Most of us imagine that if we had more self-control, we’d be better able to create our perfect lives. And it’s true that self-control is a crucial element for reaching goals, sustaining happy, long-term relationships and making healthy choices. It’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. Self-control, willpower or self-regulation, is more about balance than being better at telling yourself “No!” and sticking with it.
Most of us are familiar with what too little self-control looks like. Hurt feelings from words spoken in anger. An empty biscuit tin after a late-night binge. The hangover after an office party. All of these are the results of low self-control.
Too much self-control, or overcontrol as psychologists refer to it, often manifests as perfectionism, difficulty relaxing, extreme responsibility and difficulty feeling or expressing feelings.
Self-control, and finding balance with self-regulation, is are skills we learn as children and continue to perfect throughout our lives. Learning to find the right balance with self-control means understanding our triggers and the push-pull relationship we have with motivation and regulation.
What is willpower anyway?
Willpower is a competition, a balancing act between what we want for our future selves and what we want right now. When we’re out of balance, we may find it difficult to spend the savings we put aside for a holiday (overcontrol) or not put away any money to enjoy some time away (low self-control). Our personal energy, resources, habits, self-compassion and mindset have a lot to do with how good we are at exerting self-control.
Neuroscience tells us that self-control is managed by our pre-frontal cortex. Specifically, three different areas of the prefrontal cortex.
It’s worth noting, that this is the biggest energy consumer of our brain — and our body. Our brain uses around 20% of our daily energy. And that’s when it’s resting. When we are learning or using our willpower to do or not do something, it uses even more.
Motivational power comes from the upper left side of our prefrontal cortex. This is the bit that gets us up and going and helps us to stay the distance. Over on the right side of the same area is our regulation. That’s activated when we hold up and resist the urge to splurge, say or do something.
In the middle of these two areas lies our want power — our intrinsic motivation. This area knows what we really, really, want and when it fires up it engages the left, right or both areas to push us forward or put the brakes on. So willpower is a mix of motivation and restraint.
When our energy levels are low, it’s harder to get these high-energy parts of our brains online. We revert to habitual behaviours, or worse, our limbic lizard brain jumps in the driving seat. That’s when we give way to primal urges to fight, flee, freeze, feed or the other f-word I tell my kids not to say.
The first step for finding a better balance with your self-control is to recognise that you are in the driving seat. We’re not born with a certain level of willpower and stuck with that quotient for better or worse, for the rest of our lives. Willpower is a little like a muscle. There are two interesting theories about how self-control actually works.
Theory one goes along the lines of simple energy availability. When our fuel is running low — either too little sleep or available blood glucose, willpower is weakened. What’s more, each instance of willpower depletes the willpower supply for the day. Unless we refuel, we’ll end up caving to all temptations by the end of our day.
This theory has been demonstrated in animals, with kids and in multiple studies. Generally, these studies involve giving some people a biscuit after a self-control task and then asking them to perform another self-control task. Another group is given the same tasks but no biscuit in between. The results are compared and it’s the biscuit eaters who win every time.
A slightly different study has given rise to a new theory. This theory is one of motivation. It suggests that even when energy levels are running low, the promise or thought of reward activates our brain’s dopamine system (dopamine is our reward chemical) and that bolsters our resolve.
Whichever theory is right, or even if both are correct, we can use these findings to build better self-control. Here are the promised nine tactics from the title:
1. Pave the way to better self-control
The first step to better self-control is taking care of yourself. When your body needs food, sleep, or isn’t getting the care it needs, it’s unable to support your mind properly. Our body, mind and spirit work together, so we need to take care of each aspect of ourselves.
Getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, moving enough each day (a 10-minute brisk walk is great) and general self-care ensure you have a good baseline to work on building your self-control. The same goes if your problem is too much control.
An out of condition body isn’t going to be able to make the necessary energy available for good brain function, never mind finding or letting go of self-control in trying situations.
2. Show yourself some compassion
The way we talk to ourselves influences the way we behave. Often our mental self-talk is far more critical than our audible talk to a friend, colleague or acquaintance. Some days and in some situations, we have more willpower. Willpower develops over time — over the course of our lives. Because of this, it’s important to be kind to ourselves when we slip up — because we will occasionally slip up.
Studies have also shown that when we are kind to ourselves about mistakes we’ve made, we’re more willing and able to try again. We become more open to trying new strategies, digging a little deeper and pushing ahead — even if we haven’t been given a biscuit.
So, be aware of the willpower holes you’re likely to fall into, and don’t beat yourself when you find yourself in one. Instead, note it and try again. Because that is, in part, what willpower is about too, isn’t it? Getting up and trying again.
3. Become aware of your weaknesses and have a plan B
Our brain and body love a habit. Habits stop us from expending too much energy and we’ve evolved to be great at conserving our personal resources. But habits and routines can sometimes put us in the way of temptation. What’s more, it’s not always possible to avoid temptation.
A good strategy is to change routines to avoid temptation. This puts us in the right place and frame of mind to make exerting willpower easier. It’s like choosing the easiest path to success.
Of course, some issues of willpower aren’t always that simple — maybe you’re trying to make it through a sober October but aren’t keen on going ‘full hermit’ for a month. In these sorts of cases, it helps to have a plan B or a response ready. For example, if friends are planning on meeting up at a favourite bar, suggest a cool café instead. Or if you do head to the bar, think about the alcohol-free drinks you can have instead of boozing it up.
By planning ahead, you’re working with your natural tendency to take the easy road by creating that easier road. Sure, you’ll still need to use a little willpower, but not quite so much of it.
4. Remember your why and the bigger picture
Remember that part of our brain that knows what we really, really, want? Learning to engage this is relatively easy. All we need to do is be very clear about our why.
When we remember our purpose, we spark up our motivational centre and it helps us resist temptation or drives us to complete the less-fun tasks. So remember your why. Be clear about your purpose. Repeat it to yourself regularly — particularly when you’re about to do that thing (or not do that thing) you’ll regret.
5. Make some space between stimulus and response
We live such fast-paced lives. When we think, feel, or sense something it can make us feel like there is no time, our needs, wants, feels need to be acted upon right away. But that’s a fallacy. Rarely do our thoughts and feelings need to be acted upon immediately. A little space can provide a lot of grace.
Remembering space and actively creating it between our desire and obtaining that desire can help us resist or respond instead of reacting. There are lots of ways we can build this space into our days. Meditating daily is one way. The practice is all about sitting with yourself despite discomfort.
Another way is to make small deals with yourself. Fancy a coffee but still only partway through your morning emails? Make a deal that you can have that coffee after answering two emails. Smell the cinnamon buns in the bakery across the road? Tell yourself you can have one for your afternoon break if you fulfil some other less pleasant duty.
Learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings is part of building self-control and willpower. People who save for retirement or study hard don’t necessarily get a kick out of those behaviours. They’ve just learned to sit a little easier with immediate discomfort for the delayed benefit.
6. Relax a little
When we actively resist or push ourselves to do something, it can make things even harder. It’s because we’re putting even more focus on that thing. Instead, if we relax into the feeling of wanting without relieving the desire, we can accept it for what it is and it often becomes easier to let go of the temptation.
I found this when I was giving up smoking. When the urge for a cigarette arose, the more I tried not to answer it, the harder it became. When I acknowledged it, sometimes even saying aloud to myself “I’d really like a roll-up right now” the urge would peak and then drift away. Distracting myself with something else also helped that urge stay in the background.
So relax, don’t push or resist too hard. It’ll only make your resolve brittle. Brittle things break easily.
7. Practice little self-control in short bursts
Maybe there is nothing you want to exert more (or more balanced) self-control over in your life right now, but you’d like to build self-control anyway. If this is the case, small yet fun challenges can help.
Exercising your willpower in this way strengthens it when the stakes are low. It’s like keeping your willpower in good condition between competition seasons. Then, when it comes to other, more important situations, you’ll be ready to flex your willpower.
Here are a few ideas for short willpower challenges to keep you in good condition.
· Focus on better posture for a week
· Only speak in full sentences for a fortnight
· Brush your teeth or open doors with your non-dominant hand.
· Write all notes with your left hand for a fortnight
Small challenges that require a little more mental effort help to build your self-control. When taking these on, remember your why and consider tracking how well you do. Remember to be kind to yourself about slipups.
8. Build better habits
If our brains and bodies love a habit because it conserves energy, why not build habits that support our goals and remove the need for so much willpower? It’s not a new idea, people have been writing about good habits and how to build them for yonks. There are some great books about different ways you can do this.
Robert Maurer’s book ‘One Small Step Can Change Your Life’ is all about starting small. This Kaizen Way approach uses the thinking that you can trick your brain by asking it to expend just a tiny bit of energy on a really small and simple task. Once that little step has been made, it’s easier to make the other steps on the path to that goal.
Building habits and making motivation and action automatic is done by repeating behaviours. Each time we go through a particular behaviour — say making the bed, our body wraps that neural pathway in another layer of myelin. This makes the circuit stronger and stops the firing of those neurons from getting lost. This happens with all habits, the good, the bad, the ugly.
The cool thing about this is the behaviours that get left behind, their myelin wrappers deteriorate. So there’s no need to stamp out the bad habits, simply replace them with better, more useful habits. A great way to do this is by tracking your habits. Or at least, the habits you want to build.
Be specific, use positive language — so I will do this rather than I will not do that. Set reminders if you need to, give it time, and bring consciousness to your actions to help the habit become automatic.
9. Value your time
Time is finite. We only have so much of it before it’s up and then who knows what happens? When we truly take this on, we begin to value our time a little more. That means we’re less likely to procrastinate and more likely to put our energy into the things we really want.
Of course, we all have days when it feels difficult to do the things we need to. One way I avoid procrastinating is by writing a to-do list. This is not only work tasks on the list. It’s an everything I want to get done this week list. It’s not prioritised, although some things are more important than others. When I’m in a lull or not sure what I need to be doing, I pull out my list.
I don’t always choose the most urgent thing. Instead, I choose the thing that excites me most. By doing this, I give myself a break and I also give myself the dopamine reward of ticking something off my list. More often than not, this stops me from wasting time and propels me toward my goals without the need for too much willpower.
Willpower isn’t set at a particular quotient. It ebbs and flows with your energy, the situations you need it for and how good you are at wielding it. We can all get better at using it, and become more balanced with our self-control. Easing up on the breaks and relaxing a little will help if you have trouble with overcontrol.
Building small better habits will help if self-control is low. Regularly exercising your willpower is also a great way to build it up in a fun, non-threatening way. Willpower won’t give you all you desire, but it will provide the stamina you need to go get the things you desire most.