too weak and won’t achieve your goal anyway.
- Your goal is too ambitious or unrealistic, so that you end up overextending yourself.
An important point in all these cases: Don’t talk about taking “two steps back” every time you hit a stumbling block. No process is straightforward, and every change is subject to fluctuations. It may feel like you’re giving up when you skip your workout or overeat, but you’re never starting from scratch. Your wealth of experience is always greater today than yesterday, and you can always build on that. As the saying goes: get knocked down, get up again, keep going!
Learn Self-Control: 7 Tips for More Resilience
Take your life in your hands and embrace your power to change things for the better, be it eating intuitively, building muscle mass, or training for a marathon. But often this is easier said than done.
Scrolling through your Instagram feed or looking around the gym, you may ask yourself: How do they manage to look like that, follow that diet, or work so hard on themselves?
We look up to people who go their own way. What they all have in common is not only self-control at the right moment, but also – and most importantly – good methods for dealing with alleged setbacks. Successful people who lead their best lives don’t resign themselves to failure, they keep going, despite all resistance, despite their inner temptations, to which they sometimes even give in. Because that’s only human and completely fine.
What else can you learn from successful people? Here are 7 tips for more self-control:
1. Clarify Your “Why.”
Before you start a project or download your umpteenth workout plan, ask yourself: why am I doing this? What drives me to pursue this goal and does this motivation really come from deep inside me? To make something permanent, you have to be 100% behind your decision – and not be making it for someone else’s sake.
2. Make a Decision and Don’t Doubt it Afterwards
No one is completely free of doubts, but what matters is how much weight you give them. Once you’ve figured out what you want to improve and have your goal in mind, head towards it without stopping constantly to question your decision.
Tip: Write down your goal and sign it like a kind of contract with yourself.
3. Take Small Steps
Know the saying “can’t see the forest for the trees?” If a task seems too complex, we get lost in the middle and don’t finish it. Break your resolution into small steps: That could mean trying a new vegan recipe every week, resolving to drinking tea every morning instead of coffee, or reviewing your training schedule every week. Establish routines that bring you closer to your goal step by step.
4. Look on the Bright Side
One drop of ink dyes an entire glass of water blue. In the same way, a single thought can influence your complete attitude towards something – both negative and positive. Your change of diet doesn’t mean sacrifice or punishment, but improved health, self-confidence, and well-being. It’s also better to avoid talking about “never” eating meat again. Instead, say to yourself: “I’m giving up animal products for now.” Little language tricks can have a big effect when it comes to self-control.
Tip: Save a saying that motivates you or an image that you associate with your resolution as your wallpaper on your phone.
5. Find Your Own Flow
Every person has different phases of peak performance. Some early birds do their best exercise or work in the morning, while others have their peak in the evening. Don’t fight your natural tendencies by forcing yourself to exercise early in the morning. Instead, find your personal flow, which could look completely different from what’s in your original training plan. Following your own pace and your own rules makes self-control much easier.
6. Reward Yourself for Partial Success
Take advantage of delayed rewards like they did in the marshmallow test. The children participating in the experiment were rewarded for their patience with two marshmallows instead of one. Gifts, praise, and recognition can be extremely motivating and keep you on the ball. There’s many different ways to reward yourself: For example, if you resist the temptation for cake now, you can treat yourself to your favorite dinner tonight. Or, after a new, successful week of training, you can reward yourself with a rest day including protein pancakes, which are good not only for your taste buds, but also your muscles. Even putting a new sticker somewhere can give you a childlike sense of joy and reward.
7. Make a Commitment
A decisive factor in self-discipline is commitment. You can create this by setting yourself fixed dates – for shopping, meal-prep, workouts – and taking them just as seriously as any professional obligations. It’s helpful to find a community to share your plans and progress with. With a fixed commitment, the excuses that get in the way of your self-control will melt away.
Tip: In a group of like-minded people, find a role model, not to copy exactly, but to use as an inspiration. It’ll give you an extra boost!
- Self-control is the key to a healthy, happy, and successful lifestyle.
- Self-control means reacting in a disciplined way instead of impulsively in important moments.
- Self-discipline requires concrete objectives and willpower.
- People who are in control of themselves weigh up their decisions and always act in such a way that they come closer to their goal.
- According to some studies, self-control is more important than intelligence in a person’s success.
- Falling back onto old habits is completely normal – self-control also means seeing alleged set-backs as opportunities and keeping going anyway.
- Self-control can be learned and supported through realistic objectives, clear decisions, positive affirmations, rewards, and commitment.
Walter Mischel: The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, Little Brown, New York 2014, ISBN 0-316-23085-5.
Gailliot, M., Baumeister, R., DeWall, C., Maner, J., Plant, E., Tice, D., Schmeichel, B. (2007). Self-control Relies On Glucose As A Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More Than A Metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 325-336.
Spiegel, K.; Tasali, E.; Leproult, R. & Van Cauter, E. (2009) Effects Of Poor And Short Sleep On Glucose Metabolism And Obesity Risk. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 253-261.