How To Improve Your Self-Control

Temptation comes in many forms, often so strong that it’s impossible to resist. Eating too much, drinking too much, spending too much or letting emotions take over and make shitty decisions for you. We get instant messages from deep in the gut that resonate through the mind, trying to dictate our behaviour.

One of humanity’s most useful skills, without which advanced civilisations would not exist, is being able to engage our higher cognitive functions, our self-control, to resist these temptations.

Self-control is strongly associated with what success, higher self-esteem, better interpersonal skills, better emotional responses and, few downsides at even very high levels of self-control.

Being human we constantly battle with our basic urges and they are often too strong that our self-control gives in. However, recent experimental research by Dr Kentaro Fujita has explored ways of improving self-control, where it comes from and why it lets us down.

Abstract thinking improves self-control

It never ceases to amaze just how different two people’s views of exactly the same event can be: one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. But the way in which we view people or events isn’t just constrained by unchangeable patterns of thought that are set in stone. Dr Fujita and colleagues explored the idea that simple manipulations of how we construe the world can have a direct effect on self-control. Their hunch was that thinking from a more abstract, high-level perspective increases self-control.

Personality and the situation affect self-control

Self-control is not just affected by how we think at a specific moment. We have each developed different amounts of self-control. Some people seem to find it easy to resist temptation while others can be relied on to always yield to self-gratification. To a certain extent we have to accept our starting point on the self-control scale and do the best we can with it.

Research reveals that people find it much easier to make decisions that demonstrate self-control when they are thinking about events that are distant in time, for example how much exercise they will do next week or what they will eat tomorrow. Similarly they make much more disciplined decisions on behalf of other people than they do for themselves. People implicitly follow the maxim “do what I say, not what I do.”

How to improve your self-control

Global processing. This means trying to focus on the wood rather than the trees: seeing the big picture and our specific actions as just one part of a major plan or purpose. For example, someone trying to eat healthily should focus on the ultimate goal and how each individual decision about what to eat contributes (or detracts) from that goal.

Abstract reasoning. This means trying to avoid considering the specific details of the situation at hand in favour of thinking about how actions fit into an overall framework – being philosophical. Someone trying to add more self-control to their exercise regime might try to think less about the details of the exercise, and instead focus on an abstract vision of the ideal physical self, or how exercise provides a time to re-connect mind and body.

High-level categorisation. This means thinking about high-level concepts rather than specific instances. Any long-term project, whether in business, academia or elsewhere can easily get bogged down by focusing too much on the minutiae of everyday processes and forgetting the ultimate goal. Categorising tasks or project stages conceptually may help an individual or group maintain their focus and achieve greater self-discipline.

It Improves your mental focus

One of the major benefits of self-control is it enhances mental focus and the ability to ignore anxious thoughts.

Just this process was seen in a study by who had participants trying to do maths in their heads while under pressure. Those with low self-control in the moment were more distracted by negative thoughts and performed worse in the task.

Much the same was true in another study on dart tossing. Here participants whose self-control was depleted were less accurate and less consistent at throwing darts.

Does it make leaders unethical?

Leaders are often under a lot of pressure to perform. This tends to sap their willpower meaning that under some circumstances it’s hard to make the right decisions.

For those low in moral convictions, perhaps this makes them more likely to make unethical decisions.

They found that when leaders who had high moral standards were under pressure, they still generally did the right thing. But, for those leader whose morals were questionable, low self-control made it much more likely they would slip over the line into unethical behaviours.

So, low self-control can make leaders unethical if they’ve got low moral standards.

That’s it for today, hope you learned something new and as always thanks for reading and I see you in the next article!

P.S. If you liked this post then you’ll like my books as well. You can get them on Amazon.


(Tangney et al., 2004)

Fujita et al. (2006)

(Fujita, 2008)

(Gailliot et al., 2007)

Joosten et al. (2013)

(McEwan et al., 2013)

Bertrams et al. (2013)