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How to Have Self-Control: 5 Science-Based Ways to Rock-Solid Willpower

in Mental Toughness

how to have self-controlIn the late 60’s and early 70’s Professor of psychology Walter Mischel and his colleagues did a series of studies on self-control in children with a simple but effective test (1).

What the researchers did was present a preschooler with a plate of yummy stuff such as marshmallows.

The child was then told that the researcher had to leave the room for a couple of minutes. Before they left they gave the child a simple instruction:

”You can either wait until I come back and you’ll get two marshmallows or if you can’t wait you can ring a bell and I will come back immediately, but then you’ll only be allowed one marshmallow”.

This classic experiment has been replicated many times over and watching the kids struggling with the temptation is quite entertaining. 🙂

What Marshmallows Taught Us About Self-Control

If you ask me, this experiment would be worthwhile just for these reactions alone. But as it turns out that’s not the only thing the researchers had in mind.

The marshmallow study lead Mischel and his colleagues to develop a framework to explain our ability to delay gratification. What they proposed was a ”hot-and-cool” system to explain why willpower succeeds or fails.

The ”cool system” is the angel on your shoulder. It’s a thinking system that takes into consideration knowledge about sensations, feelings, actions and goals. It reflects and reminds you of what’s important to you – like why you shouldn’t eat the marshmallow.

The ”hot system” is the devil on your other shoulder. It’s in charge of quick, reflexive responses to certain triggers such as stuffing your face with the marshmallows without considering the implications.

What happens when willpower fails is that exposure to a ”hot” stimulus essentially overpowers the cool system and causes an impulsive action. Different people are more or less susceptible to these hot triggers and whether or not you are may influence your behavior throughout your life.

When Mischel revisited the kids who’d participated in the marshmallow test as adolescents he found something groundbreaking. The teenagers who had waited longer in the marshmallow test as preschoolers were more likely to have higher SAT scores.

Their parents also rated them higher at planning, handling stress, responding to reason, having self-control in frustrating situations and concentrating without being distracted.

In essence, the researches could predict how successful the participants would be later in life just by performing this simple test.

How to Have Self-Control

At this point you may think ”OK, that’s great for people who were born with great willpower, but what about if I don’t, am I doomed a lazy slob for life?

The answer is no, you are no doomed a lazy slob for life. Modern research has shown that willpower is like a muscle and that it actually has physiological counterparts that you can exercise just like any other muscle to get stronger.

Here are five specific things you can do to start reclaiming your self-control right now:

1. Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation, even just getting less than six hours a night, is a kind of chronic stress that impairs the boy’s and brains use of energy.

Especially hard hit is the prefrontal cortex which loses control over the brain regions that create cravings and the stress response. Studies show that sleep deprivation have the same effects as being a little bit drunk (2).

The solution: Take your sleep seriously to avoid being slightly wasted all the time.

2. Meditate
This practice improves a wide array of willpower skills such as attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness.

It changes both the function and physical structure of the brain to support self control (3). People who meditate regularly actually have more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex.

What’s neat is that you don’t have to practice for a lifetime either. Physical changes in the brain have been observed after 8 weeks of brief meditation training (4).

3. Exercise
There’s no escaping the good old workout. Physical exercise lead to changes in the brain similar to those in meditation, especially the prefrontal cortex.

Getting moving also makes the body and brain more resilient to stress (5) which in turn is a great boost to willpower.

4. Eat more low-glycemic, plant-based foods
Diet also comes into play because it influences how much energy is available to the brain.

According to Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, eating more plant-based, less processed foods makes energy more readily available to the brain which in turn improves willpower (6).

5. Keep track of your blood sugar
Studies have shown that low levels of blood glucose impairs self-control and that consuming a glucose drink eliminates these impairments (7).

So when your willpower is staring to dwindle it might be a good idea to eat some simple carbohydrates like an apple, a banana or a spoonful of honey.

These are all made up of single sugar molecules that are quickly and easily absorbed into your bloodstream to restore your blood sugar levels and willpower.

In Conclusion

Challenges will always be coming at us from all kinds of directions and angles. It’s just the way life works.

Deliberately strengthening your self control not only determines your success in life, but also how you deal with the obstacles and hardships that’ll inevitably show up in your everyday life.

“The best fighter is never angry.” – Lao Tzu (Tweet that)

1. Delaying Gratification
2. Sleep deprivation as bad as alcohol impairment, study suggests
3. Brain Structure Changes After Meditation
4. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density
5. Stress-Defeating Effects of Exercise Traced to Emotional Brain Circuit
6. The Science of Willpower
7. Self-Control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More Than a Metaphor
Video: Very tempting Marshmallow test
Image courtesy of aopsan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Suggested reading: The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Do you know someone who could use a little more self-control? Share the knowledge with him or her by clicking the e-mail icon below and sending a quick message: