Self Control: How to Build It and Keep It

Is this the most important ‘muscle’ we have?

If Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiments show us one thing, it’s the number one factor you need to succeed in anything is ‘Self-Regulation’  and it is the one factor that the vast majority of people seem to lack. It goes by many names:






What makes people stay disciplined? What keeps them so committed? What is it that makes people wake up and train every day instead of lying in bed feeling sorry for themselves? Or what makes great leaders stay focussed on strategy instead of getting caught up in the day to day? How do they maintain the self-control, so they don’t give into the temptation to stop and do something else? Or even do something else instead of getting started in the first place?

If we could all do that, the things we need to achieve would be pretty darn easy. But when it comes down to it, these are the statements that define our own attempts.


I could be healthier if only I could stop eating all the junk that tempts me

I could save more money if only I could resist buying so many clothes

I’d be more effective at work, if only I could stop procrastinating

I’d be a better leader if I could just stop getting sucked into day to day work and focus on the bigger picture.


When we think about the things we want to achieve - the important things - this one factor seems to get in our way. A lot. Genetics play a part, but self-discipline seems to be so much of a factor.

When it comes down to it, success in anything requires us to be able to do do the harder thing instead of taking an easy option and staying in our comfort zone.

Fortunately, the majority of research tells us that self-control is not genetically fixed. A more apt description is that self-control is like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger and more capable it becomes. This is in a literal sense…. Our ‘self-control muscle’ is within our Pre-Frontal Cortex and when we practice self-control, this area of our brain actually becomes thicker and builds bigger connections.


So how do you exercise this muscle and keep it strong? Here are some ideas:


  • Practice focus

A simple exercise for the Pre-Frontal Cortex is focussed attention. Simply building in periods of your day where you focus solely on one task, without distractions from email, social media or other interruptions can start to build your self-control muscle.


  • Do something difficult every day for a week

Another simple way to practice self-control is to do something difficult… and keep doing it until it becomes easier. Pick one thing and do it relentlessly every day for a week. This might be getting up earlier, working on projects for an hour first thing every morning instead of checking email, putting off your first coffee until lunchtime (horror) – or even finishing on full cold water for the last three minutes of your daily shower (seriously… cold water immersion has been shown to increase self-control).


  • Workout – hard

Do you go for a daily run? Go harder on that last 2km stretch. Push yourself and don’t back off until you hit the finish. Same goes for weight training – even if you don’t feel great, don’t back off that session. If you go for a walk, then take a different route with some bigger hills – or do the same hills a bit faster. I guarantee you won’t want to do it, but when you do you build that muscle.


Want some other tips on pushing past your limits? Click here for an article.


The Flipside

Here’s the flipside of this concept. If you’ve ever had a broken arm, you know that when you remove the cast after six weeks of inactivity, you see a bunch of muscle wastage – that arm is smaller and weaker than it was previously.


The same thing happens with our ‘self-control muscle’ – if you don’t use it – if you’re constantly distracted instead of focussed, if you always take the easy option, and if you never push yourself, then you lose self-control at a rapid rate.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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