The Surprising Way To Develop More Self-Control

by Megan Grant

We try to exercise self-control in so many things we do every single day — from the food we eat to how many hours we work to the time we spend buried in our phones. However, new research gives us reason to believe that if you want to learn how to develop more self-control, the key might be to actually stop thinking about wanting more self-control. Desiring more of it could, in fact, totally work against you.

In the study, which was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers measured participants' desire for more self-control by having them rate how much they agreed with statements such as, "I want to be able to better resist temptations." Participants also rated their current levels of self-control. Next, participants had to complete either an easy task or one that took more self-control. The results were intriguing, and quite the opposite of what you might've expected: The more people said they wanted better self-control, the less they actually had. Participants who performed best with the challenging tasks were also the least likely to say they wanted better self-control. Those who performed the worst had said they wanted more self-control.

There may seem to be an obvious answer: The better performers naturally had more self-control to begin with. But, in another experiment, researchers were able to manipulate participants' desire for self-control by having them write an argument either in favor of self-control or explaining why it was a bad thing. Once again, people performed worse when they had to explain why self-control was such a good thing.

It would seem, then, that the most direct path to improved self-control is to stop chasing it.

Right. Sure. No big deal. This just goes against what we've been taught our whole lives about constantly trying to improve ourselves and go after the things we want. How do you improve your self-control without trying to improve your self-control, and thus having the whole thing backfire horribly? Thankfully, there are a number of suggestions.

In keeping with this idea that frantically chasing self-control is a no-no, Forbes suggests meditating for self-control, and it makes perfect sense. "Meditation actually trains your brain to become a self-control machine," wrote contributor Travis Bradberry in 2012. "Even simple techniques like mindfulness ... improve your self-awareness and your brain’s ability to resist destructive impulses. Buddhist monks appear calm and in control for a reason."

Here's another interesting thought: One of the reasons some people might be so much better at resisting temptation is because they avoid it in the first place. They don't simply resist it. They steer clear of distractions and anything that could inhibit their goals completely.

Something else you can do to improve your sense of self-control is break it up into smaller steps, viewing it as a muscle that you can strengthen, says psychologist Roy Baumeister on Psychology Today. Don't try to do too much, too soon. Start with something small, to make your bigger goal more reachable. For example, if you wish to practice more self-control when it comes to playing on your phone, first try committing to putting it away by 8:00 every night — as opposed to using it while you're laying in bed.

Self-control seems to be the embodiment of a metaphor most of us are familiar with — one of trying to grasp sand. The harder you try, the more it escapes you. Instead, improve other areas of your life — like meditating, avoiding distractions, and setting smaller goals — and self-control can be yours.