How To Increase Your Self Control in Your Free Time

Factors Affecting Self Control

In a couple of previous posts, I’ve discussed ways that you can improve your self control. Specifically, this post talks about the importance of nutrition, exercise and sleep on your willpower, and this post discusses how mindfulness can make you less impulsive.

There are a variety of definitions for self control in the academic literature but, generally speaking, self control is your capacity to consciously choose to do something other than what your impulses or social norms are trying to get you to do. Self control is important for motivation because low motivation is often the result of not having the willpower to resist your basic impulses.


The videos I mentioned address the topic of self control from two different angles. First, by taking care of your body, you increase your willpower, which improves your ability to resist impulses. Next, developing your mindfulness makes you less impulsive in general. In this post, I’m going to approach this topic from a third perspective: strengthening your self control through deliberate training.

What the research says about self control

There is a growing mountain of behavioral research that confirms that you can, in fact, strengthen your self control by consistently performing activities that require you to use it. The nice thing is that these exercises improve not only the strength of your self control, but also its endurance, i.e. how long it lasts before being depleted.

The types of exercises conducted by the participants of these studies are ordinary, every-day things that don’t require any special skills, prep time, equipment or knowledge. The researchers had people do things like swirl a high-alcohol-content mouthwash around in their mouths a couple times a day, or use their non-dominant hand for common activities like eating or brushing their teeth, or hold a squeeze-grip hand exerciser closed for as long as possible a couple times a day. Some participants were asked to do even more basic things, like study or exercise a certain amount each day.

One caveat

I should make one clarification regarding self-control exercises. Situations that require self control generally fall into one of two categories. Those that require you to avoid or stop doing something are categorized as inhibition. Those that require you to take action are categorized as initiation. The scientific literature is quite conclusive that performing inhibition exercises increases your inhibitory self control and performing initiation exercises increases your initiation self control. What is not conclusive is whether either kind of exercise increases your self control capacity for both situations.

There is hope

The results of these studies clearly indicate that spending even a few minutes each day doing activities that require self control, for as little as two weeks, results in a significant increase in overall self-control capacity. This insight is great news for anyone looking to improve their self control, for whatever reason.

Whether you're struggling to stop doing something like overeating or smoking, or you can’t motivate yourself to do something, like exercise or start working on an important project, there is something you can do about it that is proven to work. And it’s not complicated. All you need to do is pick a self-control exercise and spend a few minutes every day doing it. As the examples from the study indicate, the specific exercise you choose doesn’t even need to be particularly hard, as long as it requires you to use some amount of self control.

Slow and steady wins the race

Consistency is key, though. Just like many of the habits and behavior changes that you need self control for, don’t expect results if you aren’t willing to stick with it. It’s not a quick fix for all of your motivation problems, but if you take consistent, small steps, day after day, these exercises will compound and help you develop the self control you need to make the changes you desire in your life.

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