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Improve self-control: 10 tips that will put you in the driver’s seat

June 22, 2022 - 17 min read

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What is self-control?

Why is self-control important?

10 tips on how to improve self-control

Using self-control to achieve your goals

It’s all about self-awareness

Social media algorithms pine for our attention. Our phones make us more accessible than ever. And, to be honest, focusing is hard work — even without these external attention-grabbers.

The average six-year-old can focus on a task for 8-12 minutes. As an adolescent, that same child can focus for up to 48 minutes — a substantial increase. But as they grow into adulthood and face an increasing number of distractions, their ability to focus drops to around 20 minutes

The Internet, and the associated information overload, are largely to blame for this decline. But aging also plays a role. Unfortunately, as we age, our focus slows down.

Our attention span might feel like it’s completely out of our control. 

But thankfully, you’re not powerless here. You have the ability to focus on the things you want. You just need to improve your self-control if want to overcome life’s many distractions.

To help you out, we put together this guide. Here’s everything you need to know about how to improve self-control.

What is self-control?

If you want to know how to have better self-control, you must understand what it is and how it works.

You probably think self-control is about restraint and self-deprivation. And many people would agree with you — including the Merriam-Webster dictionary, no less. Flip over to the page with all the “S” words, and you’ll find that self-control is the “restraint exercised over one's own impulses, emotions, or desires.”

While this is true, there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Self-control is about consciously directing your willpower to the desired outcome. Sometimes that means not doing something, like when you want to quit smoking. Other times, it means being intentional or disciplined about doing something, like when you want to build good habits.

Dr. Roy Baumeister, Angela Duckworth, and Walter Mischel are leaders in the science of self-control. We know that it’s a finite resource, thanks to their research. Every time you use your self-control, your decision-making power reduces until you start again the next day.

The American Psychological Association calls this phenomenon ego depletion. It’s why you feel unable to make decisions at the end of the day. You spent the last 12 hours focusing, making decisions, and exerting your willpower — it’s no wonder you feel spent. 

Thankfully, you can reduce the impact of ego depletion by honing skills such as:

  • Emotional regulation: Learning how to improve your emotional self-control will help you react to situations with a cool head
  • Self-compassion: Being kind to yourself will help you avoid falling into bad habits
  • Grit: this kind of determination is essential to getting you through tough tasks
  • Self-awareness: Knowing yourself will help you direct your energy toward self-improvement
  • Self-presentation: Controlling your appearance is a way to control a part of your life
  • Self-management: Organizing your time can help increase your levels of self-control
  • Goal-setting: Short-term and long-term goals will keep you motivated to control your behavior
  • Planning: A good plan keeps you on task, helping you control your time and energy

These acts of self-control don’t deprive you of anything in life. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They help you add meaning to your day-to-day actions and increase your daily willpower.

Self-control and willpower

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Self-control and willpower go hand-in-hand, but they aren’t quite the same. 

Having strong willpower means that you can resist your impulses in the moment of temptation. Self-control is what you use to regulate your emotions and decision-making.

For example, self-control is how you get yourself to the gym each day. Willpower is how you push through when you’re ready to give up. Self-control might refer to how you structure your meals for the week and what you buy at the grocery store. But willpower is how you resist overeating when you’d rather indulge.

Self-control vs. self-discipline

It’s also important to note that, while they sound similar, self-control and self-discipline aren’t the same:

  • Self-control is about stopping a behavior or starting a new one
  • Self-discipline is about following through on that change

Without self-discipline, you wouldn’t be able to achieve what you want to do. But with a lack of self-control, you wouldn’t have started in the first place.

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Why is self-control important?

By now, you probably see the value of self-control. It’s a key part of achieving what you want in life. Otherwise, you risk letting others influence your behavior in a way that you don’t want or are unsure about.

It will also help you build the skills you need to succeed in life and work. Without self-control, your journey to self-improvement is severely handicapped. 

Here’s what self-control can add to your life:

  1. Improved decision-making
  2. Greater chances of success in life
  3. Healthier relationships
  4. Less unhealthy cravings (such as alcohol or cigarettes)
  5. Increased academic performance
  6. Improved physical health
  7. Better mental health and well-being
  8. Ability to set goals and achieve them
  9. Control over your anger and frustration
  10. More self-confidence and self-esteem
  11. Better leadership ability
  12. Improved ability to self-advocate
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At BetterUp, we can teach you how to improve your self-regulation. Our coaches will sit with you to determine your strengths, weaknesses, and distractions. With their help, you can achieve your full potential.

10 tips on how to improve self-control

Self-control is a muscle. It takes practice, patience, and dedication to strengthen it properly.

Here are our tips on how to build up self-control.

1. Start small

Set small goals and reward yourself for completing them. If you want to reduce your social media time, start by leaving your phone in another room for 30 minutes. Then gradually increase your amount of time spent away.

2. Think big

Remembering the big picture will keep you from making brash decisions. When you understand the long-term impacts of your behavior, it’s easier to maintain composure and self-control.

3. Get some rest

You lose impulse control when you're tired and don't think as clearly. Make sure to sleep between 7-8 hours at night. If you can't sleep due to stress, many tips and tricks can help.

4. Do physical exercise (even a little bit)

If you’re used to doing a full workout, go for it. But even the smallest bits of exercise can wake your prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain responsible for control.

5. Download an app

Many tools are available to help build healthy habits and curb ones. Look for apps and browser extensions that cut you off after a certain amount of time. Or apps that allow you to track behaviors and reinforce them with virtual rewards.

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6. Get to know yourself

Unless you know your weaknesses, you won't be able to curtail them. Pay attention to what distracts you, motivates you, and draws your focus. Then you can leverage this information for improved self-control.

7. Make fewer decisions

Steve Jobs famously kept a wardrobe exclusively made up of turtle necks, jeans, and white shoes. Why? To combat decision fatigue

Your energy is a limited resource. And every decision you make, even if it’s just your clothes for the day, contributes to willpower depletion. If you’re not careful, you’ll quickly run out of energy, which will hurt your self-control.

8. Pay attention to what you eat

Some foods are better for your brain than others. Look for foods that can help you maintain a healthy level of blood glucose. A single banana or a glass of lemonade is enough to give you a quick boost of glucose levels.

9. Treat yourself

Self-care is essential to self-control. If you’re always tired and stressed, it will be difficult to maintain composure over time.

10. Drop the negative self-talk

Negativity only holds you back. If you don’t believe you can do it, you’re probably right. So flip the script by keeping a positive mental attitude.

Using self-control to achieve your goals

Goal-setting and self-control have a symbiotic relationship. They reinforce each other, creating a virtuous cycle of self-improvement. Here’s how it works:

  • Goals reinforce your self-control by rewarding good behavior
  • Self-control helps you achieve your goals by keeping you on task

Here are some tips for leveraging this tool to achieve your goals:

  • Start with small, realistic goals. If you can achieve your goals, you’re more likely to keep working toward them long-term. This kind of goal-setting is a tool for self-control — it helps you stay on task.
  • Practice delayed gratification. Use self-control to avoid a reward until you complete a goal. Then, when you finally earn it, you’re creating positive reinforcement for 1) reaching your goal and 2) practicing self-control. 
  • Set yourself up for success. Set goals for your self-control. If you plan to stay focused for eight straight hours, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, start with a smaller amount of time, like an hour, and work up to longer stretches of time to reinforce your desired behavior.

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  • Set clear boundaries. Not every area of your life needs rigorous self-control. As long as you’re not harming yourself or others, create time in your schedule to let yourself be distracted. You can’t be productive for every hour of the day.

It’s all about self-awareness

Knowing how to practice self-control is really about understanding your own limits and working around them. You need to look inward to identify your strengths, and weaknesses, what motivates you, and what distracts you. Then you can organize your life to take advantage of the good and minimize the bad.

Your tactics will look different from the next person's, which is normal. Everyone has unique needs and challenges, so they will need a bespoke approach to self-control. You can find yours with determination, deep breathing, mindfulness, and planning.

At BetterUp, we can show you how to improve self-control in a way that works for you. We can also help you maximize other areas of your life — from mastering your communication skills to navigating difficult relationships. We can help you become the best version of yourself.

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Published June 22, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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