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The Exercise and Science of Self-Control

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Click for photoDo you frequently find yourself staying focused on a single task until it’s complete, or do you fall victim to the "I’ll do it later" or distraction mentality?  Are you able to walk past the table of donuts each time you see it, or do you give up and take a huge bite out of one?  If you’re someone who struggles with self-control, or the ability to regulate your actions even in the case of overwhelmingly appealing stimuli, you’re certainly not alone.  Most people the world over deal with the inability to self-supervise their actions on a consistent basis.  The exercise of self-control is hard.  Or at least people think it is.

It’s just so much easier to give in, isn’t it?  Hell, it takes real effort to fight the urge, especially if restraint isn’t something you’re used to.  More on that later, but first let’s take a look at exactly why self-control is important.

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn

Self-control is the basis of all change; nothing can be transformed without first determining what needs to happen, and then being consistent and predictable in implementation over time.  It is, in fact, the most important skill to have when it comes to achievement.  Self-control is really the platform in which achievements are built upon.  It’s an essential ingredient in any high performer’s personality, just as impulsiveness and “action without consequence” is central to the self-defeatist.

If you want to start modeling success, the most important thing you can do is to start exhibiting self-control

Show me a successful person who doesn’t have a superhuman amount of mastery over his or her daily actions and I’ll show you someone who has benefited only from chance and circumstance – and that type of success is not repeatable or transferable.  Anyone can win the lottery or sign a book contract, but it takes true dedication to be able to maintain success over time.

Many people believe they are born with self-control (more commonly called willpower) or lack thereof, and this inborn trait determines their ability to focus for a lifetime.  The truth is (absent diagnosed medical conditions like ADHD) that self-control isn’t something you have to accept as something you don’t have.  And in fact, you shouldn’t. Self-control isn’t something that some people have and others don’t, and the very act of believing that it isn’t a learned skill hinders your motivation to learn how to harness it.

So first things first: drop the limiting beliefs as they’ll just hold you back.  And if there’s ONE thing you can’t afford to be held back from, it’s improving your self-control.  Everything else comes later.  Because once you have self-control at your side, you can make anything happen.

Self-control can be learned…

It turns out that self-control is actually a lot like a muscle, and it can be exercised just like one.  Research by Mark Muraven at the University of Albany demonstrates this (relevant studies are here, here, and here).  After two weeks of abstaining from candy and performing hand gripping exercises (with something like the Gripmaster referenced in my Home Gym post), Muraven found that self-control had actually increased across the board.  The simple act of being consistent with one thing helps ‘pick up’ other things around it.

In similar fashion, research over the last few years has also shown that the act of monitoring what you eat, keeping a close eye on your finances, or even just sitting up straight can have positive effects on your overall ability to exercise self-control.  In one study, students at a university who started an exercise program and stuck with it found themselves doing the dishes more often, and even spending less money on things they didn’t need!

So in many ways, you can think of self-control as contagious across your habits.  Each time you strengthen your self-control over one thing, other things benefit as well.  So the verdict is clear: if you work your self-discipline like a muscle – often enough – performing small, basic activities that require self-control, you can develop the strength to have that self-control spill over into other areas of your life.

This is one of those ah-hah realizations that is immediately actionable. Having trouble quitting smoking?  Try stopping the nail-biting.  Want to work out regularly?  Floss each morning and night for a month.  Want to stop snapping at your kids?  Eat a high-protein breakfast every single day.  It sounds crazy, but it actually works.

Self-control is also exhaustible…

Most of our daily actions don’t require self-control.  Normal, everyday life is pretty routine – waking up, taking a shower, getting dressed, driving to work.  Lots of mindless action.  None of these things require any deep-seated ability to focus attention… which is a good thing.  If they did, they probably would probably only get done once a month.  But we also do things that require buckets of self-control whether it’s running a large meeting, resisting the pizza temptation, or keeping yourself from snapping at your kids.  Each of those things decreases your overall self-control reserves.

Think of exercising self-control as the equivalent of doing curls at the gym.  When you start off, your muscles are fresh and there’s no struggle at all.  But as you start to become fatigued, your arms start to shake and eventually you can’t do any more curls.  Self-control is the same way.  There’s not an inexhaustible well of the good stuff – so push yourself too hard in any one area and expect others to suffer.

Exercising some self-control, even in small amounts, can be draining. And just like any muscle, self-control itself can be exhausted. Following the contagious comment above, give in to the donuts today and expect to skip the gym tomorrow. Let your email inbox fill up and expect the same thing to happen to the interior of your car. Just like upswings in self-control can help other areas, downswings can actually hurt them.

So what can you do?

First of all, start with the assumption that you can train your self-control.  You aren’t predestined to be a useless sloth any more than someone else isn’t predestined to be a self-mastery machine.  Start putting a training program in place immediately (it takes about 30 seconds to decide to do this and put the pieces in place) and dedicate yourself to it.

As part of your new self-control training program, pick one small thing to go with one big thing.  Don’t pick multiple big things!  If you want to do start eating right, commit to doing 10 push-ups every 4 hours.  You’ll be surprised at how much these two things will feed off of each other.  And, with this example, you’ll actually make more progress towards a fitness goal.

Be careful not to group activities that require a lot of self-control together.  If you can avoid it, don’t schedule a workout immediately after leading a 3 hour meeting in a room filled with cupcakes.  If you’re like most people, by the time you get to that workout time, your self-control will be so depleted you’re going to end up eating four cupcakes and crashing on the couch watching Dexter until 2am (going to bed early requires self-control for most people too!)  At a minimum, find a way to pre-commit if something is important to you and you think your self-control will be depleted when the time arrives.

Try and find ways to refill your reserves periodically.  This means different things to different people – you need to find what works best for you.  This recharge probably involves a break from any sort of activity that requires self-control… so if you find yourself giving into temptation more today than yesterday (and thereby not putting your self-control powers to use) you need to get away from those temptations and start filling your self-control well back up.  If you’re a gamer, think about this as your ‘health meter’.  Your health meter won’t go up if you keep getting attacked from all angles.  Run the other way and fast.

And finally, see if you can identify your master habit.  The master habit concept has worked absolute wonders for me over the years (mine is physical activity) and there’s no better way to get going than to follow the four steps in Your Master Habit: Get One Thing Clicking, Watch Others Follow (if I say so myself!)

Hope this helps and that you enjoy being more in control!

“Self-discipline is the ability to do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.” – Elbert Hubbard

Written by Mike Torres

February 27th, 2011 at 4:10 pm

  • Totally agree….discipline is the key to start. In yoga we call this “dhristi” or one point of focus. What’s neat is that you start with focus and as you train yourself it actually can feel like you aren’t putting effort in to create the focus. It just becomes who you are….like looking at a keyhole from afar and at first all you see is the keyhole…but as you get close you then don’t see the keyhole at all…you see what is one the other side.

    For me, the single most powerful tool for training self-control is meditation. I’m NOT talking about woo-woo metaphysical stuff…I’m talking about sitting down for just 10 minutes every day and doing nothing but focusing on breath (or anything really….just pick 1 thing…a candle, a thought, a feeling of empathy, etc.). I believe this practice creates a deep mental and phsycial change that allows you to more appropriately focus throughout the rest of the day. With practice is allows you to focus without effort – which is really the key.

    I’ve been meditating for a bunch of years and my internal “wiring” is different now than it was 10 years ago. I explain some more about a 30 day meditation challenge experience here:

    • Thanks Ravi! I’ll be honest that I haven’t gotten too deep into meditation yet. I feel like I don’t have a time/place that works when I’m home (2 kids, 2 cats, 1 job!) but I’m working on it. I actually bought an Insight Meditation course recommended by someone I trust and am planning on doing it this year.