Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.
Willpower vs. Self-Control
Do you have a big goal you are trying to achieve? But for one reason or another, try as you may, your goal remains kind of elusive and seemingly out of reach.
This goal you’re chasing is what we would typically call a stretch goal. In other words, it’s a challenging goal that tests your resolve and stretches your comfort zone. And by no means are you expecting things to be easy. But, you never imagined things would be this difficult.
Chasing big goals ain’t easy. It requires motivation, self-discipline, skill, knowledge, resources, some inspiration, and a great deal of effort. And when it comes to effort, this is where many people fall short.
We all have this perfect vision of what our goal will be like at some point off into the future. However, getting from where we are today to our desired destination requires an overwhelming amount of steps. And progressing through these steps requires an incredible amount of self-discipline, focused effort and self-control.
Unfortunately, most people just don’t have the required focused self-discipline to consistently apply themselves to goal achievement. And this is why they get inconsistent results.
Yes, by all means, many people will make progress, but their progress will be sporadic. It’s sporadic because they rely on willpower to get them through each step along their journey. And, as you will learn, willpower is an inferior source of fuel. It’s finite and leads to inconsistent results.
Instead of using willpower as a source of fuel, they would be better off learning the art of self-control, then applying it to goal achievement in a focused and disciplined way.
However, before we get into what it takes to develop self-control, let’s first break down the distinguishing characteristics of what it means to have self-control and what it means to wield willpower.
What Exactly is Willpower?
Willpower is a defensive mechanism that results from conflicting values and desires. It’s a mechanism that leads to the avoidance of short-term guilt and the temporary suppression of an undesirable but pleasurable behavior.
What all this effectively means is that when you use willpower, you are temporarily suppressing your urges in preference of what makes more intellectual sense at the moment. This is, of course, all well and good, however, when we suppress our urges, they don’t just miraculously disappear. They, in fact, continue to expand and grow until we reach a point where we are no longer able to ignore them.
For a moment let’s go back to that big goal you’re working towards.
On the one hand, you have this ambitious goal you want to achieve. This goal is desirable, and it’s no doubt of high priority. However, on the other hand, the value derived from achieving this goal is way off into the future. In fact, it’s so far off into the future that working on this goal just doesn’t bring you as much pleasure as for instance spending time on other things that give you instant satisfaction.
For instance, reading a good book, watching television, playing video games, socializing with your friends, heading off to the ballgame or to the cinema — all these things bring you instant pleasure and gratification. As a result, you struggle to resist. This, of course, leaves you feeling somewhat conflicted. On the one hand you have this big goal you want to achieve, and on the other hand, you have these small pleasures you so desperately want to indulge in.
Indulging in these small pleasures will no doubt be extremely gratifying. Alternatively, focusing on your big goal probably won’t bring the same immediate satisfaction, even though the long-term pleasures will likely far outweigh any short-term temptations you might choose to indulge in. You are therefore left feeling conflicted.
You can either choose to move down the path of instant gratification, or you can choose to resist and focus on your goal. And, resist you must. It just makes rational sense to do so. And, so you dig deep within yourself and muster up the willpower needed to avoid the inevitable suffering that guilt would bring about. You choose to suppress your undesirable but pleasurable urges in preference of long-term rewards.
Given this, it’s clear to see that willpower is a fear based response that is typically expressed as resolve and determination. You fear the consequences of succumbing to your urges, and as a result, you choose to muster up the willpower needed to avoid being overwhelmed by short-term guilt.
Using willpower in this way will certainly work. It will help keep you focused and disciplined in the short-run. However, there is one big problem. Specifically, the usage of willpower fails to deal with the source of the problem.
Your problem is that your desires and values are in conflict. On the one hand, you have this incredible goal you want to achieve. And on the other hand, you have all these temptations designed to pull you away from your goal.
Given this, it goes without saying that without a considerable shift in your priorities, you will eventually get caught up in these temptations, and you will subsequently fall victim to the instant gratification trap. And, all this will inevitably happen because willpower is a limited resource.
Willpower is a psychological resource that gets fatigued just like a muscle. We have a limited supply of willpower each day, and so the more we use it throughout the day, the less strength it has to carry us forward through the rest of the day.
We begin to deplete our reserves of willpower whenever we choose to suppress short-term desires in preference of what makes intellectual sense at the moment. In other words, we choose intellect over emotion, and this subsequently begins to fatigue our willpower muscle.
When our willpower muscle experiences fatigue, this leads to a higher likelihood of falling victim to impulsive and irrational behavior. In other words, the less willpower we have in reserve, the more likely we are to choose short-term desires and pleasurable emotions over what makes intellectual sense over the long-run. As a result, we end up choosing to indulge in temptations rather than working on our goals.
In addition to this, we tap into our willpower reserves whenever we focus on difficult tasks, try and maintain healthy habits, or whenever we attempt to make too many challenging decisions in a short amount of time.
What all this effectively means is that by choosing to focus on your goal, you are depleting your willpower reserves. And the more difficult the goal, the faster the rate of depletion.
Depleted willpower manifests as mental and emotional fatigue and a lack of motivation. As a result, it’s easy to fall prey to making impulsive decisions, to addictions, and to poor habits.
Given all this, is it any wonder that we consistently continue to sabotage our progress while working on our goals? And, of course, the more we try and suppress our short-term desires, the more difficult it becomes to suppress future desires. As a result, you experience this vicious cycle where no matter what you choose you always end up losing.
But, this just can’t be, can it? Nobody would be able to achieve anything of significance if this was actual reality.
Well, it’s not actual reality for some. Some people do actually win and achieve seemingly improbable goals. They are the high achievers of this world who don’t rely on their finite supply of willpower. They instead focus on strengthening their self-control.
What Exactly is Self-Control?
Self-control is a routine-like preemptive act where a person chooses to focus on long-term goals over short-term temptations. In other words, it’s a rational (rather than emotional) form of personal control.
Intrinsic motivation is behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, it’s behavior that you find naturally satisfying and pleasurable.
Short-term temptations basically become irrelevant because you simply don’t derive as much pleasure and satisfaction from them as you do from pursuing your long-term goals. As a result, a congruence exists between your current values and desires. In other words, what you value is also what you desire, which is the direct opposite of what happens when we muster up needed willpower.
When we tap into our willpower, our desires and values are in conflict. We value one thing, but our desires draw us in another direction. Moreover, willpower is built upon extrinsic motivation. This is behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, recognition, etc. Pursuing your goals for these primary reasons requires an ample amount of willpower. Meanwhile, succumbing to your desires comes from a source of intrinsic motivation, which holds more power over your behavior than extrinsic motivation. And this is the reason why your willpower gets depleted over time.
Self-control, on the other hand, comes from a rational understanding of the consequences of our behavior. When we practice self-control we rationalize that:
I have these desires…
I must not indulge in these desires…
I choose to do something else instead…
Alternate choices are more optimal in the short or long-run…
When we practice self-control, we likewise practice emotional intelligence. Self-control helps us to handle our emotions and cope with stressful situations far more effectively. Moreover, it helps us respond to adversity with reason and concentrate on tasks without distractions.
Given all this, self-control is primarily a mindset that you adopt and practice each day. It’s a shift you make in how you think and apply yourself to your work and undertakings. But what does it actually take to develop self-control? Is it even something that we can strengthen over time? And the answer to both questions is a resounding YES. Let’s take a look.
How to Strengthen Your Self-Control
Yes, self-control is actually something that you can practice and work on strengthening over time. And, it’s actually in your best interest to develop self-control. Let me explain.
Back in the early 1960’s, Walter Mischel conducted a study at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School. The study is known as The Marshmallow Study.
Mischel and his graduate students wanted to find out how much self-control nursery school kids had when offered an enticing temptation.
They seated the kids at a table and offered them one marshmallow that was placed on the table in front of them. They were then given one of two choices. They could either eat the marshmallow immediately, or they could wait alone in the room for up to 20 minutes and receive a second marshmallow upon the researcher’s return.
Some kids, of course, couldn’t resist the temptation and just had to eat the single marshmallow. Other kids, however, held back and waited for the researcher to come back into the room. And as a reward for their patience, they received a second marshmallow.
Years later, Mischel and his team followed up with the Bing preschoolers to get a sense of how they were coping with life. What they found was that the preschoolers who resisted temptation and waited for the second marshmallow were faring better in life than the preschoolers who succumbed to the temptation.
In addition to this, the preschoolers who couldn’t resist the original marshmallow had more behavioral problems. They also had lower SAT scores and tended to struggle with stressful situations. Furthermore, they had trouble paying attention, found it difficult to maintain friendships, and also had a higher body mass index.
These findings reveal a clear correlation between self-control and the quality of life people tend to live. Therefore, the greater our level of self-control the better we are able to handle stress, deal with adversity, achieve our goals, and fare in life.
Given all this, it seems to make sense that if we desire to live life in an optimal way that we must consistently focus on strengthening our self-control in various situations.
With this in mind, let’s explore several ways you can practice and develop your self-control.
Have a Definite Purpose in Your Life
On the surface, living a purposeful life doesn’t seem to have a strong correlation with self-control. However, nevertheless, a strong relationship does actually exist.
When we live with purpose, we are living with intention. In other words, everything we do is build upon a preemptive set of plans. As a result, we live life purposefully and intentionally.
Living life this way makes everything we do more meaningful, significant, and important. Subsequently, this helps generate internal drive and motivation. More specifically, it stimulates intrinsic motivation. We are therefore motivated to take action purely because we find these behaviors motivating and pleasurable.
What all this means is that every action we take — that moves us closer to our goals — has an intrinsic reward tied to it. In other words, we see immediate value in taking that action. Moreover, we’re also motivated by the long-term rewards and the value that will result in the weeks, months and years down the track.
Let’s remember that all temptations come with immediate rewards and gratification. They naturally draw you away from tasks that have no immediate meaning or purpose. In such scenarios, you need to use willpower to resist these temptations. However, if every task you undertake is done with purpose, then the instant gratification you gain from temptations won’t be as enticing.
To help you find more purpose with the projects and tasks you undertake, ask yourself the following questions:
Why is this task important? Why does it matter?
How is this task beneficial for me?
What are the immediate benefits?
What are the long-term rewards?
How does this task connect to the bigger picture?
How does it connect to my purpose?
How will this task benefit others?
How could this task trigger a chain reaction that impacts the world in a positive way?
Asking these kinds of questions before you begin working on a task or project will help you put things into proper perspective. As a result, you will find more purpose, meaning, and motivation. Working on the task will become more pleasurable, and you will less likely succumb to temptation.
The key to all this is to consistently remind yourself of the positive impact of your work. This is precisely what will help stimulate the intrinsic motivation needed to help you push forward with confidence.
Set Specific Goals for Every Situation and Interaction
Living a purposeful life means taking the time to set specific goals for every situation and interaction.
When we set goals, we live life with more intention. And when all our intentions are focused in one primary direction, that is when we live a purposeful life.
Given this, it’s crucial that you regularly take the time to set goals and intentions about how you would like things to be in various situations. Ask yourself:
What goal do I have for this situation or interaction?
What’s my goal and intent for accomplishing this task?
What would I ideally like to gain from this experience?
What is my objective in this scenario?
How will I go about achieving this objective?
What could go wrong and how will I adapt?
In such instances, you are effectively planning ahead and putting contingency plans in place just in case things don’t quite pan out as expected.
All this purposeful action stimulates intrinsic motivation, which keeps you disciplined and focused as you continue to work on achieving your goal. And, of course, the higher the level of intrinsic motivation you are able to tap into, the less likely you are to fall prey to temptations, and therefore, the more self-control you are able to draw from.
Setting goals for every situation, task and interaction can, however, seem kind of daunting. But you don’t necessarily need to write your goals down. Instead just bring them to mind in the following way:
If this happens… then I will…
If they offer this… I will be sure to…
If I don’t get that… I will make an effort to…
If this doesn’t pan out as expected… I will instead…
If I make this decision and this happens… then I will…
Recalling your intentions throughout the day will help you live life more purposefully.
Develop a Process for Automating Your Decisions
We often fall prey to instant gratification and temptations when things become complicated or when too many decisions need to be made throughout the day. That is when we struggle with self-control and instead turn to willpower.
We all make hundreds of decisions throughout the day as well as many more micro decisions that seemingly have no impact on our day-to-day undertakings. However, every decision we make actually has an impact. It has an impact on what we do and on how we do things. More specifically, every decision made drains us mentally, which then affects us physically.
In fact, the more challenging the decisions you make throughout the day, the more mentally drained you will feel throughout the day.
When we feel mentally drained, it’s difficult to practice self-control. As a result, we are more susceptible to falling prey to life’s temptations. With this in mind, we must figure out how to minimize the impact that our decision-making has on our mental state-of-mind.
The solution is, of course, to automate the decision-making process using flowcharts, checklists, or to simply introduce rules that can help guide your decisions throughout the day.
You could, for instance, introduce rules for working through specific tasks or even for avoiding temptations. Ideally, you will want to turn decisions into routines, habits, and rituals that you no longer need to consciously think about.
The idea here is that the less you have to think about, the less mentally drained and overwhelmed you will feel, and, therefore, the greater level of self-control you will have.
Practice Focused Self-Discipline
Self-control requires the practice of focused self-discipline. This is all about disciplining yourself to stay focused on one thing at a time until it has been achieved.
For instance, choose to focus on one task at a time. Multi-tasking sounds good on the surface, but it will only lead to distraction. Likewise, change only one habit at a time. Attempting to change multiple habits at once will often lead to inconsistent results.
When you try and do too much at once, this is where overwhelm starts to kick in. There are just too many things to focus on, and as a result, it’s easy to get sidetracked. This is where temptations come into the picture, and before you know it you’re working off the beaten path, and your self-control is nowhere to be found.
Focused self-discipline relies on the consistent practice of mindfulness. Stay mindful of what you’re doing at all times. In fact, stay mindful of the present moment. Don’t even think about tomorrow, next week, month or next year. Just stay present and focused on today.
I will only focus on what needs to get done today.
Focusing on the future will only deplete my mental resources.
When you’re disciplined, focused, mindful, and working with purpose, it’s easy to practice self-control. It’s easy because nothing else matters except this very moment.
Practice Self-Control in Small Ways
It goes without saying that mastering self-control in various situations takes practice. You won’t just suddenly wake up one day immune to all temptations. That’s not going to happen.
Self-control is very much like any other soft skill. It’s something that you need to practice consistently in various situations over a period of time. Only through consistent practice and repetition will it become immune to the temptations that life throws your way.
It’s important though to work your way up progressively. The key is to gradually increase your ability to resist larger temptations over time. Only in this way will you strengthen your self-control to a point where it can withstand any desire or urge that is likely to pull you away from your goal.
Given this, take time to practice self-control in small ways at first. For instance, let’s say that you want to lose some weight. Your first objective might be to resist the urge to dig into that packet of chips. Choose instead to chew on a carrot. Then as your self-control gets stronger, you can later work your way up to dramatically altering your diet and eventually your entire lifestyle.
Start with the small and easy stuff first, then work your way up to the bigger and more difficult temptations. That is ultimately the best way to progressively strengthen your self-control.
How to Rejuvenate Your Self-Control
When we’re feeling physically unwell or when our energy levels are sub-par, that is when our self-control tends to take a slide. As a result, it’s easy to fall victim to instant gratification and the temptations that life throws our way.
It goes without saying that to avoid succumbing to a temptation that it’s important to take proper care of your body, mind, and spirit.
For instance, be sure to eat healthy, to get regular exercise, as well as adequate rest and sleep. When it comes to eating, it’s also important to eat regular snacks (kiwi, banana, dried fruit) throughout the day to boost your blood sugar and glucose levels. This will keep you feeling more energized and focused, which will subsequently strengthen your self-control and ability to resist temptations.
The practice of meditation can also be of value. Not only does meditation have a plethora of health benefits, it also helps you stay mindful throughout the day. And, of course, when you’re more conscious you become more aware of the consequences of your decisions, behavior, and actions. As a result, you have more freedom to utilize self-control.
Strengthening your self-control is a process. It’s something that will take time, work, patience and effort. You didn’t just suddenly wake up one day with the ability to run. You first crawled, then you walked and stumbled, then you figured out how to jog, and finally, you learned how to sprint. The same applies to mastering self-control.
Begin small, and then build things up over time. Every progressive step you make strengthens your self-control. And over time, with ample practice, it will eventually become strong enough to withstand any temptation that life throws your way.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- 6 Scientifically Proven Ways to Boost Your Self-Control @ Fast Company
- 6 Ways to Develop Greater Willpower and Discipline @ Inc.
- 8 Tips to Improve Your Self-Control @ Quick and Dirty Tips
- 10 Easy Ways to Help Your Child Develop Self-Control @ Simply Circle
- 10 Powerful Ways to Master Self-Discipline @ Entrepreneur
- 10 Strategies for Developing Self-Control @ Psychology Today
- How Exercise Might Increase Your Self-Control @ The New York Times
- How Self-Control Works and Boosting Willpower @ Lifehacker
- How to Boost Your Self-Control @ FabHow
- How to Increase Willpower and Self-Control @ Big Think
- The Six Secrets of Self-Control @ Forbes