Learn Self-Control Through Science

Learn Self-Control Through Science

Psychology February 01, 2016 / By Taylor Kreiss
Learn Self-Control Through Science

Realize your creative goals with these 5 science-backed methods.

92% of Americans routinely fail their New Year's resolutions. It’s a large rate of failure, and much of it is due to a lack of effective self-control strategies. Behavior change is hard, but if we want to instill new habits and achieve our creative goals, science can help.

“The most important scientific discovery about self-control is that it can be taught.” - Walter Mischel, psychologist

The rest of this article explains 5 science-backed strategies for self-control. They are listed in order of effectiveness, so aim to use the earlier strategies over the latter. With some effort, they can help you turn your creative goals goals into new realities.

Regulation Strategies:

  1. Situation selection
  2. Situation modification
  3. Selective attention
  4. Cognitive reappraisal
  5. Response modulation

Situational Selection 

Your first and best strategy for self-regulation boils down to deliberately choosing where you end up. Alcoholics should avoid bars. Dieters should only eat at health food restaurants. Addicts should not spend time around Hunter S. Thompson types.

Think in terms of where you are, what it's like and who you’re there with. Choose situations that encourage good behaviors and avoid situations that tempt counterproductive behavior.

Situation Modification

You probably need to attend class, go to work or be in other situations that render the first strategy moot. Thankfully, you can usually change your situations. You can modify them to help you achieve your goals.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, throw out your cigarettes and tell your friends not to give you any. The more work it takes to get them, the less likely you are to smoke (laziness is often the stronger vice).  

If you want to stop contacting your ex, delete his/her phone number and unfriend them. If you have no access, you can’t communicate.

Ever hear of website blockers? They are apps that restrict your ability to visit preselected websites (like Facebook and Reddit). If you’re having trouble focusing on your creative work, apps like these can be tremendously helpful. They limit access to distractions, which makes it easier to take care of business.

All of these examples aid self-regulation by changing the situation you are already in. They set up the situation to reduce temptation and encourage good behavior. These strategies adjust the world around you, making it is easier to achieve and harder to fail.

Selective Attention

If you’re standing with business clients and they’re eating junk food, you can’t just walk away or ask everyone to trash their munchies. What you can do, is focus your attention in a way that will help you resist temptation.

Don’t face the buffet. Don’t stare at the food or focus on how good it smells. Choose instead to focus on something else. Pick someone to speak with and invest your attention in the conversation. Heck, people forget to eat for hours when they’re engaged in an activity that consumes their attention.

The idea is to guide your focus constructively. Don’t let your attention get stuck on a temptation and you’ll be less likely to give in. Observe your thoughts and keep them on the task at hand.

Cognitive Reappraisal

Once you have chosen your situation, modified it and decided what to pay attention to, you can change how you think. This strategy is about altering your mental representation of the situation.

Is your goal to feel better about yourself? You could focus on external behaviors like exercise and nutrition, or you could change your appraisal of your self. You could shift from “I’m ugly” to “I love how I look.” It’s difficult, but it works if you do the work to track and change your thoughts.

If you can imagine that cookies taste awful, and really make them gross in your mind, they will have less pull on you. This one sounds funny, but it works. If you can consciously reappraise something, it can help you achieve goals and self-regulate.

So think about how you’re thinking, and think about how a change in thought might help you achieve your creative goals.

Response Modulation

This is your last and least effective line of defense. It requires that you flex your willpower and forcibly change your behavior. Cue Shia LaBeouf's motivational video and “just do it!!”

This strategy can work, but it’s pretty difficult. When you’re standing right in front of your temptations, they have their strongest psychological magnetism and it takes a lot of effort to resist.

Everyone eventually falters with response modulation, so best to avoid having to use it. Nip the problem in the bud. Select your situation before you have to change it. Pay attention to constructive things before you have to change your appraisal. Lastly, good luck to you if you must actively resist temptation.

And don’t forget to have some fun, too: life isn’t all about resisting enjoyable things!

A huge thank you to the brilliant Angela Duckworth Ph.D. for helping me understand these practical strategies. Most every part of this article was inspired by/taken from her self-control lecture. I know I speak for all of her students when I say she’s the absolute best.


Taylor Kreiss is an existential positive psychology practitioner who writes about the science of human flourishing. For more articles like this one, follow Taylor here.

Article originally appeared at Holstee

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