We all struggle with self-control at times. Resisting an urge to act on an impulse or deciding to not follow through on a craving is tough. When we’re hungry, it’s easier to reach for the most convenient or tastiest snack instead of the healthier option. When we’re tired, it’s easy to give up on tasks and procrastinate instead of powering through to accomplish a task. When our willpower is depleted, self-control is out of reach.
Plus, the fast-paced, ever-changing landscape of technology and social media have made self-discipline and self-control even harder to attain. So many things — information, communication, entertainment — are available right at our fingertips. Distractions are plenty.
But learning how to gain self-control is a vital part of success and self-improvement. Successful people set long-term goals and work towards them with laser focus.
Not only is willpower important to achieving long-term goals, it’s also a crucial part of being able to form new habits or break bad habits. This is so important when you’re trying to make healthier, better lifestyle choices like choosing good nutrition or getting more physical exercise.
But for many people, willpower is a limited resource. Many of us face willpower depletion and don’t even know it. We can only focus for so long and on so many things before we forgo our long-term goals for short-term satisfaction. In fact, 27 percent of Americans report their lack of willpower as the greatest obstacle to change.
Yes, having strong self-control is something we rely on in our lives.
The good news is that our willpower is a resource we can strengthen and replenish. It all starts with a little self-awareness.
Self-Control and Your Brain
Your self-control is similar to a muscle. It’s a muscle that’s connected to a conflict between body and brain. It’s a muscle that controls your emotions, thoughts and behaviors in the face of physical temptations your body might automatically crave.
You know you need to go to the gym but your body is content with doing nothing. Or you know you shouldn’t reach for another slice of cake but you still want to even though you’re full.
That’s when you flex your self-control muscle.
This decision-making takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the place where our thoughts and actions coordinate with our internal goals. To strengthen our willpower, we must take care of our prefrontal cortex. We must give it the energy it needs through good nutrition and plenty of sleep so it can get this job done. We also have to make sure it’s not fighting against chronic stress, which leads to faster willpower depletion.
How Your Willpower Gets Depleted
As we mentioned earlier, willpower, and thus the ability for greater self-control, is a limited resource.
We aren’t born with an innate sense of strong self-control. It’s a complex mind-body response that is negatively affected by sleep deprivation, bad nutrition and high levels of stress.
According to acclaimed health psychologist and author of “The Willpower Instinct” Kelly McGonigal, “any time we’re under chronic stress it’s harder to find our willpower. The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision-making.”
The stress response competes with your levels of willpower. And more often than not, it will win. When we are under a lot of pressure, it’s much easier to go for the most convenient, within-reach choice. As our stress levels go up, our willpower goes down.
Sleep deprivation is a form of stress that hits the prefrontal cortex hard. Research shows that people who don’t get enough sleep are more prone to impulsive decisions and bad judgment calls. We need restful sleep to be able to reset those neural charges.
Lastly, our brain needs fuel in the form of proper nutrition just as our bodies do. Most research shows that glucose levels are important for our brain function. Low blood sugar results in poorer decision-making and more erratic emotional responses.
We need to have a good foundation of health so we can grow our willpower. It starts with those three important factors: better sleep, good nutrition and effective stress management.
How to Gain Self-Control in 4 steps
Ready to tackle the beast of temptation and gain more control over your decisions?
Here’s a simple starting place: Practice mindfulness every day.
Mindfulness is the act of bringing one’s full attention to the present moment. It is one of the biggest stress management tools and is also an effective way to improve your willpower.
Here are a few ways to bring mindfulness into your daily practice of self-control:
For a couple of days, simply observe your impulsive behaviors. Notice what you eat when you’re stressed out. Write down what you eat and identify times, triggers and situations when you have cravings. Notice your actions under pressure and record them in a journal. Take note of when you start to procrastinate and what you do to procrastinate.
Once those triggers are identified, you can then move on to addressing them.
Once you’ve taken notice of your urges and impulsive behaviors, identify the decision points. Identify the moments where you’re getting another serving of food. Identify when you’re feeling full. When you notice these urges, mindfully make decisions about the actions you will or will not take. Ask yourself the reason for your craving.
The same goes for procrastination or an intense emotional response. Identify the moment you lost your focus on something. Take note of the moment that you started feeling angry or sad.
The next time you feel that way, take a deep breath instead and remind yourself of your goals and intentions. Think about what you need instead of acting on what you want or what’s easiest.
Savor the moment you are in. Many of us act on auto-pilot; we know what we have to do and we do it without really being 100 percent there. Next time you have a small task, no matter how insignificant, try going slower and savoring each step of the task.
A good example is getting ready for the day. Pick an aspect of your morning routine and slow it down. Brush your teeth slower, noticing each rotation. To practice at work, think about savoring the moment when you drink your first cup of coffee or even setting up at your desk.
Live in the physical sensations that you encounter and really think about the impact of each activity. This is a great time to catch your breath and take a break from stressful thoughts.
Meditation has shown to improve your ability to exert self-control. When you meditate, the posterior cingulate cortex (a region of your brain) slows its activity. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, calming your stress, giving you more control over your urges and increasing your ability to resist temptation.
Try incorporating brief daily meditation or deep breathing exercises in your everyday routine. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, it can improve your ability to say no to “just one more bite.”
Train Your Mindfulness Muscle
Practicing mindfulness is a great start to improving willpower and gaining better self-control. But just remember like training any new muscle, it will take time and a lot of practice. Be kind to yourself as you try to form new habits that help you increase your self-discipline.
When in doubt, just think about what you need instead of what you can get. That small step of mindful thinking will get you on your way to making sound decisions with ease.
How do you control your mindless behaviors and bad habits that you want to break? Share some tips with us in the comments section!
Need some extra guidance in bringing more mindfulness to your day? Spire is a wearable device that tracks your breathing, activity and state of mind — designed to help you be more mindful throughout your day.