How to strengthen your self control muscle: Part 1

Well, here it is! Our latest mindmap on self control. In my last blog post I wrote about how psychological researchers have found self control to be a major factor that leads to academic and life success. In fact some scholars even claim it’s our number 1 success strategy.

Since there’s so much to this area, I’ll explain the mind map content over a series of 3 blog posts. Below I start by explaining the basic psychology of self control.

The inner debate

According to some neuroscientists we have two different people living inside our minds and it’s as if each person competes with each other in a debate.

The first person in your head just wants to live for the moment and seeks immediate gratification (“Chocolate cake? Sure! I’ll have some!” they say).

Whilst the second person is more sensible and can delay instant gratification so you can achieve your long term goals. They’re able to resist the chocolate cake and say “I’ll have a carrot instead”.

Each day we are faced with various willpower challenges: do we give in and feel instant pleasure (and the consequences that may come with it)? Or do we resist and obtain benefits later down the track?

Put your willpower where it matters

Psychology professor and author of the book “Willpower” Roy Baumeister found that each of us has a finite amount of willpower which can be easily depleted by stress and having to make decisions (Do I eat the chocolate or not? What do I have for dinner? What do I wear today?).

You want to make sure you conserve your willpower stocks for the areas of your life that are most important to you. In other words, do the things that are most important first.

How do you know if you’ve depleted your willpower reserves? When is it time to take a break and recharge your batteries?

There are subtle signs to look out for. Baumeister offers the following questions for us to think about-

“Do things seem to bother you more than they should? Has the volume somehow been turned up on our life so that things are felt more strongly than usual? Is it suddenly hard to make up your mind about even simple things? Are you more than usually reluctant to make a decision or exert yourself mentally or physically?”

One solution to depleted willpower reserves is to simply sleep on it. Baumeister states –

“The old advice that things will seem better in the morning has nothing to do with daylight, and everything to do with depletion. A rested will is a stronger will”.

Sometimes we can get so caught up with the immediate challenges of daily life that we lose sight of the big picture (i.e. what is most important to us). It can help to ask yourself the following questions –

Am I where I want to be?
What could be better in my life?
What can I do about it?

Reflecting on these questions several times a year can help put your life in perspective.

But don’t stop there. Set some goals for the week and month. A mind map or a list of your goals that you keep close by (e.g. in your pocket or wallet) and look over daily can act as good reminders. Start each day by taking action on your most important goal.

One final word on goals: don’t be put off by the word ‘goal’. A goal is just something you would like to do. It can be as big or small as you like.

If you have trouble thinking of goals, then Ali Hale (blogger for Dumb Little Man) suggests that you think about what you don’t want for your life and then simply turn that around. For example, if you don’t want to be messy and disorganised you could turn this into “I want to be organised and efficient”.

Can you set some goals for this week? What about the month? Spend 10 – 20 minutes writing down your goals and be sure to create goals for the key areas of your life (e.g. your studies, career, health, relationships, personal development and community).

Once you’ve got clear on the big picture (i.e. what’s most important to you), you’ll be ready to take on the next lot of willpower strengthening practices in part 2 of this blog series.


Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. Penguin Press.

McGonigal, K. (2011). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can DoTo Get More of It. Avery.

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