Self-control is the skill needed to achieve any goal or desired outcome. People with a lot of self-control have the motivation and ability to override their unwanted impulses and desires.
So, you wake up one day and realize just how little control you exercise over yourself. You find yourself enslaved, even addicted to certain bad habits which you created over the years, which by now are deeply ingrained in your character.
This sudden discovery can be devastating, a humbling blow to the ego. But keeping yourself on task, forming a new habit, or trying to avoid certain foods, sometimes just feels impossible. As you struggle with willpower, you give in to your temptations without a fight.
Maybe this is because you (like most of us) don’t fully understand the philosophy of self-control and how it scientifically works.
The History of Ancient Philosophy and Self-Control
Two millennia ago, Stoicism emerged as a life-affirming platform for being, a kind of super vitamin for the soul. It was meant to fortify the human spirit against trials and tribulations of daily life – but most of all, against the follies of man.
At the heart of this philosophy, was the idea that at the foundation of human flourishing were four cardinal virtues: courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control.
Plato argued, the human experience is a constant struggle between desire and rationality, and that self-control is needed to achieve the ideal form. Freud suggested that self-control was the essence of civilized life.
These philosophies remind us of how unpredictable the world can be, and the importance of having to be steadfast, strong, and exert self-control within it.
Observing individuals who lead successful and creative lives, you can identify elements of expertise, grit, understanding, and passion. But what you can’t see, is the individual’s inner system of self-control – the set of principles that govern their mind and behavior.
In De Motu Animalium (701a7-8), Aristotle asks: “How does it happen that thinking is sometimes followed by action and sometimes not; sometimes by motion, sometimes not?”
How does it happen, that sometimes you act in accordance with your deliberative better judgment, and sometimes you fail to do so, choosing a course of action in total conflict with those better judgments?
It must then have to do with the individual’s inner system of self-control — that set of principles that govern their particular mind and behavior.
What Does It Mean to Possess Self-Control?
Self-control is defined as practicing restraint over your emotions, impulses, actions, and desires. It’s the ability to make positive choices, and to think before acting. Having self-control and self-discipline is what separates you from the rest of the animal kingdom.
New York Times author Pamela Druckerman explains it in this way:
There are two warring parts of the brain: a hot part demanding immediate gratification (the limbic system), and a cool, goal-oriented part (the prefrontal cortex which has the ability to subdue impulses in order to achieve longer-term goals, rather than responding to immediate gratification).
The limbic system
The primary structures within the limbic system include the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus, the latter involved in sensory input for emotions and regulating aggressive behavior.
The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain, while the hippocampus plays an essential role in the formation of new memories about past experiences. The limbic system controls behaviors essential to life, such as the desire to eat and drink.
The prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of the frontal lobe. Many scientists have indicated an integral link between a person’s will to live, personality, and the functions of the prefrontal cortex. It is the region that controls planning, complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.
The Secret to Mastering Self-Control
The secret of self-control is to train the prefrontal cortex to kick in first – to summon self-control when you want it, to make good decisions, and to be able to carry out long-term plans while reducing impulsive actions, and dealing effectively with frustration.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the ‘Marshmallow Test’ which Walter Mischel (Professor of Psychology at Columbia University) invented nearly 50 years ago.
Mischel tested the self-control of kids between the ages of 3 and 5 by giving them marshmallows, along with the following two options: eat the marshmallow now, or if they wait for his return, receive two marshmallows.
Over the years psychologists have performed the experiment many times, and in general, fewer than half the kids passed the test. Most kids couldn’t delay gratification and gobble up the marshmallow before those running the study returned.
Why You Need Self-Discipline In Your Life
The researchers followed some of the children who did Mischel’s Marshmallow Test for decades. They found that those who waited were more likely to have better SAT scores and better jobs later on in life.
The scientific study of self-control further shows people with higher levels of self-control eat healthier, are less likely to engage in substance abuse, perform better at work, and build high-quality friendships.
In business, leaders with higher levels of self-discipline display more effective leadership styles, and are more likely to inspire and intellectually challenge their followers, instead of being abusive or micromanaging.
In his comprehensive biography of Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance shows readers how Musk’s genius consists of setting incredibly high standards, monitoring progress closely, and working around the clock to build his physical and mental strength around self-discipline.
Not only do self-controlled people enjoy greater wealth, but they also behave more generously. They override their selfish impulses and go out of their way to help others.
Self-control thus seems to be a key factor in determining higher achievement, and well-being. Physically, self-controlled people sleep better, experience fewer physical sickness symptoms, and live longer lives. They also enjoy better mental health.
Most people want to spend their lives with people they can trust, who follow through on their promises, and who will override their impulse to leave or lash out when things get tough. Self-controlled people are also more forgiving and react to conflict with benevolence rather than violence.
Learning to Exert Your Superpower: Willpower
The ability to exert self-control is typically called willpower.
You can plan, evaluate alternative actions, and with willpower, avoid doing things you’ll later regret. It directs your attention and underlies all kinds of achievement.
Willpower helps you manage impulses, gain composure, and achieve greater levels of self-control. It helps you notice and identify impulses as they arise, make choices about them, and helps you move forward into a calmer, more balanced way of being.
In their best-selling book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, psychologist Roy Baumeister and science journalist John Tierney show how self-control helped musician Eric Clapton to kick his alcohol and drug addiction – and how comedian Drew Carey learned to flourish at his work.
Mastering the components of self-control helped magician David Blaine complete his feats of physical endurance, including holding his breath underwater for over 17 minutes.
Self-Control and the Environment
A few years ago, Celeste Kidd, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, and her colleagues found evidence that Mischel’s Marshmallow Test doesn’t involve just self-control.
It also measures how much a child trusts his/her environment – how much the child trusts that the researcher is really going to return with the second marshmallow and whether waiting will be worth it or not.
If the child doesn’t believe that the second marshmallow is actually going to arrive, then it makes sense to eat the first one. This means they based their decisions on the statistical nature of what has happened in the past.
For example, if a child, or any person, is living in an environment where there’s a lot of uncertainty and instability, then they may think that waiting isn’t likely to pay off, and they have to take advantage of it now – even though they have the ability to delay gratification.
A recent study noted in Science Daily discovered the correlation between environment and self-control could have implications related to health outcomes; for instance, people may make healthier food choices if they choose environments that match their personality type, and where they felt comfortable.
In their book Willpower, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney argue that self-controlled people take control of their environment. If they’re motivated to lose weight, they don’t bring junk food into the house.
These findings suggest that to be able to exert self-control and willpower, you need to set up your environment to support your notions.
How to Develop Better Self-Control and Willpower In Your Life
Cultural standards and morals
Your current standards originate from cultural surroundings, what people teach you, and your personal beliefs. These standards are the reference points you use to determine whether a given action is appropriate or desirable – whether you should do it or not. Develop a set of personal standards you can live in which will support your self-control ideals.
If you want to control your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you have to keep track of them and measure how you perform according to your set standards.
Build courage, strength, and fortitude
Strength refers to how much energy you have to control your impulses. Your strength waxes and wanes as you continue with your task or goal. Draft a plan to maintain and build physical and mental strength.
Learn to deal with stress
Stress is often something driven by outside influences, so the way to deal with it is often through understanding how you react to stress and deciding what you want from the situation.
Be aware of how you are feeling and commit to keeping cool under that pressure. Determine to get to the root cause of any situation before allowing yourself to make conclusions.
A quick walk outside, physical workouts, meditation, and mindfulness, have proved workable solutions to minimize stress and anxiety, simply because the emotional connection with the scenario has been disassociated, and the solutions from the logical part of the thinking brain are clearer to see.
Have a burning desire
Self-control alone doesn’t guarantee success. You need a burning desire and a clear goal that gives you a valid reason to stay on course.
Distraction and temptation are what derail you. So, it’s all about to keep living the way you want to live and work, and getting distracted constructively – meaning, to get distracted in mindful motives and ways that are in themselves satisfying, and intrinsically gratifying.
Develop skilled resistance
Brute resistance is an element of self-control. If you’re tempted to abandon an intention in favor of another pursuit, you may either force yourself through the initial intention and maintain tight focus – or you can encourage yourself to do it in a way that’s less frustrating, like changing direction completely.
The gift of willpower
Once you’ve learned to build self-control through a chosen activity or goal, you can now do a better job exerting self-control in all other situations and components of your life.
So in the end, you can tell a lot about people’s level of self-control, by how they act around marshmallows.
The chief task in your life is simply this: identify and separate matters so you know for sure which externals are not in your control, and which self-choices you can actually control. Then build the strength to stay in control of those choices.