By definition, self-control is the ability to do something that benefits your long-term goals, instead of something that might satisfy your immediate desires. But for many of us, short-term satiations are irresistible – we end up sacrificing the well-being of our future selves all too easily. Why is exercising proper self-control so tricky for some, and how can you harness your own restraint for good?
Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says allocating resources between your present self and future self is an ongoing struggle. Even though you know the importance of preparing for your future, your present self also wants their fair share. It’s a tough negotiation, especially during the moments when the ‘easy road’ is laying right in front of you.
For example, exhibiting self-control over spending time on video games and social media, two of the most common temptations of the current era, means battling against age-old mechanisms in your brain – like your desire for social interaction or penchant for hunting. “That’s really what drives us to keep checking our feeds, to see whether our friends posted anything or whether they liked our last photo,” says Duckworth.
One of the most important discoveries about self-control in recent years, says Duckworth, is that people vary widely in terms of what tempts them. If you’re willing to look deeply into your tendencies and weak points, you can recognise the handful of problems that you need to work on. Once you understand the sources of your self-control woes, you can begin devoting energy toward fixing them.
One place to start would be the office. To improve self-control at work, Duckworth first recommends taking a future-oriented approach to your day, such as planning breaks and the time slots for checking emails in advance. If you can refrain from resigning to your urges before the time you’ve allotted for yourself, you may achieve a greater handle on your overall self-control.
Of course, after you’ve done the planning, you must actually change your behaviour. The problem of looking at your cell phone too often, say, can be solved by putting it on mute or, better yet, sticking it in your bag until lunch. Removing the temptation from sight is key to ensuring you’re faithful to your mission.
Finally, Duckworth advises laying a foundation of self-control that you can build off of in the future. We’ve all experienced unproductive workdays because of too little sleep the night before, or an insufficient meal in the morning. By practicing healthier living away from the workplace, you can gather the strength and stamina to help you control your worst urges when it matters most.
Watch the video above to hear more from Angela Duckworth, and to learn the best ways to boost your own self-control.
Interview by Maddy Savage. Animation by Ginevra Boni. Additional contributions from Peter Rubinstein.