Self-Control: Definition And How To Improve It

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated July 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While most of us may recognize that some degree of self-control can be important, finding the willpower to work toward our goals can be a daily challenge. Some days, we may fail to meet our own standards, and in those moments, it’s often best to be gentle with ourselves, reset, and try again the next day. But on other days, life may call for a bit more willpower. To meet our goals, take care of ourselves, and show up for the people we care about, we usually need a certain amount of self-control. It can be possible to increase self-control by removing temptations, developing stress management strategies, and tracking your progress. You may also find it helpful to work with a licensed therapist who may keep you accountable and help you as you move toward your goals.

Working to improve your self-control?

What is self-control?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), self-control can be defined as the ability to be in command of your behavior and restrain or inhibit your impulses. 

In theory, self-control can be a positive and necessary skill. People with greater self-control can often resist short-term rewards in favor of long-term goals. For example, if you’re training for a marathon, choosing to get up every morning to complete your workout can pay long-term dividends. However, if you start oversleeping and skipping workouts, you may be disappointed by your performance at the final event. One study found that people with higher self-control tended to experience a greater sense of meaning in life, in part due to their ability to create greater order and structure in their lives. 

In almost all dimensions of life, self-control can help us overcome our immediate desires and make more thoughtful, practical decisions. These core areas of life may include the following: 

  • Career: Focusing on the task at hand and slowly working toward long-term goals
  • Finances: Saving and spending money within reason
  • Relationships: Keeping promises to friends and romantic partners and taking time to process difficult emotions, rather than reacting to them
  • Health: Making choices about food, exercise, substances, and alcohol that support your overall well-being

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Research suggests that people with higher self-control tend to find greater satisfaction in life, while those with lower self-control tend to give in to impulsive behavior and progress more slowly toward their goals. 

Does self-control have limits? 

While self-control can be an essential part of goal-setting, it may also be a limited resource. Throughout the day, you generally make hundreds of decisions ranging in size and magnitude, and you may exercise willpower to follow through with each one. By the end of the evening, you may have less cognitive energy to resist temptations, such as an extra drink at happy hour or one more episode of your favorite show. 

These “slip-ups” can be expected and entirely human. At some point, we may all need breaks. It can be impossible to push through every obstacle with sheer willpower. This phenomenon can be referred to as ego depletion, or a state of depleted willpower. 

However, some sources report that people may not experience ego depletion unless they believe that self-control is a limited resource. Those who believe they possess unlimited self-control may not experience ego depletion. Therefore, mindset may play a role in how much self-control you can exercise on a daily basis.

On a long-term scale, we may need a combination of self-control, rest, and social support to reach our goals and treat others with respect.

Is there a dark side to self-control?

While some degree of self-control can set you on the path toward success, too much can be detrimental to your health and relationships. Some studies have found that high levels of self-control may present the following drawbacks: 

  • A more limited emotional experience and range of emotions
  • A tendency to over-work and over-rely on yourself over others
  • Long-term regrets about exercising self-control in scenarios where “letting go” may have led to more fun, pleasure, and connection
  • Bias against marginalized groups whose challenges may be unfairly attributed to low self-control, as opposed to systemic barriers

Like most “good” things, an excess of self-control can have negative consequences for the health of individuals, families, friends, and even cultures at large. But by finding the right balance, you can use the power of self-control to enhance your sense of purpose. 

How can i improve my self-control? 

As you review and later apply these five strategies, be mindful to be kind to yourself. It often takes time to build self-control, and some people may be more naturally inclined to exert willpower than others. While self-control can be important, it’s not usually the only contributing factor to success. 

1. Don’t face temptation: remove it

Perhaps you’ve heard someone describe how they “faced” a temptation, just like they’d face a persistent fear or challenging conversation. 

However, self-control may be better accomplished by proactively avoiding temptation. Rather than attempting to resist your favorite dessert or retail store, this research suggests it may be best to remove the temptation altogether, so you don’t have to endure an unnecessary “face-off.” Using this strategy can save you the mental energy you may otherwise devote to fighting the temptation.

It’s not always possible to control our environments, but removing temptation can be fairly simple. You may choose to leave your phone outside the bedroom so that you’re not tempted to scroll before sleeping. If you notice that your self-control is faltering in a certain environment, you could enlist the help of friends who can keep you accountable or help you leave the situation. Try to surround yourself with people who know your temptations and recognize the importance of avoiding them. 

2. Develop coping strategies for stress

When we’re stressed, self-control tends to fly out the window. Research suggests that people with greater self-control may be more effective stress controllers, which generally makes their stressful thoughts less intrusive and overpowering. Simultaneously, they tend to be better at putting themselves in supportive, low-stress situations that aid their goals and emotional well-being

In a study of 594 participants in the United Kingdom, researchers found that people with good self-control generally reported less stress overall, and their stress levels were usually more stable compared to people with lower self-control. 

Think back to the last time you were really stressed. If you struggled to make the “right” or healthy decision during that time, it likely wasn’t a moral failing. From a psychologist’s perspective, stress probably made it difficult to perform cognitively demanding tasks. 

During periods of high stress, the usual strategies for stress reduction can be especially handy. In addition to getting enough sleep and eating a balanced, nourishing diet, you might take time to develop your personalized arsenal of coping strategies. These could include the following:

  • A 10-minute walk around your neighborhood, or in the park by your office
  • Calling a trusted friend or loved one
  • Reading a passage from your favorite book
  • Sitting in silence with a cup of tea

Stress can look and feel slightly different for everyone, so feel free to modify and add to this list!

3. Track your progress

Whether you’re working toward short-term or long-term goals, it’s often hard to stay motivated without honoring how far you’ve come. If you need a simple, streamlined way to track your progress, consider using SMART goals. In this framework, SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant 
  • Time-bound

For example, your SMART goal might be to study for an hour every evening for three weeks to prepare for the final exam in your psychology course. This goal is generally much clearer than simply saying, “I want to do well on my psychology exam.” By setting SMART goals, you can begin tracking your progress toward concrete objectives.

Working to improve your self-control?

4. Clarify your "why"

In a foundational study of self-control in children, psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel used the “marshmallow test” to assess children’s ability to delay gratification. This study led Dr. Mischel and his collaborators to develop the “hot-and-cool” system, a theory that attempts to explain why willpower succeeds or fails. 

In this theory, the “hot” system can be seen as your impulsive, emotional reaction to temptation. The “cold” system may be your ability to make a rational decision to turn down a temptation in favor of achieving a longer-term goal. Some people may be more or less susceptible to hot stimuli, which can result in varying abilities to delay gratification.

If you notice you’re more likely to give in to your need for immediate gratification, it may be helpful to hit pause when faced with temptation and clarify your “why.” Consider writing down your core motivators in a journal or on a homemade sign, then keep the list visible in your home or workspace. Short-term rewards can feel good in the moment, but when you compare them to your long-term goals, it can become easier to make a choice that benefits your future self. 

5. Connect with a therapist for accountability

In any situation that demands self-control, an accountability partner can be invaluable. While you might recruit a friend or family member for support, a therapist can offer an additional level of expertise and wisdom. 

While some people may prefer in-person therapy, a growing number tend to choose online therapy to work toward their mental health goals. Using a digital platform like BetterHelp, you can complete a brief questionnaire and match with a licensed therapist within 48 hours. You may also personalize the therapy experience by choosing between sessions through video call, phone call, or online chat.

A growing body of research shows that online therapy can help people set and achieve a variety of goals and can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy. A 2022 study assessed the value of goal-based outcome measures (GBO) to monitor progress in online therapy. The study measured each person’s progress toward achieving the therapeutic goals they had made for themselves. Their findings suggest that GBOs can be useful for monitoring therapeutic progress in online therapy, and that online therapists can actively collaborate with clients to set and achieve their objectives. In fact, the study found that “[g]oals set in collaboration with a practitioner were also successfully achieved more often than those set independently.” 

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At first glance, the definition of self-control may seem simple, but psychological research shows that its application can be a bit more complicated. It often takes time, patience, and self-compassion to increase your self-control. Some tips for making self-control easier to practice can include removing sources of temptation and managing your stress. Setting concrete goals, reminding yourself why they matter, and enlisting the support of loved ones and a therapist may all be ways to channel your willpower and progress toward your next goal.
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