Self restraint is necessary to reach goals. But the modern world constantly tests our willpower and hinders our productivity–whether with social media, chatty colleagues, or old-fashioned daydreaming. And people with better self restraint are more successful than those with less.
So how can you increase your self restraint and build the willpower to more successfully complete your goals?
The answer depends on where your self restraint is failing – at the self-regulation stage (i.e., during goal planning) or the self-control stage (i.e., during goal execution). This post will help you identify where you need improvement and propose targeted solutions.
As always, our team of neuroscience and psychology PhDs have gone through dozens of academic studies on willpower, self-control, and self-regulation to ensure we provide evidence-backed solutions.
Where is your self restraint failing?
Take a moment to think of times you have struggled to complete an important goal. What happened? In particular, where in the goal process did you you fail?
Perhaps you struggled to find time to work on the goal because other obligations repeatedly got in the way. Perhaps social media, colleagues, anxiety, or mind-wandering constantly distracted you.
Where your willpower and self restraint lags will be telling of how you should go about fixing it. Are your failures happening at the self-regulation level or the self-control level (or both)?
The difference between self-regulation and self-control
Self-regulation starts early on, in the planning stages of the goal process. It refers to how you set up your time and environment in advance in a way that helps you meet your goals. It involves proactive measures to ensure the temptations and distractions don’t arise in the first place.
Self-regulation requires self-awareness and planning, activities that recruit evolutionarily new parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex. Put another way, self-regulation uses the high level thinking parts of your brain to help you avoid the situations that test your self restraint ability before temptations even arise.
Self-control occurs a little later, during execution of the goal process. It refers to inhibiting your automatic unhelpful impulses, so you can fight temptations and distractions in the moment. For example, this could be the experience of feeling frequent urges to check your email or to mindlessly scroll through your favorite social media site.
Self-control involves the evolutionarily older, more automatic parts of the brain. For instance, fMRI studies find that when people encounter temptations, two related brain areas get activated:
- The amygdala — responsible for processing emotions, in particular negative emotions
- The nucleus accumbens — responsible for encoding a desire for immediate rewards
Calculating your self-regulation and self-control levels
Click here to take a quick quiz designed to help determine whether you might benefit from improving your self-regulation or your self-control (or both).
How did you do? Your scores (low, medium, or high) for self-regulation and self-control are a good indication of where to start.
Low self-regulation but high self-control? Start with Section A. High self-regulation but low self-control? Start with Section B. Low for both? Take your pick. High for both? Get back to your super productive life… but seriously, don’t fool yourself. There’s always room to grow.
Section A: Improving your self-regulation
In this section we will discuss two steps to improve your self-regulation. The first step describes specific strategies to design your life in advance to more effectively avoid temptations and distractions. Specifically, how to:
- Prepare if-then action plans
- Create helpful environments, and
- Fail more productively.
The second step describes general lifestyle changes that support effective self-regulation. Specifically, suggestions to:
- Tackle uncertainty, and
- Boost happiness.
Self-regulation Step 1: Designing your life in advance
Perhaps the easiest way to overcome temptations and distractions is to avoid them in the first place. These self-regulation strategies are designed to help you do just that.
Prepare if-then action plans: If-then plans, sometimes called “implementation intentions,” instruct you on when, where, and how to respond to temptations or distractions and focus on your goals.
Someone who is constantly derailed by complaining colleagues, for example, might plan in advance what to say when they begin to interrupt his work. (Perhaps something like, “I am working on something else now, but have set aside time Friday morning to discuss employee concerns. Let’s talk then.”) Or when his urge to read a new news story arise, he may plan to stand up and stretch for 2 minutes. These plans help you avoid the need to make decisions in the face of temptations or distractions.
Are there situations in your life where if-then action plans could help you overcome common failures in self-restraint? Take a moment to plan how your ideal self might respond to them. Be specific.
- When do these willpower failures tend to occur? When does it make sense to respond? Should you schedule time in advance–for example, could you set specific hours to work on that dreaded project you have been putting off? Or should you simply plan reactions for when certain situations arise–for example, could you plan to put on your earphones as soon as your chatty colleague starts heading your way?
- How will you take action? What detailed steps will you take to focus on your goal? Will you turn on an internet blocker, pull up your list of contacts, set out a notepad and pen, and begin calling clients in alphabetical order?
Remember, the purpose of if-then plans is to make helpful decisions in advance so that you don’t have to think–and potentially make less-than-ideal choices–on the spot. And so, with practice these behaviors can develop into automatic habits.
Create helpful environments: Consider whether you can change your environment to help avoid temptations and distractions and to encourage tackling your important goals. What are some specific modifications you could try? Perhaps you could:
- Modify your current workspace. Could you keep noise-blocking headphones on hand to silence chatty coworkers? Would adding some nice decor or investing in a supportive chair make your space more invigorating?
- Modify your non-work environment to support your goals. If you want to start work earlier, could you place your alarm clock across the room so you can’t press snooze in the morning? If family or friends often tempt you away from work, could you discuss with them how to help?
Fail more productively: If in the end you must have a self restraint failure, consider how you could do so more productively. If you just can’t bring yourself to focus on a frustrating new project, then take a break to play music and organize your files. If you can’t stop thinking about reading that text your friend just sent, read it and quickly respond — but set an intention then and there, to add to your response that you now have to return to work. Productive procrastination may ultimately help you achieve more goals.
Self-regulation Step 2: Respond to uncertainty and foster wellbeing
Whereas Step 1 was about designing your life to avoid temptations and distractions, Step 2 is about improving your personal wellbeing in order to increase your self restraint ability. Growing evidence finds that it is easier to practice self-regulation when you feel good. So…relax and be happy!
Of course that is easier said than done, but here are a few evidence-backed ideas.
Tackle uncertainty when you can, accept it when you can’t: The unknown is stressful, and stress can decrease your ability to self-regulate. If you are worried about how you will pay rent next month, whether you will secure that grant funding, or if your partner is about to break your heart, then chances are you struggle to muster the willpower to fully focus on your goals.
To address such distractions, take a moment to consider whether they are legitimate and whether you can do something about them. Ask:
- Is this worry real and actionable? Then address it. In such cases it might be rational to shift your attention to the concern or temporarily switch goals. For example, if you truly might lack rent funds, then temporarily shift your goals to ensure you can pay. Perhaps you get a part time job or withdraw from your savings.
- Is this worry exaggerated or unactionable? Then accept it. Concede that despite your best efforts you might not get that new funding, and your partner might be about to leave. (Neither was particularly great anyway, right?) But even if that is the case, it is out of your hands. Instead of fighting these feelings, acknowledge them but allow them to move on. Practicing meditation may help. If you’re still struggling, check out this post about two novel techniques to combat worrying.
Finally, determine what makes you happy and spend time doing it. Here is a list of science-backed strategies for improving happiness:
Section B: Improving your self-control
Self-control describes that elusive ability to inhibit your unhelpful impulses as they arise. For example, you may feel constant urges to check your email, review the latest news, or join friends at happy hour instead of working.
Luckily, though the concept of self-control often conjurs to mind images of effortfully trying to suppress your basic desires, effective self-control strategies do not have to be particularly hard or psychologically draining. This section will walk you through two basic steps.
- Step 1 explains why it is important to know that self-control is NOT limited.
- Step 2 suggests two science-backed strategies for boosting your self-control in the face of temptations–reappraisal and construal level.
Self-control Step 1: Acknowledge that your self-control is not limited to some set amount
If there is one single idea to take away from this reading, it is this: your self-control is not limited. Here is why. Growing research finds that if you believe self-control is limited, then depleting tasks like concentrating for a long time or suppressing your emotions will burn you out, in turn decreasing the amount of self restraint you exercise in the future. But if you believe your willpower is not limited, then you can maintain self-control even after effortful experiences.
Indeed, sometimes working on strenuous or taxing tasks can energize you, further increasing your self-control. Take a moment to think of a time when using your self-control energized you for future challenging activities. Here are some examples:
- Perhaps after days of tedious work you successfully completed a difficult task, which gave you the confidence needed to tackle a challenging new project.
- Perhaps after forcing yourself to memorize a list of helpful mathematical formulas, you felt a renewed commitment to improving your data analysis skills.
- Perhaps, despite loving to sleep in, you got out of bed without pressing snooze and felt particularly in control at work the rest of the day.
If coming up with a past example is challenging, then start looking for examples in your life and those around you. Chances are that you will begin to see examples of how self-control is not necessarily limited but rather can lead to more future willpower.
Self-control Step 2: Practice specific strategies that boost in-the-moment self-control
Now that we have established that willpower is not a finite resource, we’ll turn to specific strategies to boost your self-control.
By definition, self-control involves tackling natural impulses and desires. But this does not mean a solution is to bottle them up. Instead, successful self-control strategies involve using rational thoughts to monitor, acknowledge, and actively address your unhelpful impulses. We’ll discuss two strategies:
- Reappraisal and
- Changing your perspective
Reappraise the situation: Reappraisal simply describes when you reinterpret something to have a new meaning. For example, if public speaking normally makes your heart race and palms sweat, then your first thought might be that you are afraid of public speaking. But you could instead reinterpret your bodily response as being about excitement. Such reappraisals can reduce stress and increase performance.
This applies when resisting temptations and focusing on tasks too. Indeed, simply interpreting a temptation as being a test of your willpower (rather than, say, just another cat video) or a task as being a test of your problem solving or intelligence (rather than, say, just a boring or seemingly impossible assignment) has been shown to increase motivation and decrease distractibility.
Reappraisals are not simply “positive thinking”–they contain kernels of truth that help you focus on the situation in a more helpful way. Take a moment to think about how you might reappraise tasks or temptations and distractions in your life to require less willpower. Ask:
- Am I sure my initial interpretation is accurate? Are there other possibilities?
- Can I think of this temptation as a negative stimulus–perhaps by focusing on its negative aspects or consequences?
- In what ways is a difficult task positive? Could it serve as an exciting challenge or learning experience? Could it lead to positive outcomes?
Now practice your new re-appraisal skills. Give yourself 2 minutes and come up with as many reappraisals as you can for the following situation:
You are underqualified and overwhelmed by a big new work project. You are tempted to waste time on social media because you wouldn’t be able to do much on the project anyway.
- This project is an opportunity to learn new skills and test my ability to tackle big projects. It might be enjoyable to have an excuse to get help from outside departments and get to know new people. If I pull this off it will set me up to get a promotion.
- Social media is filled with people with too much time on their hands. I get annoyed by constant pictures of people’s lunches. I can check it on the bus ride home so I just see the important updates.
Adopt a higher construal level: The default perspective for most people is their personal here-and-now experience, what psychologists sometimes call a “low level construal.” This low level construal focuses your attention on specific, concrete details in your immediate environment. Unfortunately it can make temptations and challenges seem massive and all-encompassing, which decreases your self restraint.
It is contrasted with “high level construal,” which views the world at a psychological distance. High level construal broadens your perspective to include the longer-term, more abstract understanding of a situation or object. It makes people appreciate the big picture, highlighting one’s important values and why their goals are important. In turn, it enhances self-control.
To switch to a higher level construal, try the following:
- Ask why, why, why you should do a helpful behavior. For example, if struggling to maintain the self restraint to focus on a complex spreadsheet, a conversation with yourself might go something like:
- Q: Why am I analyzing this spreadsheet?
- A: Because it will help determine where the company underestimated costs.
- Q: Why do I want to determine where the company underestimated costs?
- A: Because doing so will help us better prepare next year’s budget.
- Q: Why do we care about next year’s budget?
- A: Because getting it right will help the business invest more wisely and make more profit.
- Escape into nature, especially places in nature where you can literally see far into the distance. Perhaps a hike to a lookout over the forest. Or just a trek up to the highest level of your building to look out the window at the horizon.
- Think about long-term consequences. Imagine how this behavior leads to negative outcomes over time. Will you be happy in the future you made this choice? What will it be like looking back on moments like this next week or next year?
Recap of how to increase self restraint in order to boost productivity
Self restraint can fail at the self-regulation stage (during goal planning) or the self-control stage (during goal execution).
To improve your self-regulation,
- Design your life to avoid temptations and distractions in the first place. Prepare if-then action plans, create helpful environments, and fail more productively.
- Improve your general well-being, by confronting uncertainty and taking steps to boost your happiness.
To improve your self-control,
- Recognize that self-control is not finite, and practicing self restraint can energize you.
- Tackle unhelpful temptations and distractions by reappraising the situation and changing your perspective.
As you practice these strategies, do not fret if occasional self restraint failures occur. The important thing is to minimize them, learn from them, and move on with renewed commitment to your goals.