Poor self-control, or lack of discipline, is one of the most common and burdensome traits that modern people wind up with. I feel confident saying that because I’ve been in a lifelong grappling match with self-discipline and regularly find myself pinned.
Those pin attempts often look like afternoons spent staring blankly at a page while half-watching something that I claim is just ‘background noise’ on a second screen, fully committing my focus to nothing. I’m learning to kick out more and more, though. It’s been a grind through long therapy hours and research, but I’ve amassed little techniques that help me squirm out and ultimately have better self-control.
Willpower and discipline
We all have different natural capabilities when it comes to our will. I have a pretty shallow pool of self-discipline to draw from, while you may know somebody who’s easily able to avoid poor eating habits and stays endlessly polite without carrying a secret flask of liquor in their bag for mid-day sips.
So many of us find a weakness or lapses in our willpower that get in the way of accomplishing goals, but too few realize that we’re able to practice and strengthen our will. Still, one of the first steps to harnessing your self-control is gaining a fundamental understanding of discipline and what leads to differences in our capacity for exercising it. Let’s explore that.
Tolerate (some) discomfort
The primary barrier to self-control comes with learning to tolerate some level of discomfort. I’m like a lot of people in that discomfort makes me really prone to panic, not to act, and I’ve sought ways to bolster my defenses against it for over thirty years now.
Before I share my simple catch-all tip, here are a few other methods you can employ daily to keep your willpower from having to work too hard.
Healthy habits to make things easier:
- Planning and visualizing will help alleviate the need for snap decision-making, giving you more energy to put toward strengthening your self-control.
- Taking bite-sized goals in baby steps means a series of smaller decisions that deplete less energy.
- Try your best to distract yourself when necessary. This is arguably the most effective means of resisting the temptation to succumb to your current train of thought.
A limited resource
The energy you have toward self-discipline is a finite resource that gets depleted every time you exercise your willpower. In other words, you need physical energy to practice self-control and every time you do, you have a smaller pool of it to draw from.
A commonly-cited experiment demonstrated this effect by placing multiple subjects at a table with both a bowl of radishes and a batch of fresh cookies. Some of the participants were told they could only eat the radishes, while others were permitted to help themselves to the cookies. After a half-hour passed, they were each given a complex puzzle to solve.
Who worked most diligently on their puzzles? The cookie-eaters.
Well, I have a personal theory that eating a raw radish or going hungry instead of getting a cookie would kill off your will to live (Am I serious? Perhaps. Am I testing the theory? No! Radishes are weird), but what does the science actually say? Not only did those cookie-eating people have a sugary boost, they hadn’t depleted their stores of self-control like the subjects who refrained from taking the appealing snacks. Because of that and the metabolic energy surplus provided by their snacks, they were able to spend roughly twice the time and energy solving their puzzles.
Some good news on this front is that even though your capacity for self-control is limited, you can provide yourself with a temporary boost just like the research subjects with their cookies. Scientists have noted that blood glucose (sugar) assists with the energy required to exercise your will.
More energy, better self-control
That’s right – many of us are struggling with getting better self-control around food when a part of the solution is eating more in the first place. Fuel’s a tricky thing, though, and some burn cleaner than others. That means you shouldn’t seek out the nearest cookie; There are many less processed foods that still convert to glucose to give you energy. Fruit, for instance!
Armed with this information and desperate to teach myself some healthier habits, I’ve forced myself to eat a small breakfast each morning for a few months now. A protein bar or similarly balanced, modest-calorie meal has been great to avoid the fatigue and fogginess that a huge breakfast brings on.
The effect this has had is sort of a no-brainer: I’m snacking much less during the day and find it’s easier to stay on task when my gut isn’t processing a big meal or, more frequently, gnawing at its own emptiness.
Regardless of what you’re eating, however, the most important part of breakfast is just having it.