The secret to self-control lies in staying self-aware
In today’s culture of more, more, more, temptation is everywhere. It seems like for every task you should be doing, every healthy snack you should be eating, every must-watch series you should be watching there’s always a more appealing alternative.
The basic concept of willpower, that is, the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals, is something that we could all use a little help with in our day-to-day lives. Determination, resolve, self-discipline, drive – call it what you will – is not an innate skill that you are born with. The secret science of self-control may be complex, and beyond full human understanding right now, but we do know that it can be compromised by various factors, and can be strengthened through particular practices.
So for those of us who haven’t the time (or indeed, willpower) to sift through the scientific journals to discover the whys, we bring you the hows: Here are five tried and true tips and tricks that really work when it comes to ignoring the devil on your shoulder and just getting. It. Done.
Eat the frog
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
There’s a reason Mark Twain is so often quoted on this – it really works! It’s a personal favorite technique of mine that I’ve been implementing since childhood and prefer to call the Eat Your Vegetables First Method. It essentially comes down to saving the best till last and getting your most difficult and/or dreaded tasks out of the way first thing. This is helpful for a number of reasons. First of all, it means that you get your most dreaded or most difficult work done, so that even if you achieve nothing else all day, at least you’ve achieved something of note! It also means that you don’t have to endure the psychological barrier of a tricky or monotonous job hanging over your head all day – which not only ruins your day but can make completing even the simplest of tasks a chore.
If you’re yet to acquire the taste of frog for breakfast, start slowly by just eating one a day. Schedule your week in advance (more on that later) with the first task of the day being something you’d normally avoid or put off until later in the day. Todoist has an excellent guide on frog scheduling. By the end of the week, you’ll have eaten at least 5 frogs! And don’t forget the motivational power of achieving small victories – you might just find that the first frog didn’t taste so bad after all, and maybe you’re ready to dive back into the pond for another!
Say no to should
“Our waterfall of shoulds often imply we’ve already failed and –frankly– they often don’t seem to make us more productive.”
Plenty has been written about the problem with this once innocuous word of obligation or probability – from the fact that should-statements are not based in reality to the implied sense of failure, or just the overall judgemental vibe that it brings to any statement, should is quickly becoming a should-not for anyone who wants to be successful and happy. This is another technique that I use myself, and if you don’t believe me, you only need to take a quick scroll through the walls of motivational quotes on Instagram and Pinterest to see that the power of words is not be underestimated!
For me, it’s as simple as hearing that voice in my head start to say “I should do that thing…” and immediately interrupting it by going to do whatever it is that needs doing. There’s a reason why “Just Do It” is one of the most successful advertising slogans of the past 30 years: it actually works!
“I ran out of willpower.”
How often have you said, or heard someone else say that? The idea that willpower is something in limited supply may be helpful when it comes to letting ourselves off the hook and feeling less guilt in the moment, but in the long run, it’s hurtful to our motivation and productivity.
Born out of the ego-depletion theory, the concept of willpower being something that can be used up is now being replaced by the idea that willpower is much more like an emotion, that ebbs and flows depending on various factors. As with our other emotions, things like sleep, stress, and diet can have a profound effect on how much self-control we might have from one day to the next. Even having something go wrong earlier in the day can make you more likely to give up on your gym plans that evening.
As Nir Eyal puts it:
“rather than looking for a hidden willpower gas tank in our heads that doesn’t exist, perhaps we should accept that we are fragile, distractible beings and cut ourselves some slack. Perhaps our flagging energies and wandering minds are trying to tell us something“.
He also advises that when we’re finding a task hard, rather than telling ourselves that our self-control is spent, it’s much more productive to believe that a lack of motivation is temporary.
Our solution? Focus on maintaining a consistently healthy lifestyle and when you feel your willpower waning, rather than give up, try to identify the reason for your lack of motivation. By understanding the hidden emotional aspects of productivity, you will be setting yourself up for success, rather than disappointment.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else”
Yogi Berra said it, and I’m inclined to follow the advice of a man famous for never dropping the ball – no matter how many times I’ve heard it before! Rather than considering planning a chore, I prefer to think of it in terms of giving myself a head start – See? It already sounds less boring!
We’ve got loads of advice on planning your work routine right here on the blog: from time-blocking and morning routines to prioritization and using Freedom’s locked mode to eliminate temptation before it happens. Sometimes we even get asked if there’s a way to stop yourselves from getting around Freedom by deleting the app completely (naughty!), and we’ve got an answer for that, too!
The truth is that some things are cliches for a reason, and that’s the case with being organized. Not only are you giving yourself a fighting chance by making it less likely that you encounter temptation, but you’ll end up saving time and enjoy an extra sense of calm and zen all day long. Ommmmm.
Change your mind
“All that you change, changes you”
What if those things you find tempting weren’t that great after all? Well, believe it or not, you have the power to transform the objects of your desire into articles of indifference.
You’ve probably heard of the Marshmallow Test, in which children were told they could eat one marshmallow immediately, or two later, which has been used to predict everything from SAT scores to BMIs. Well, it turns out that those kids who demonstrate better self-control may not be intrinsically better at resisting temptation but in fact better at pretending that the marshmallow is something else:
“The crucial factor in delaying gratification,” reported the New Yorker in 2014, “is the ability to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist”.
This is another technique that I can vouch for. While not strictly willpower-related, I overcame my fear of flying –particularly those rough patches of turbulence –by simply closing my eyes and pretending I was on a bus. As stupid as it sounds, it works!
One easy way you can implement this technique to help resist those everyday temptations is by changing what you think of as a “treat”. It can be as simple as switching your go-to treat food from cookies to your favorite fruit or swapping out your mid-morning cup of tea and social media scroll for a walk outside.
Also worth keeping in mind is the fact that many of the options we may consider tempting – an endless choice of streaming services, an array of cuisines just a click away, an infinite number of possible exciting things happening on social media – are only serving to erode our willpower further. Having to make so many choices every day can lead to decision fatigue, and many successful people limit the number of decisions they make.
So what’s the recipe for sweet success when it comes to resisting temptation? Well, if you don’t want to eat the marshmallow, then the best thing to do is to remove the bowl – and if you can’t do that, the next best thing is to pretend that those marshmallows are something else, preferably something really really yucky. Give it a try and you might just find the road to better self-control isn’t all that rocky after-all!
The proof is in the pudding
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for better self-control, but there are a number of techniques, like those above, that can help you feel more in control of your thoughts and actions. While scientists debate over the existence and characteristics of something called willpower, it’s easier to think of it as an abstract concept that depends on a number of factors, rather than just something you do or don’t have. Kelly McGonigal sums it up nicely in her book The Willpower Instinct:
“There is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.”
It always comes back to attention. The more you tune into your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, the more you will understand the reasons behing your waning willpower.
And if you don’t believe me when I tell you that understanding yourself is the secret to success, take it from one of the most productive people of all time – Leonardo DaVinci – who knew this:
“the noblest joy is the pleasure of understanding.”