How I train myself in self-control

Self control is a crucial aspect of any person's life. It is (as measured by the conscientiousness dimension in the Big Five model - see footnote at the end of the article) a good psychometric predictor of success at work (people who have self-control work harder), health and longevity (they eat more healthy food and exercise more), and relationship quality (they are able to make sacrifices required to stay in a long-term relationship).

People like me, who consider themselves non-conformists, often have a problematic relationship with this personality trait, seeing conscientious people as rigid, blindly following rules, excessively obedient, inflexible, unable to "live their own lives" and "follow their heart". When I was younger, I would scorn people who did well in school (I myself have not completed any formal education beyond high school).

Nonetheless, having good self-control is an essential skill set (and it is a skill set, that is, it can be trained) if you have any kind of vision to your life (you need it to control yourself enough to stay on the path to whatever you want to achieve). Looking back at my life, I saw it improve immensely when I started taking doing stuff seriously, including stuff that I do not feel like doing. This is a guide to doing exactly that. Read it. Use it. Live it. Be amazed by the results.

It's important to emphasize that self-control may manifest itself in different ways, and that while it is a tool for achieving success, what that success constitutes will be different for different people. So, you might not be drawn to visions of great riches or fame, or high status. It doesn't matter. You might not even be interested in success in any kind of competitive domain, it also doesn't matter. It's all about you, and what you want. Some people find these skills useful even though they're not "externalizing" their endeavours (think Buddhist monks). They can be used for achieving a peace of mind, or changing your thinking habits to be more aligned with what your think is right. The point is, those skills are agnostic with regard to your value system. Whatever you're trying to achieve, you will find yourself in situations when you're going against your natural impulses, and this is where self-control comes in.

Here is a list of tips and insights that I used on the way to improving my self-control.

Willpower is a Muscle

The key point that I want to make is that self-control shares many commonalities with how muscles in your body work. It is a finite resource - if you perform a task that requires self-control, it leaves you with less energy afterwards to attend to other tasks that require it. So if you're after a 12-hour work shift, it might be a wrong time to have an important discussion with your partner. This seems like an obvious point, but many techniques that I'm describing hinge upon this, so bear with me.

Willpower can also be strengthened - repeated application of self-control will, over a period of time, make you increasingly more prepared to take on more heroic acts of will. This means that if you pick up an activity where you're trying to override your natural impulses (that is, exercise self-control) and practice that ability regularly, it will be easier for you to do so in other areas of your life as well. For example, cutting back on sweets can make you more focused at your job, and less likely to lose your temper. And not just because of the many positive effects that healthy food has on you. Rather it is because you're strengthening the willpower "muscle". It almost doesn't matter what you do in particular, as long as the task is exercising self-control. These results have been replicated with activities such as regularly squeezing a hand grip, using a non-dominant hand or avoiding swearing. Whatever you do, just do it.

The important things though, are that you do your activity regularly (just like you'd want to hit the gym regularly to strengthen the muscles in your body) and are respecting your current limits, so you don't experience burnout (just like you want to avoid injuries with physical exercise). Don't get discouraged if you fail, just treat it as a sign that you need to take things more slowly next time.

Bonus points if you can pick up an activity that's designed to train focus in the first place. That's why I like mindfulness meditation so much. If you don't know what that is, it's a technique for training concentration by maintaining a steady focus on an object (typically, your breath). I started meditating around a year and a half ago, and it's been tremendously helpful to me. But don't just go off to sit under a tree now, learn how to meditate properly first. (the idea is simple but it's good to have someone show you how to do it first). The way people typically learn how to meditate is by following guided meditations. These are simply recordings with live instructions for you to follow. I use an app called Headspace, and there are tons of others available.

Food & Sleep

If willpower is a resource in your brain, it makes sense to examine where this kind of mental energy comes from, and what are the signs that you're running low on it. This is important for knowing where your limits are.

According to researchers, there is no single emotional state that signals this, it's more like a low-energy feeling. You might find it difficult to control emotions, or be sleepy.

Incidentally, this energy seems to be mediated by glucose (sugar) in your body. I don't recommend that you eat sugary snacks often, but making sure you're eating enough of quality food sure take care of this. You might consider having sugary snacks before important events, such as an exam.

Getting enough sleep makes a difference too. I know this is all obvious, but it is easy to give in to the temptation of working longer (in the name of productivity!) in exchange for less sleep. In my experience, it's not worth it, for two reasons. First, you are less productive because you're sleepy. Second, work expands to fill available time, both because of procrastination and perfectionism. That's why sometimes I find it useful to tell myself I'm going to go to sleep by a given hour, no matter how much work I've completed.

Manage Your Habits

For me, a big part of having good self-control is not having to have good self- control! Put routines in your life such that you won't have to exert much mental energy to do stuff. This is an application of this "self-control as a muscle" model.

For example, scheduling time in the morning to meditate and work out means I don't have to use willpower to take a break from whatever I'm doing and force myself do that later. I know any disruptions to my routine will make it difficult to retrain my habit later. It takes about a month of concentrated effort to build a new habit, but then it usually requires minimal effort to keep going. I really dislike working out, so I still need a little push in the morning, but nothing of the sort of what I needed when I was starting out.

The biggest enemy to my habits are disruptions to my routine. The habit usually keeps going until there is something preventing me from taking action (or just a really good excuse). I remember this every time a voice in my head tells me to skip the workout today. That's why I keep to my morning routine on holidays, business trips, etc. I just know that if I stop, I've just broken down my habit, and have to start over. I find that the knowledge of how habits are formed and how they break down in itself works as an excellent motivator.

Hack Your Environment

Another way of conserving the self-control energy, is to make your environment into that which supports you, rather than works against you. I can't stress how important this is. Remember the muscle analogy again, if you strain the muscle on pointless stuff all the time, how are you going to have enough energy for the things that really matter?

If you spend all your energy fending off the temptation to go on Facebook, how are you going to be able to make an effort to write that essay you've got due on Monday? Just cut that stuff out. Remove everything that is distracting you. Turn off your phone. Get something like StayFocusd to control your time spent on social media and other time wasters. If you've got the funds, get yourself a separate computer for work, where you're logged out of all your social media accounts. This is easier if you've got, let's say, a separate email account for work.

Don't try to perform heroic acts of will to mentally block off all distractions. The actual work you're doing probably already requires enough effort. Actually physically block the distractions.

Some people may feel like these rules are too restrictive. Fine. I wouldn't suggest anyone stay in this mode for too long. But it seems to me that everyone can benefit from shutting themselves off even if for a short period of time every once in a while. For example, you might find it useful to turn off your phone and block social media for just an hour while you're doing super focused, important work.

I usually keep my iPhone in "Downtime" mode, where only selected apps are allowed during my normal working hours, have all notifications off, and either work from a separate, company laptop, or block a large number of websites with StayFocusd.

Another existing software solution is Freedom. It works on a larger number of platforms, but it costs money. I've not used it. I would be interested to hear if someone has, and if they've got an opinion on it.

Minimize Decision-Making

Decision-making exerts will-power, and uses up that self-control energy I've been talking about. The standard test for this is to give people a task that requires making a decision about something, and then give them a test of self-control. In studies like this, subjects who were given a decision-making task score worse on the self-control test than the control group.

In one experiment, one group of psychology students was asked to make a series of decisions regarding how a course they would take later would be conducted, the other group was only asked to only read carefully through available options. The choice group was told (truthfully) that their answers would affect how the professor was going to conduct the course. Then both groups were given a test of self-control - it was measured how long they worked on unsolvable puzzles before they gave up. People who had to make a series of decisions gave up significantly earlier. It looks like making decisions depletes your willpower.

This means that you can help your self by avoiding spending time on non-consequential decisions. When I've got a lot of work, where do I go for lunch? Same place every day (a very neat place near Picadilly Gardens in Manchester, UK :)). What am I going to wear? Probably one of my white t-shirts. Get the picture?

Again, you might not want do this too often, but maybe you can benefit from applying this tip from this tip in some circumstances. One thing I'm trying to make into a habit is not spending too much time on deciding about something that I know I'm not going to care about in the future. The rule I got from Charlie Houpert is, if I'm not going to care about something in a week, I just go with the thing that popped into my head first.

Basics of Time Management

Good time management frees you up of unnecessary effort required to remember all your deadlines and obligations. This could be a post on its own so I'm not going to write a lot about time management here.

I just want to show how this another application of the muscle/energy paradigm. Planning you're going to do something on a given day is in a way committing to doing it, and when the time comes, you need substantially less effort to finish the task.

I use Todoist on my phone as a planner. I use it a lot for "little things" that otherwise never get completed. If a thought pops into my head - something needs to be attended to - I write it down in my Todoist inbox, and then later, when I plan my week, I decide if I'm going to do it this week or later, or discard it completely.

The 5-minute Rule

The 5-minute rule is simple - if you don't feel like doing something, commit to doing it for 5 minutes. If you're still not up for it after 5 minutes of work, you can stop.

The rule exploits the fact that often the most difficult part about getting work done is starting. After spending a small amount of time on it, you might find that you're okay working on it, and don't want to stop.

I don't use this rule because I don't have trouble forcing myself to do things for which a timescale with a 5-minute resolution would make any difference. But I use a variant of the rule where, if I've got a lengthy task ahead of me, one that will require many hours to complete (such as writing this article!), I commit to doing it for 1 hour. Then I can go off to do something else, 100% guilt-free. I only started doing this recently, but so far often when the hour is up, I'm so into it that I continue working.

There's a nice Reddit thread where you can read up on this rule.

The Nothing Alternative

The nothing alternative is another trick you can use to finally get through that pile of overdue assignments. Assuming you're trying to accomplish X, the rule is: you can do X, or do nothing. No cleaning your bedroom, no catching up on email, no other work that suddenly seems so important. Either you get on with that essay, or you sit around doing nothing. This might be okay sometimes, and doing nothing can help get to the right might for the activity at hand, and can release your inner creativity.

I've not used this method consciously, I seem to have a good intuitive grasp of it. I have too many vague memories of the high-school me being up at 3am, telling myself "okay, now you're going to stare into that textbook until you learn something".

When Distractions are Good

Before I finish I'd like to describe one more interesting experiment in self-control research. In the 1960s and 1970s, Walter Mischel from Stanford University gathered a bunch of kids (about 4-5 years old) for what would later become a series of classic studies in the field of self-control.

The children were shown a pretzel and a marshmallow, and asked which one of those they would prefer to eat. Then they were given a test. The experimenter would leave the room and the child had to wait until they came back. If at any time they had grown tired of waiting, they could ring a bell and the experimenter would come back. However, ringing a bell carried a penalty - they could only get the non-preferred prize. So, assume the kid had said they would prefer the marshmallow. That means if they rang the bell, they could only eat the pretzel and if they managed to wait until the experimenter came back on their own, they could have the marshmallow.

Now, children this age have very limited self-control, and it was a real struggle for them to wait through the whole 15-minute period. Naturally, we're interested what strategies were used by the ones who were successful. The ones that did manage to wait the full 15 minutes did so by distracting themselves. Later research showed that either giving subjects a toy to play with or instructing them to think pleasant thoughts significantly increased the chances of their succeeding at the task. Instructing them to think about the reward makes it more likely that they will fail.

Now, the application to real life is not so clear. In most real-life scenarios thinking about the goal is beneficial, but in real-life, you can usually also do something that moves you closer to the goal. In this experiment, all the subjects could do was wait. Quoting the authors of one of the "marshmallow papers": "one obviously cannot generalize from them to the role of cognition in forms of self-control other than the delay-of-gratification paradigm For example, it might be adaptive to ideate about desired or needed but currently unavailable goal objects, but only in situations in which the subject's actions can be potentially instrumental in producing the desired outcome."

This means that distracting yourself from the reward may help you for scenarios where the only variable having impact on the result is time. I suspect all saving account-type investments fall into this category.

Conclusion

All of these tips fall under the paradigm of "willpower" as an energy or as a muscle. Rather than focusing on particular hacks, I find it useful to think how what I'm doing fits this paradigm. Am I avoiding wasting my energy on unimportant things? Am I structuring my day so that when I get to my most important goals I still have enough energy to attend to them? Am I prioritizing my goals respecting the limits of my willpower? Am I aware that if I disrupt my habits it will be more difficult to recreate them than it was when I was just following them?

I only got into this topic very recently, but I was using many of these tips intuitively over the years. You can find links to the material I read along the way in the next section. I read the first book about a year ago and it had probably shaped my attitude to this problem more that I realized at the time. The second book I read last month, and I found that I had been using many of the insights from it already (it hit the point home though, so to speak, it gave me a new paradigm to think about those things rationally, rather than just following my intuition). I read the other papers as research for writing this article.

Further Reading

Footnote: The Big Five model, or the five-factor personality model is a way to measure a person's personality with the result being a description in terms of five factors: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion/introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. The factors were chosen by collecting a large number of possible statements about oneself or another person, and doing a factor analysis, that is studying how these statements correlated with one another. The result was a reduction to five factors. See "Further Reading".