Self-control - importance & 3 tips to improve it
Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.
Self-control plays a major role in anything important to your life
Higher self-control increases happiness
Succumbing to temptation and enjoying life are not the same things
Develop habits for important tasks
Aim for 100%, not for 99% or less
Take it easy at the beginning
Do you rather indulge now and pay the price later? Or wait for a little and reap bigger rewards in the future? Many of life’s biggest challenges come down to a simple trade-off.
In today’s world, we can receive instant gratification everywhere, for instance in social media or online shopping, and hence we get used to it more easily. As a result, it’s becoming more and more difficult to decide against instant rewards.
However, if we want to make the best decisions (for our health, happiness, etc), we often have to chose to wait and sacrifice instant rewards. This requires self-control - the ability to resolve conflicts between your short-term desires and your long-term goals.
In today’s blog, I want to share my thoughts on the importance of self-control and what has helped me to improve this capability.
Why self-control is crucial
Name anything important to your life and self-control plays a major role. In an extensive longitudinal study spanning across three decades, researchers from Duke University followed 1,000 children. In the beginning, they assessed their self-control skills, intelligence and social class, and examined what impact these characteristics had on their life success.
Unsurprisingly, children who were born to richer parents and who were more intelligent enjoyed greater physical health and a higher income. What’s striking though is that self-control had an equally powerful effect on success in life as intelligence and social class. The more the children improved their self-control skills during adolescence, the more successful they became 30 years later.²
You may be thinking that sacrificing a bit of long-term health and wealth is sometimes worth it. After all, indulging in a bit of chocolate cake makes us happy and helps us enjoy our lives to the fullest. If we became too strict and never indulged in anything, we might deprive ourselves of life’s greatest delights.
Yet, short-term rewards are often only a short boost of happiness and don’t really add any long-term value to our lives, but they often make us feel worse later (think about unhealthy food, drugs, alcohol, etc).
People who have high self-control aren’t missing out on enjoyment. Succumbing to temptation and enjoying life are not the same things. The key to happiness is balance. Additionally, many activities with long-term rewards are also enjoyable: eating fruits, playing sports, finishing a book.
It’s actually people with poor self-control who suffer. After giving in to temptations, they tend to feel guilt and regret about their decision, which spoils the pleasure. In contrast, those who successfully avoid temptations receive a boost to their self-esteem on top of their long-term rewards, such as better health and self-actualization.
Strategies to develop stronger self-control
Do you remember your first commute to work? You probably had to pay a lot of attention on the way not to get lost. After taking the same route many times, however, the commute became automatic. Now you can listen to music, speak on the phone, rehearse your speech, or plan your day, all while driving and navigating automatically.
The same goes for anything that requires a lot of self-control: In the beginning, it takes a huge amount of will-power and concentration to do it/get started. Once you did it several times, though, it becomes easier and easier, and eventually, you don’t even have to think about it anymore.
You can develop habits for everything you can imagine. For instance, I didn’t like to read, do cardiovascular sports, clean the dishes, or learn English vocabulary. After I had developed habits around these inconvenient tasks, however, I didn’t need any discipline to perform them.
100% > 99% or less
It’s a lot easier to do something right 100% than 98% of the time. Once you allow yourself some exceptions, it becomes much more difficult to be disciplined. Why should you don’t eat this donut when you ate one yesterday? How can you draw the line?
Aiming for 100% has several additional benefits: You cannot lie to yourself or argue to make an exception since you agreed to give 100%. Once you hit the 100% a few times, you don’t want to break your streak. Moreover, performing 100% not only accelerates your progress but also helps you to develop a routine faster.
Take it easy at the beginning
When people want to make running a habit or new hobby, they often fail because they overstrain themselves at the beginning: They run too fast, rest too little, and have too high expectations.
When I started doing cardiovascular sports, my goal was to run for 30 minutes no matter how slow I need to run that long. The first time, I was so slow that someone going for a fast walk could have easily kept up with me. I got so bored. However, once I developed a routine, learned the basic running skills, and got closer to my personal running speed, it became more and more fun. And today, I love running and rather need to stop myself not to run too fast and too often.
When you go on a diet, don't reduce your energy intake too low. When you want to start studying for your exams earlier, aim for 1 week earlier rather than for 4 weeks earlier. Or when you want to reduce your alcohol consumption, try to halve your consumption instead of binge-drinking a few times a year.