Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why is “Self-Control” So Important, and How Can It Be Improved?

“Self-control” is the ability to control one's emotions, behavior and desires in order to obtain some reward later.  In psychology circles, “self-control” is sometimes called “self-regulation.”  Why is learning (and practicing) self-control so important?  Self-control is significantly correlated with “success” in life – whether it is financial success, happiness, or adjustment or other various positive psychological factors.  Indeed, “self-control may be something that we can tap into to make sweeping improvements [in] life outcomes.” [Han-yu Shen, 2011].


Most persons (including college students) suffer from problems with self-control … whether it be in the achievement of the completion of a common college task (e.g., homework) or with regard to matters with huge long-term financial implications (e.g.., saving enough for the future).  “Previous research indicates that people indeed suffer from self-control problems – that is, they intend to make choices that carefully weigh both short-run and long-run costs and benefits, but in the decision-making moment they place disproportionate weight on immediate costs and benefits.”  [Beshears et. al., 2011].


The good news is that “practice makes perfect” – or at least lead to better abilities.  The repeated practice of self-control can improve the strength or capacity for self-regulation.  [Oaten, 2006.]

We must also be aware that self-control has limits, as to its ability to be successfully repeated one time after another after another.  There is substantial evidence that self-control is a limited mental resource, in the sense that once self-control is applied it becomes tougher to exercise self-control for a new task (even an unrelated one) immediately thereafter.  [DeWall, 2011.]

However, a number of studies support the notion that self-control is nevertheless a resource that can be increased through suitable exercise.  In fact, you may be aware of individuals who, through practicing self-control continually, develop an immense ability to exercise self-control, even when accomplishing many tasks requiring self-control in repetition.

But how does one begin to “practice” self-control?


One must first understand that goals and rewards which are abstract and likely to be achieved only in the future, such as “securing a good education, good grades, and landing a good job,” are likely to be de-valued relative to those goals or rewards which can be achieved in the very near-term and more concretely.  For example, “play video games” now, or “let’s go out for a beer,” while neither possesses a great long-term positive effect on one’s development, are much more concrete and near-term (and hence are more motivating) to a person than “read this chapter in order to do well on the final exam several weeks from now.”

Knowing that abstract and far-off goals have a perception of far less value in the brain enables us to first think through the choice with greater awareness.  In so doing we may be able to cognitively recognize that the longer-term, more abstract goal does indeed possess greater importance than the near-term alternative choice.

Also, we can then employ devices to change the motivations, to counter a lack of self-control.  Techniques can be employed which create incentives for a person to follow through on their intended course of action.


Some devices or techniques include those which are externally applied – such as homework assignments from a professor with a firm, near-term deadline attached to them.  For example, a professor may give a quiz for every chapter, knowing that this will motivate students to read the material now (and avoid the result of students who read all the material only the day or so prior to the exam).  Or a professor may require an outline or brief essay on each chapter or topic studied.

Externally applied techniques, such as firm deadlines set by a professor for the accomplishment of an assignment, are usually more effective than deadlines established by the person who is seeking to accomplish the task.  [Ariely, 2001.]  But life won’t always involve situations in which deadlines are imposed by others upon you; often in business (and in life) you will need to self-impose upon yourself your own deadlines … and learn how to stick with them.


Devices to assist with self-control can also arise as the result of internal application – i.e., the person who needs to undertake the desired act (or refrain from an act) employs a technique to provide a substitute near-term and more concrete incentive.  An example of this might be a person who adopts as a near-term reward for a goal: “If I finish outlining this section of the chapter, I will then be able to play video games for ten minutes.”  (It would be best if a timer is set for ten minutes, for playing the video game.)

Often such a technique is a “precommitment” device [Ariely, 2001], in which one puts the wrong choice beyond reach.  For example, a student who shops weekly for snacks for her or his dorm room might only purchase a week’s supply of 100-calorie snacks.  By eschewing snacks with higher calorie content the student does not have to confront the difficult choice of whether or not to eat an unhealthy snack.  And by limiting the number of snacks purchased to a week’s supply (even if a larger quantity purchase would result in discounts), the student becomes more aware that eating the 100-calorie snacks all in the first few evenings results in the prospect of no snacks later in the week.

This writer observed early in his life the deleterious effects resulting from alcoholism from distant family members.  Then, as a college student he became aware that if he had a few beers, the next evening he “craved” for more beer.  Realizing the dangers of addiction to alcohol, the author self-imposed a limit – no more than one beer a night, and never drink a beer two nights in succession; this was the only way avoided the “craving.”  A later further self-imposed restriction was to never drink (even one beer) and later drive.  Another form of precommitment was later adopted … “never buy beer to take home.”  This led this writer to lead a life where social alcohol drinking occurs at most once a month (on average) … with a life not torn down by addiction (thereby achieving a much better than the result seen by those in his family who did not adopt such precommitment devices).


Similarly, removing distractions and temptations that induce undesired actions – i.e., that interfere with self-control – is an equally important form of precommitment.  For example, many students study much better in the library or in other, more controlled, environments on campus – rather than attempt to deal with distractions which occur in the dorms.  Making a commitment to study in the library with a friend until a certain pre-established time is often even better, because one is much less likely to return to the dorm room early when a commitment has been made to a friend.

Turning off one’s smart phone (to eliminate interruptions from phone calls, e-mails, and text messages) is another way to avoid the distractions which often interfere with the accomplishment of a task.

Alternatively, one may make the “right choice” in advance.  For example, one might pre-order a healthy meal for a certain day (or choose to meet friends at an eating establishment that serves only healthy meals).  Making a commitment to meet a friend at a particular time in the gym, in order to exercise, is another example of a making an affirmative precommitment.

Practicing such precommitment devices – applied by the actors (students) themselves – is an essential part of learning.  Students will not always have instructors (or parents) who will impose externally implied deadlines.  And in the world of business few supervisors desire to deal with employees who need to be constantly provided deadlines in order to get projects accomplished.  In this regard, the ability to exercise self-control is a key factor affecting an employee’s retention and promotion within a firm.

Of course, practice is just that … practice.  You won’t always succeed in exercising self-control.  No one is perfect.  There will be lapses.  But, over time, and with continued practice, your capacity to exert self-control can substantially increase, leading to a much more fulfilling and rewarding life.

Professor Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP(r) teaches Business Law, Retirement Planning, Investment Planning, Employee Benefits Planning, Money & Banking, Insurance & Risk Management, and the Personal Financial Planning Capstone courses at Alfred State College, Alfred, NY. He is an EPLP Mentor, C.R.E.A.T.E. program mentor, serves as advisor to Alfred State's Business Professionals of America club, and serves as academic advisor to dozens of students.

Professor Rhoades is the author of "CHOOSE TO SUCCEED IN COLLEGE AND IN LIFE: Continuously Improve, Persevere, and Enjoy the Journey," a 10-week program for success in college (available for $2.99 in Kindle store at, or in paperback for $6.99). Professor Rhoades may be reached by e-mail at:


Ariely, Dan and Wertenbroch, Klaus, Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment (June 2001). Psychological Science, May 2002. Available at SSRN:  Also available online at

Beshears, John Leonard, Choi, James J., Laibson, David I., Madrian, Brigitte C. and Sakong, Jung, Self Control and Liquidity: How to Design a Commitment Contract (November 8, 2011). RAND Working Paper Series WR- 895-SSA. Available at SSRN:

DeWall C. N., Baumeister, R. F., Mead, N. L., & Vohs, K. D. (2011). How leaders self-regulate their task performance: Evidence that power promotes diligence, depletion, and disdain.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Han-yu Shen, Henry, “The Irrationality of Organizational Escalation: The Danger of Spider-man & Overcommitment,” blog post May 2011 located at

Oaten, Megan & Cheng, Ken. (2006). Improved Self-Control: The Benefits of a Regular Program of Academic Study. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 28(1), 1-16.

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