According to psychologists, the practice of self-control involves much more than a bit of willpower.
Part of being an adult means practising self-control at various points throughout each day. You might want to curl up under your desk and have a nap at 3pm, but you don’t, because you know it wouldn’t go down well with your boss. You might desperately want to eat a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, but you don’t, because you’re trying to be vegan. You might want to waste your evening scrolling through Instagram and watching Netflix, but you don’t, because you’re trying to spend less time in front of a screen.
But there are occasions when our self-discipline fails, and we end up giving in to whatever compulsion we’re trying to control. And that’s usually fine. For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of impulsivity and self-indulgence, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Humans aren’t robots, and it’s important to allow yourself some flexibility.
However, if you are trying to be self-controlled in a specific area – for example, if you want to cut down on your phone use, or drink less alcohol – then there are strategies you can deploy to increase your chances of success. These techniques are outlined in a 2019 study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the US Association for Psychological Science. And they show that effective self-control involves much more than sheer willpower.
Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the report, explains that we’re unlikely to be successful if we rely on our willpower alone to help us resist temptation.
“Temptations are arguably more readily available, more creatively engineered, and cheaper than any time in history,” she says.
“Junk food gets tastier and cheaper every year. And then there’s video games, social media, the list goes on.”
Instead of gritting our teeth and simply hoping we’ll be able to abstain from unhealthy or unproductive habits, Duckworth and her study co-authors outline four key self-control strategies, drawn from insights in psychological science and economics.
Changing the situation
In some cases, researchers say the best self-control strategy involves modifying our environment. If you’re trying to spend less time on your phone, for example, this might mean buying an alarm clock for your bedroom, or using an app that restricts your usage.
Change how we think about the situation
If you can’t adapt your surroundings to make a bad habit easier to break, you can try to change how you think about the situation. This might mean making an ‘if-then’ plan, where you consider how you’ll react if you’re put in a position of temptation.
If you’re trying to cut down on your alcohol consumption, what will you do when your colleagues suggest after-work drinks? Thinking about this ahead of time could make exercising self-control feel more appealing or easier to accomplish.
There are also self-control strategies that are easier when someone else implements them for us. One of these is when outside forces encourage us to ascribe to new social norms: the researchers give the example of an electricity company showing its customers how their energy usage compares to their neighbours’, which might prompt them to be more eco-conscious.
The final self-control strategy also relies on external forces. Policymakers will often use situational constraints to change people’s behaviour – from incentives (such as offering tax rebates for eco-friendly building materials) to penalties (e.g. raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol).
George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon University says that this research is important, because it underscores the fact that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we can’t break a habit – or make a new one – on willpower alone.
One of the reasons people often fail in their New Year’s resolutions is “naivety about the limitations of the brute-force approach and ignorance of the far more effective strategies enumerated in the review,” he observes.
This article was originally published on 19 Feb 2019, and has been updated throughout.