Self-control is vital to our success.
People who have good self-control tend to be both more popular and more successful in many areas of life. Those with low self-control, though, are at risk of overeating, addictions and underachievement.
Unfortunately, as we all know to our cost, self-control frequently fails. Part of the problem is we overestimate our ability to resist temptation (Nordgren et al., 2009).
Self-control can be built up, like a muscle (Baumeister et al., 2006). But you need to do the right types of mental exercises. So, here are ten techniques to boost your self-control that are based on psychological research.
1. Respect low ego
At any one time we only have so much self-control in the tank. When you’ve been tightly controlling yourself, the tank is low and you become more likely to give in to temptation. Psychologists call this ‘ego-depletion’.
Recognise when your levels of self-control are low and make sure you find a way to avoid temptation during those times. The first step to greater self-control is acknowledging when you’re at your weakest.
Make the decision before you’re in the tempting situation. Pre-committing yourself to difficult goals can lead to increased performance. In one study by Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002) students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves performed better than those who didn’t.
Only take a limited amount of money with you to curtail spending, or only have healthy foods at home to avoid the temptation to go astray.
It’s difficult to pre-commit because normally we like to leave our options open. But if you’re harsh on you future self, you’re less likely to regret it.
3. Use rewards
Rewards can really work to help strengthen self-control. Trope and Fishbach (2000) found that participants were better able to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains when they had a self-imposed reward in mind. So setting ourselves rewards does work, even when it’s self-imposed.
4. …and penalties
Just like the carrot, the stick also works. Not only should we promise ourselves a reward for good behaviour, we should also give ourselves a penalty for bad behaviour.
When Trope and Fishbach (2000) tested self-imposed penalties experimentally, they found the threat of punishment encouraged people to act in service of their long-term goals.
5. Fight the unconscious
Fishbach et al. (2003) found that participants were easily tempted outside their conscious awareness by the mere suggestions of temptation. On the other hand, the same was also true of goals. When goals were unconsciously triggered, participants turned towards their higher-order goals.
The practical upshot is simple. Try to keep away from temptations—both physically and mentally—and stay close to things that promote your goals. Each unconsciously activates the associated behaviour.
6. Adjust expectations
Even if it doesn’t come naturally, try to be optimistic about your ability to avoid temptations.
Studies like Zhang and Fishbach (2010) suggest that being optimistic about avoiding temptation and reaching goals can be beneficial. Participants who were optimistic stuck at their task longer than those who had been asked to make accurate predictions about reaching a goal.
Allow yourself to overestimate how easy it will be to reach your goal. As long as it doesn’t spill over into fantasy-land, being fuzzy on the tricky bits can motivate.
7. Adjust values
Just as you can try to think more optimistically, you can also change how you value both goals and temptations.
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Tourette syndrome is an inherited neuropsychiatric disorder with onset in childhood characterized by multiple physical (motor) tics and at least one vocal (phonic) tic; these tics characteristically wax and wane. Tourette’s is defined as part of a spectrum of tic disorders which includes transient and chronic tics.
Tourette’s was once considered a rare and bizarre syndrome most often associated with the exclamation of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks (coprolalia) but this symptom is present in only a small minority of people with Tourette’s. Between 1 and 10 children per 1000 have Tourette’s; as many as 10 per 1000 people may have tic disorders with the more common tics of eye blinking coughing throat clearing sniffing and facial movements. People with Tourette’s have normal life expectancy and intelligence. The severity of the tics decreases for most children as they pass through adolescence and extreme Tourette’s in adulthood is a rarity. Notable individuals with Tourette’s are found in all walks of life.
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Robert B. Cialdini is Regents Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University.
He is best known for his popular book on persuasion and marketing Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Influence has sold over 2 million copies and has been translated into twenty-six languages. It has been listed on the New York Times Business Best Seller List. Fortune Magazine lists Influence in their “75 Smartest Business Books.” 
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (ISBN 0-688-12816-5)has also been published as a textbook under the title Influence: Science and Practice (ISBN 0-321-01147-3).
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Harvard Business Review lists Dr. Cialdini’s research in “Breakthrough Ideas for Today’s Business Agenda”.
His most recent work Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive (ISBN 978-184668-016-8) co-authored with Dr. Noah Goldstein and Steve J. Martin provides insights on how to apply the science of persuasion to be more effective at influencing others at work and in personal situations. Yes! is a New York Times USA Today & Wall Street Journal Best Seller.
Six “Weapons of Influence”
Cialdini defines six “weapons of influence”:
Reciprocity – People tend to return a favor thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. In his conferences he often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. The good cop/bad cop strategy is also based on this principle.
Commitment and Consistency – If people commit orally or in writing to an idea or goal they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed they will continue to honor the agreement. For example in car sales suddenly raising the price at the last moment works because the buyer has already decided to buy. Cialdini notes Chinese brainwashing on American prisoners of war to rewrite their self image and gain automatic unenforced compliance.
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Research suggests that devaluing temptations and increasing the value of goals increases performance (Fishbach et al.
I suppose the online school will have field experience and clinical practice opportunities for you. I guess it all depends on just what you want to do with the degree. , 2009
im thinking about going to school for psychology but im currently in school for dental hygiene. i was wondering if an online degree is as good as one from a university because i don’t have time to physically go to school. if so can someone tell me a good online school i can enroll in. Please help!!!
I suppose the online school will have field experience and clinical practice opportunities for you. I guess it all depends on just what you want to do with the degree.
When we value our goal more we automatically orient ourselves towards it. In the same way devaluing temptations helps us automatically avoid them.
8. Use your heart
The heart often rules the head, so use your emotions to increase self-control.
In one study children were able to resist eating marshmallows by thinking of them as ‘white clouds’ (Mischel & Baker, 1975). This is one way of avoiding temptations: by cooling down the emotions associated with them.
You can increase the pull towards your goal in the same way: think about the positive emotional aspects of achieving it; say, the pride, or excitement.
Sometimes exercising self-control means avoiding a bad habit. One way of doing this is by using self-affirmations. This means reaffirming the core things you believe in. This could be family, creativity or anything really, as long as it’s a core belief of yours.
When participants in one study did this, their self-control was replenished (the study is described here: self-affirmation in self-control). Thinking about core values can help top-up your self-control when it’s been depleted.
10. Think abstract
Part of the reason self-affirmations work is that they make us think in the abstract. And abstract thinking has been shown to boost self-control.
We are more likely to think abstract if we think about the reasons why we’re doing something, rather than just how we’re doing it.
Another good reason not to give in…
There’s a comforting thought that if we give in to temptation just this once, we’ll come back stronger afterwards.
However psychological research has suggested this isn’t true. Students who had a good (versus mediocre) break from studying to ‘replenish’ themselves didn’t show increased motivation when they returned (Converse & Fishbach, 2008, described in Fishbach et al., 2010).
If all else fails, know that giving in won’t bring you back stronger. Worse, giving in to temptation may well just increase your tendency to crumble again in the future.
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