The 3 Keys to Master Your Self-Control and Willpower

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Never let the box of chocolates get the best of you again.

‘How the hell did that happen?’

You look down at the crumb-laden sofa, wondering where the packets of crisps, boxes of chocolates, and bottles of wine appeared from.

‘It must have been the snack fairy again,’ you whisper to yourself.

After all, you promised yourself, not a mere hour ago, you were going to say no this time. You were going to stay resolute in sticking to the diet, choose the fruit instead of the chocolate, and, importantly, stay disciplined.

That’s all you needed: a good old-fashioned bout of willpower to get you through the evening.

Because, let’s face it, that’s what a diet needs, isn’t it? Unreserved levels of self-control and the sought-after values of self-denial and steadfast perseverance.

Unfortunately, those supplies of willpower that were bursting at the seams before you plonked yourself onto the sofa diminished rapidly. They disappeared each time you said to yourself ‘no’ or displayed a moment of self-restraint as the minutes passed.

You simply used up all your self-control for the day and the temptation to refuse the snacks collapsed.

But wait. Did you use up all your self-control?

Is a shortage or depletion of restraint the prime reason you fail to achieve your desired results? Or is it by virtue of other psychological elements influencing your ability to say no?

Is willpower a mental emergency fund you either do or don’t have – like a savings account at the bank – or is the ability to evade the crisps, chocolate, and wine manipulated by factors simply out of your control?

Luckily for you, we’re going to take a deep dive into the notion of self-control, where it comes from, and how we can master it to finally stay adherent to that new diet you find yourself on.

What Is Self-Control?

It’s no secret that humans are captivated by impulses and desires that don’t align with their long-term ambitions. Think about the time spent scrolling through Instagram instead of working or choosing the ice cream in place of the piece of fruit.

In order to accomplish the goals we set ourselves, we need to conquer these impulses. We need to override temptations and replace them with other, more valuable behaviors.

The capacity to do so is labeled self-control.

In our brain, we have parts that govern ‘rational’ thinking and ‘emotional’ thinking.

The rational, or logical, sides are responsible for planning and direction and impel the brain to execute the ‘harder thing.’

The emotional sides, however, are responsible for instant gratification and instinct. Our emotions acs on impulse and are designed to feed off our evolutionary disposition for survival and intuition.

There’s, unfortunately, a never-ending battle between these impulsive and planning systems.

Overcoming this constant motivational tug of war requires the use of self-control.

To display greater levels of self-control, therefore, we need to prioritize the pleasure we derive from achieving those longer-term ambitions and disregard the quick-fix nature of those shorter-term impulses. When we use that logical side to understand and appreciate the consequences of our behavior, we practice discipline and, ultimately, willpower.

When we realize that what we value is also what we desire, we can practice self-control with ease. The way we perceive our goals and values and apply them to our daily lives, therefore, makes those ‘I want’ and ‘I won’t’ decisions more straightforward.

When we can solve these internal motivational conflicts, we can display sufficient willpower to overcome the situation we find ourselves in.

Do We Really Possess Self-Control Reserves?

Some academic sleuthing has coined the idea of diminishing self-control reserves as ‘ego depletion.’ It was posited that discipline wanes over time, such that people exert less control at a point in time if they’ve continuously been employing control previously.

Willpower was diagnosed a ‘limited resource.’

It’s why, in the seminal study on willpower, people who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolates, thus exerting more self-discipline, subsequently quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than those who didn’t have to display the same levels of self-control. [1]

It was argued that reserves of self-control depreciate whenever we choose to quell short-term desires to strive for long-term goals.

Interestingly, research also showed that, just like the musculature in our body, self-control relies on glucose (one of the body’s preferred sources of fuel) as its own energy source. [2] The more ‘energy’ we possess, the more self-control we can occupy.

The more we dispense of self-control reserves, therefore, the less strength we possess to use them thereafter. Hence the crisps, chocolate, and wine you found yourself bathed in at the end of the evening.

It seems simple: don’t use up your self-control if you want to use it for other, important tasks later.

Unfortunately, The Strength Model of Self-Control has been found to lack significant answers to other critical willpower-related questions.

What about subsequent tasks that we’re highly motivated to complete? What about moments when we’re forced to use self-control? Or when deciding between two equally rewarding choices?

Why do we not require discipline when we want to watch television or devour one of our mum’s homemade cupcakes after a long, mentally exhausting day at work? What if we believe we have more willpower than we actually do?

Issues with self-control, therefore, can be attributed to a priority shift as opposed to a resource problem. [3]

Self-control is no longer about a finite resource being used up throughout the day.

These contemporary, priority-based models of self-control state that our willpower isn’t based upon some exceptional ability to power through adversity, but that we override temptations based on the perceived effort of a task, the opportunity costs for making a decision, our current wellbeing, and the overall value of that choice.

Self-Control Is A Priority Problem Instead

As we know, self-control is required to override the growing conflict between the two distinct drives in our brain: the drive for immediate, effortless gratification (eating the cupcake) and the demand for future, effortful fulfilment (losing weight).

As enduring this conflict is an unpleasant experience, we eventually lose focus, grow bored, and seek activities that promote instant gratification instead.

We don’t necessarily struggle with self-control because we’ve used up all our mental energy, but because we experience this fatigue in the first place.

Our attention and priorities shift, meaning future-focused behaviors are halted in favour of immediately rewarding actions instead.

Self-control is an investment strategy.

As – being human – we prefer rest and leisure, it makes sense to take refuge on the sofa and eat chocolate after a long day at work (easy, rewarding tasks) rather than tidying up, making a healthy dinner, and finishing that work project (challenging, unpleasant tasks).

Problems with self-control primarily arise when we lose concentration on what’s been labelled ‘have-to accomplish’ goals (such as consuming low-calorie food items) and instead shift to ‘want-to accomplish’ goals (such as devouring highly-palatable, calorie-abundant foods).

When the rational side of our brain squanders control, our emotional side takes over.

Motivation And Perceived Effort Matter

When we experience a shift in motivation towards intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable activities, our self-control stores won’t diminish.

It’s why tasks of high value to certain people, such as smoking or meditating, counteract feelings of increased effort and provide reward and appreciation for the time spent on a task, instead.

When we possess sufficient motivation to balance competing goals, however, we can display appropriate levels of self-control. Only when we perform an activity out of obligation or increased effort, do we experience this mental fatigue.

Therefore, problems with self-control when dieting arise when your brain perceives your long-term goals as only partially rewarding relative to their required efforts.

It’s also why, when people are provided with an added incentive to display levels of self-control, they’re able to overcome any supposed willpower depletion. In the case of one such study, being told that their results in a problem-solving task would assist in developing new therapies for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, aided the use of willpower. [4]

People don’t necessarily surrender reserves of willpower the longer they delve into a dieting phase, but because they overlook the rewards from their efforts. Incentives dwindle, and adherence fades. Aversion to effort increases, and motivation for pressing reward multiplies.

Fundamentally, we shun behaviors that don’t engage us and seek actions that do.

Your Mindset Matters, Too

While there is a torrent of evidence to suggest self-control is a limited resource, the lens in which we view our reserves of restraint has been found to influence how we use that resource far more.

There’s evidence to show that diminishing willpower reserves can simply be caused by the way we think about this concept and not necessarily our true physical and mental ceilings. [5].

Early self-control research hypothesized that the ingestion of glucose could enhance self-control.

Dr Carol Dweck, a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, and her colleagues argued, however, the effect of this energy boost is principally owed to psychological processes more than physiological ones. [6]

They studied how people displayed self-control when fatigued and were told to drink a sugar-laden lemonade beverage to provide them with that supposed much-needed energy boost. Those informed that self-control was unlimited didn’t display any signs of supposed ego depletion when performing a word/color association task. They didn’t require that energy boost to maintain a higher level of willpower.

Those, however, who were led to believe self-control was limited, performed poorly on the same task. They presumed they’d expended any reserves of restraint they had and, therefore, couldn’t function any better, despite ingesting that purported energy boost.

Similarly, other studies have shown that when people believe they have depleted their mental energy, their performance – specifically in anagram-related tasks – diminishes. [7]

It appears that self-control may be another paradigm illustrating how belief, not necessarily our physiology, can drive behavior.

Your perception of mental depletion, not the actual amount of work required to ‘stay on track,’ determines your ability to exhibit irrepressible self-control.

The 3 Keys To Master Your Self-Control

It could be assumed that if willpower was a limited resource, we could train it – just like going to the gym – to improve its strength. As we now know willpower isn’t necessarily consigned to limited resources, employing tactics like this isn’t going to be that beneficial.

The beliefs, thoughts, and values we possess surrounding that tug-of-war between instant gratification and long-term reward matter more.

When the balance between indulgence and control shifts in favor of the long-term goal, self-control improves. Targeting our motivation, attention, effort, and beliefs, therefore, is the answer to unlocking robust levels of willpower.

1) Think About Self-Control Differently

Whenever you encounter a situation that demands willpower, it’s important to remind yourself that you already possess the requisite self-control to shift your focus towards your long-term aspirations. Recalling that the mental fatigue you’re experiencing is nothing but a subjective feeling will enhance your decision-making process.

Evidence suggests those who believe their willpower is unlimited perform better on working memory and learning tasks. [8]

It’s time to flip any self-reported beliefs about willpower you currently hold on to their head.

It’s time to accept that lacking self-control is primarily due to your perception of the effort and difficulty of saying ‘I will’ or ‘I won’t,’ rather than the actual effort and difficulty of the task.

The next time you’re faced with a situation that demands willpower, remember you always have more restraint and strength than your brain would have you believe.

You can say ‘I won’t’ to the tasks you don’t want to engage in, you can say ‘I will’ to the behaviors you want to execute, and you can ‘achieve’ those long-term goals you crave. You’re not confined to the shackles of destined self-control qualities.

2) Tame Your Intrinsic Motivation

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in an activity because it leads to a tangible reward or avoids punishment. Intrinsic motivation, however, involves engaging in an activity because it is interesting and deeply satisfying.

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that when we’re intrinsically motivated to do something, we don’t necessarily require self-control.

When an activity provides entertainment, competition, and interest, we don’t view it as an ‘effort.’

When we pursue goals of personal importance – such as viewing yourself as an active person or embracing the struggle of developing strength in the gym – the subsequent behaviors become easier to implement and regulate.

Simply put, it’s better to view each weight-loss-related behavior as tasks you want to pursue, not because you have to. That intrinsic motivation and sense of fulfillment provide feelings of instant reward, which we know drives beneficial, impulsive behaviors.

Similarly, when a skill feels easy – and we receive a subsequent reward – we’re more likely to complete it.

This ‘law of least effort’ means skills we’re competent at require little self-control. It’s why grabbing a chocolate bar from the vending machine or helping children finish the food on their plate – simple exercises – require little self-discipline.

Making rewards contingent on competence increases self-control, meaning assuming work is easy will ward off the effects of mental fatigue.

3) Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is being kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. It’s acknowledging it’s natural to make mistakes. [9]

It’s why women who were told to eat a Dunkin Donut to induce feelings of diet guilt ate fewer subsequent chocolates when provided with a self-compassion manipulation. [10]

The more we try to run on those feelings of hate, exhaustion, and resentment – proponents of ‘have-to goals’ – the more we end up failing. When you replenish self-condemnation with kindness and forgiveness, however, you remove the shame and guilt surrounding mistakes and improve self-control levels.

Self-compassion enables you to change direction and make better decisions, rather than dwelling on mistakes and succumbing to that what-the-hell effect.

When you’re faced with a decision that demands self-control, avoid demanding self-punishment. Accept that struggling is commonplace, instead.

When you avert criticism and recognize poor decision-making is routine, you alleviate self-critical thought. You remove negative feelings without allaying feelings of personal responsibility.

Self-compassion ultimately aids self-control.

In Summary, Start Changing Your Beliefs And Mindset Around Self-Control

Self-control was originally thought to be a limited resource. While there is some evidence to suggest this may well be true, recent hypotheses have stated willpower has more to do with priorities, motivation, and mindset instead.

We override temptations based on the perceived effort of a task, the opportunity costs for making a decision, our current wellbeing, and the overall value of that choice.

Your perception of mental depletion, not the actual amount of work required to ‘stay on track,’ determines your ability to exhibit irrepressible self-control.

To master your self-control, avoid thinking you must ‘train’ it like you would your legs in the gym. Instead, think about willpower differently. It’s time to accept that lacking self-control is primarily down to your perception of the effort and difficulty of saying ‘I will’ or ‘I won’t,’ rather than the actual effort and difficulty of the task.

Similarly, improve your intrinsic motivation by viewing each weight-loss-related behavior as tasks you want to pursue and making those same behaviors easy to complete.

When you’re faced with a decision that demands self-control, avoid demanding self-punishment. Accept that struggling is commonplace instead. Start practicing self-compassion when you make a mistake or give in to the packets of crisps, boxes of chocolates, and bottles of wine.

It will help you make decisions that your ‘future you’ will thank you for.


1. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265

2. Gailliot, M.T., & Baumeister, R.F. (2007). The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 303-327.

3. Hirt, E.R., Clarkson, J.J., & Jia, L. (2016). Self-Regulation and Ego Control. Academic Press.

4. Muraven, M., Slessavera, E. (2003). Mechanisms of Self-Control Failure: Motivation and Limited Resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(7), 894-906.

5. Clarkson, J. J., Otto, A. S., Hassey, R., & Hirt, E. R. (2016). Perceived mental fatigue and self-control. In E. R. Hirt, J. J. Clarkson, & L. Jia (Eds.), Self-regulation and ego control (pp. 185–202). Elsevier Academic Press

6. Job, V., Walton, G. M., Bernecker, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2013). Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self-control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America110(37), 14837–14842.

7. Clarkson, J. J., Hirt, E. R., Jia, L., & Alexander, M. B. (2010). When perception is more than reality: The effects of perceived versus actual resource depletion on self-regulatory behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 29–46.

8. Miller, E. M., Walton, G. M., Dweck, C. S., Job, V., Trzesniewski, K. H., & McClure, S. M. (2012). Theories of willpower affect sustained learning. PloS One7(6),

9. Neff, K. D., & Dahm, K. A. (2015). Self-compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. In B. D. Ostafin, M. D. Robinson, & B. P. Meier (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness and self-regulation (pp. 121–137). Springer Science + Business Media.

10. Adams, C.E, & Leary, M.R. (2007). Promoting Self-Compassionate Attitudes Towards Eating Among Restrictive and Guilty Eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(10), 1120-1144.

About the Author

Daniel Harrod is an online fitness and nutrition coach who helps people get lean, strong, and sexy. Based in England, he likes helping people change their lives, Diet Coke, and rest days. He hates whisky, Zumba, and Tottenham Hotspur FC fans.

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