A Guide to Improving Self-Control

I read almost a dozen books researching this post. It’s long and detailed. There is a summary and reading list at the bottom for those low on time or self-control. As you read this, keep in mind; the plan that works is the plan that you can sustain. Start small, build slowly.

Introduction

I’m going to share a quote from one of the most respected psychologists alive; that improving self-control is one of the most important things we can learn. I’ll apply Pareto’s principle and introduce the powerful effects of keystone habits. And I will walk you through the steps to creating a habit using daily journaling as an example. I’ll end by sharing the three most common mistakes people make, a summary, and the reading list I gathered my researched from.


Baumeister’s Claim

Roy Baumeister, one of the most cited psychologists of all time, opens his book Willpower, with;

However you define success, it tends to be accompanied by a couple of qualities. When psychologists isolate the personal qualities that predict “positive outcomes” in life, they consistently find two traits: intelligence and self-control. So far researchers still haven’t learned how to permanently increase intelligence. But they have discovered, or at least rediscovered, how to improve self-control…We think that research into willpower and self-control is psychology’s best hope for contributing to human welfare.

One of the biggest names in psychology is adamant; the science behind improving self-control is one of the most important things psychology can share with humanity. The science is counter-intuitively simple.


How To Improve Self-Control

It isn’t sexy and it won’t make for good clickbait titles; we improve our self-control when we consciously implement a new behavior or change an existing behavior that was previously unconscious. Said another way, we improve the trait that best predicts “positive outcomes” of life when we create a new habit or change an old habit.

I’m a big fan of Pareto’s Principle. You could improve your self-control by consciously focusing on sitting up straight, or by washing the dishes every night, but there are, what Duhigg calls “Keystone Habits“. These are habits that if integrated, cause a positive cascading effect on all other areas of our lives.


Keystone Habits

Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life. They smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol. They kept their homes cleaner. They washed dishes instead of leaving them stacked in the sink, and did their work and chores instead of watching television or hanging out with friends. They ate less junk food, replacing their bad eating habits with healthier ones.
— Baumeister

The theoretical psychological mechanisms behind why keystone habits work is interesting, but it’s not the focus of this post. Which habits actually make the list of keystones is up for debate, but there are a few that most researchers agree on.

  • Keeping a Daily Journal
  • Meditation
  • Exercising
  • Maintaining a whole Food, Plant-Based Diet
  • Following a Studying/Creating routine
  • Managing a personal finance system

The common thread between these is each is a daily habit that requires self-discipline to maintain. If you don’t have any of these habits as a part of your daily practice, (it sounds grandiose), but choosing one to implement today could revolutionize your life thanks to the effects of keystone habits.

To help illustrate each step of the habit building process, I’m going to apply the science towards starting a daily journaling practice. I think this is the best keystone for the novice to acquire, because it is one of the easiest keystones to learn and it creates a solid foundation for future reflection and planning. However, the template I use for building a habit can be applied to any habit.


How To Build a Habit

This section comes directly from Stephen Wendel’s amazing textbook Designing For Behavior Change. This is the book companies like Fitbit, HelloWallet, Nike+, etc use to build their products. The way to build a habit is;

  1. Identify routine
  2. Identify reward
  3. Identify clear, specific cue
  4. Make sure you understand the cue, routine, and reward
  5. Make sure you are able to do the routine
  6. Deploy cue
  7. Track the routine (This is fucking important
  8. Immediately reward yourself
  9. Repeat 6-8, tracking data, until habit loop becomes unconscious.

Applying this to Journaling Daily

Identify Routine

The routine is the actual behavior you want to make a habit. This will be whichever keystone habit you choose to implement.

Daily Journal Example: The routine I use for my morning journaling comes directly from The Artist’s Way. I can not overstate it, this book completely changed my life. I recommend it to everyone. You get out of it what you put into it.

Her routine is simple. Every morning, write three pages, long-hand. Do not proofread or censor. You won’t be sharing this with anyone. It is a private stream-of-conscious. It is important to write the full three pages. It can be hard but revelations come on that third page. If you are interested in more detail about this keystone habit, get her book.

Identify Reward

We’re animals, and we have evolved over millions of years to instinctively crave certain sense perceptions (sugar, salt, symmetrical faces, indicators of status and power, friendship, etc.) Pick a reward that you believe will help reinforce the routine.

I remember one time while trying to make yoga a habit I’d eat a single chewy spree after every sun salutation. It didn’t last but I had a good time. Get creative, but identify your reward clearly.

Daily Journal Example: Writing the pages are inherently rewarding to me. If you do them correctly they likely will be for you too. But, the beauty here is we get to get creative when it comes to metaprogramming ourselves.

Identify Clear, Specific Cue Identify Clear, Specific Cue

This is important, and this is where we introduce Implementation Intention. This little cognitive algorithm is your best friend when it comes to habit change. A lot of people fail because their goal is vague. Writing “be healthier” is a sure-fire way to not change a damn thing. Writing, “Whenever I eat a meal, I will eat a handful of spinach” is something you can actually work with. (Research shows using an existing habit as a cue is more effective than using a specific time as a cue.)

The structure of an Implementation Intention is:

“When (cue x), I will do (routine y).”

Daily Journal Example: So, my Implementation Intention is;

“After I drink my protein shake (this is a habit I have ingrained in da brain already), I will write my daily pages (to me this clearly means to write three pages).”

The cue needs to be clear and specific.

Make Sure You Understand the Cue, Routine, and Reward

This is more of a concern if the routine is complex, like doing a Turkish-Getup, or if you are teaching someone else. If they don’t understand all three of these components (or if you don’t), the habit will never form.

Daily Journal Example: I understand that my cue is drinking my protein shake, my routine is to write three pages, and my reward is going to be a clear, decluttered mind.

Make sure you are able to do the routine

You may know how to deadlift, but if your routine is to deadlift 6 days a week because you saw a youtuber recommend it, you may not be physically able to perform the routine. The reason I chose the daily pages is because almost every adult on this planet is capable of doing it.

Daily Journal Example: I know I am capable of writing 3 pages.

Deploy Cue, Track Routine, and Deploy Reward

This is where we starting doing shit! The planning is over. You get to be a scientist now. Deploy your cue. Do your routine. Reward yourself.

Ask yourself; Did the cue work? Did it actually trigger you to do the routine? Did you do the routine? Did you understand it enough, and were you able? How did it feel after rewarding yourself?

Daily Journal Example: I woke up this morning, worked out, drank my protein, and sat down and wrote my pages. My cue worked. I was able to do my routine, and my reward is this beautiful headspace I’m currently writing from.

Repeat 6-8 tweaking as necessary, until the new behavior is a habit.

It is a myth that habits form in 21 days. The science is less sexy; it depends. The time it takes a new behavior to become a habit depends on how complex the behavior is and how hard it is for the individual. This could range from 18 days to 10 months. The average length is 66 days.

Daily Journal Example: It took about 30 days for daily journaling to become ingrained for me.


Important Mistakes to Avoid

Beware of the Planning Fallacy

The single most common reason people fail at creating a new habit is because they drastically overestimate their capabilities. Their “present” self writes a check for their “future” self that they can’t cash. Don’t fall for this.

Make the new habit simple and small.

If three pages is too much, start with writing a single fucking sentence. You can always build, but starting small is better than burning out.

Check your ego if you really want to improve.

Don’t Forget to Measure and Monitor!

This is the second most important failing point people overlook. We are addicted to progress. Leverage that biological imperative. The X Effect is glorious in its effectiveness and simplicity. When I’m working on creating a new habit, I get a dry-erase board and mark a big X for the day I complete my habit. Once I get a streak going I get an extra surge of motivation to complete the action.

Determine what you want to measure. For the daily pages, it’d be writing 3 pages (or a sentence.) The moment you finish, skip over to your whiteboard and draw that X.

Envision Failing

Kelly McGonigal, in The Willpower Instinct, says;

To succeed at Self-Control you need to know how you fail.

We fail. It happens. Being a good scientist means examining the factors around your failing. Do you fail when you put off the new habit until the evening? Do you fail when you try to do too much too soon? Do you fail on Saturday mornings?

Figure out the factors that cause you to fail and create Implementation Intentions to help you avoid these inflection points. (This is why I like starting with journaling as the first keystone habit. It is a great place to reflect failing points.)


Summary

Self-Control is the single most important personality trait we can improve that predicts life success. Self-control improves when we attempt to create a new habit or change an existing one. Focus on Keystone habits to get the most effect for your effort. Pick a keystone habit and implement the science of habit change. Identify the cue, routine, and reward, make sure you understand it and are capable to do it. Approach habit change like a scientist. Avoid the planning fallacy, don’t forget to measure, and envision failing.


Reading List

All of this information comes directly from scientists smarter than I. Here are their books I referenced;


This article was originally published on Metaprogramming. The original article can be found here. Metaprogramming is a insightful blog that regualry shares pragmatic applications of psychology and philosophy.

I recently graduated with a degree in Cognitive Psychology. 

My passion is finding and sharing pragmatic applications of psychology and philosophy. I write about evolutionary, positive, analytic, and behavioral psychology. If I share it, I tried it.