“Adult college students who score high on self-control get better grades, have better interpersonal relationships, suffer fewer psychopathological symptoms, are better adjusted psychologically, and are less prone to problems of eating and drinking disorders than students who score lower in self-control” (Ehgles et al. 2002; Finkel and Campbell 2001; Tangney and Baumeister 2000; Vohs et al. 2002).
Self-control is the ability to control our behaviour, emotions, desires and impulses. We also use words like willpower, self-discipline, self-regulation, self-reliance, impulse-regulation, and delayed-gratification. Which gives some indication of the various ways of thinking about this ability that is crucial to our personal development and well-being.
Where you need self-control
Identifying the areas of your life in which you need to gain more self-control is a good starting point. Possible areas of obsessive behaviour include eating, shopping, drinking, work, gambling and smoking. But these are only the tip of the iceberg as it were and more often than not it is the emotions that lack control, such as anger, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, resentment, pleasure or fear that give us most trouble.
You can choose either to work on an obsessive habit or an out of control emotion. Working consistently to control one of these key areas of your life helps you to develop your overall self-control capacity and bring it to a new level of excellence. So to some extent it doesn’t matter too much on what self-control issue you work on because the domino effect will benefit you in the overall sense. However, experience has taught me to select just one issue to work on and to go for an easy option rather than a difficult one for the key to success lies in persistence and continuity.
Willpower is like a muscle
Timothy A. Pychyl reports in Psychology Today that recent research findings prompted Baumeister and his colleagues to compare using willpower to using a muscle. This followed their finding that exerting self-control actually burns up energy in the form of blood glucose in much the same way as our muscles do to lift a heavy object. As a result we experience fatigue from using willpower and consequently there is a limit on how much of it we can use at any one time.
The problem with trying to limit the amount of self-control we use is we don’t have an innate ability to control it like we do with our muscles. And we use a lot more self-control than most of us realise to our control our diet, temper, bad habits like procrastinating for example, or when we are ruffled by ridiculous requests or comments from customers, bosses or fellow workers.
Develop your self-control
Fortunately like muscles we can develop our capacity for self-control. For it seems that just like muscles self-control also improves with regular usage. For example, in his research Gaillot found that continuous self-regulation of good posture for even two-weeks measurably improved participants self-control ability.
Similar studies show that getting better sleep or boosting positive emotions helped increase self-regulation capacity. Research also shows that increasing our motivation to self-regulate improves it.
Oaten and Cheng (2006) found that exercising consistently for two months significantly increased people’s self-control. As a result they watched less television, smoked less, drank less alcohol and caffeine, ate less junk food, spent less money impulsively, and procrastinated less.
Readings and links:
Gailliot, M., Plant, E. A., Butz, D. A., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Increasing self-regulatory strength via exercise can reduce the depleting effect of suppressing stereotypes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 281-294.
Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2006). Longitudinal Gains in Self-Control from Regular Physical Exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 717-733.