Boost Your Self-Control

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
April 12, 2022
28 Feb 2008 --- Woman with two different burgers --- Image by © the food passionates/Corbis

Some people seem to have tons of self-control. Some people struggle. If you're one of the latter, here are some tips to help you reign in self-temptation.

Late at night, psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett, PhD, is vulnerable to the allure of a glowing iPad, although he knows that answering a late email would throw him off his sleep regimen. As founding editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog for 16 years and author of five books, including “Great Myths of the Brain” and “Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change,” he’s up on the latest research about self-control.

Still, he modestly admits that he struggles with his own weaknesses: “I find it very difficult to implement the strategies myself,” he says. He now keeps digital devices out of his bedroom. “This sounds like an easy policy,” he says, “but it requires admitting weakness.”


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Some people seem to have tons of self-control — they stick to diets and budgets and manage their temper. Their real secret may be humility and self-awareness. “People who seem to have iron willpower tend not to expose themselves to as many temptations in the first place,” Jarrett says, pointing to research by Florida State University behavioral psychologists.

Several other tricks can help, Jarrett adds — and psychologists are keeping the insights coming.

In “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control,” the late Walter Mischel, PhD, a psychologist famed for his research into personality theory, explained the findings of his groundbreaking 1960s study using a “marshmallow test.” As the name of the research project suggests, it involved seeing which children could delay eating a marshmallow — and what helped them have that self-control.

It turned out that children who used mental images could delay popping a marshmallow into their mouths for a longer amount of time than kids who didn’t. That led Mischel to propose using mental images to change how you see a temptation.

For example, as you look at a bowl of marshmallows, you might imagine it enclosed in a picture frame as if it were a photograph — and not within reach. You might associate the marshmallows with clouds. In both cases, you are learning to mentally “cool” what Mischel called the “hot” triggers in your environment.

You might also try making your temptation unpleasant. Even after he had become known for his studies of self-control, Mischel didn’t give up his cigarette habit. One day, in a medical school hallway, he saw a patient with advanced lung cancer — chest exposed, head shaved. Mischel decided to summon up a picture of the patient every time he craved a cigarette. He quit smoking for good.

Think about the deeper needs met by an unhealthy habit, suggests Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer prize-winning business reporter (formerly with The New York Times who now writes for The New Yorker). In his book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” Duhigg explores the science of habit formation in our lives, companies, and societies, and how we can change our habits.

Your daily trip to the local café for a mocha and cookie might also satisfy a craving for time off and conversation. Instead, Duhigg suggests, you can break that high calorie habit by being good to yourself, without the sugar, perhaps by calling a friend on your cell phone while taking a walk.

Children and chimps can remind us of another basic ploy, distraction. Children often cover their eyes or sing to themselves to resist treats. Georgia State University psychologist and professor of neuroscience, Michael Beran, PhD, taught chimps that they’d get more sweets from a jar if they waited. His research demonstrated the animals played with toys to distract themselves. When the jar with sweets was out of reach, the chimps were less likely to play with the toys.

Plan ahead how you’ll recover after a specific setback. We often throw up our hands after a minor lapse, thinking, "I screwed up; to hell with it." To conquer that impulse, form an "if/then" plan. For example, "The next time I miss going to the gym, I will eat a big salad at dinner."

The more you practice self-control, you’ll find it’s like a muscle that you can exercise and strengthen, according to Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, PhD, and his co-author, former New York Times reporter John Tierney, in their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.”

As in any exercise program, don’t push ahead too fast or hard. “Start by making small changes that require discipline, such as making your bed every day,” Baumeister advises. Or you might resolve to stop swearing or to avoid exaggerations, he says.

The key is to begin where you can and keep plugging away. Christian Jarrett agrees. As you’re building that self-control “muscle,” be realistic and avoid temptation, and “it will be as if you have super self-control,” he says.


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April 12, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN