Self-Control Techniques and Requirements

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Self-control techniques help individuals recognize the situations that can ‘waste’ their willpower and weaken self-control. Their premise is that by preserving our willpower, we can make better decisions. But do these techniques eliminate the extra effort for keeping control?

kids playing in living room near a young mother as she meditates
Self-control is difficult, but not impossible. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Most people agree that self-control is one of the most difficult daily tasks. This is evident in how everyone ignores diets, gives in to betrayal temptations, or leaves everything for exam night instead of studying during the semester. The reason why it is so difficult to control one’s actions is that the required strength or energy is limited. This energy is commonly known as ‘willpower’, and it varies in situations and at different times of the day. But why do we run out of it so easily sometimes?

Learn more about Where People’s Personalities Come From.

Dual-Motive Conflict

Dual-motive conflict is the psychological term for when a person has to control oneself and choose between two opposing goals or motives. For example, you want to lose weight, but at the same time, you want to eat a cake. Or you want to quit smoking, but at the same time, you want a cigarette. These are opposing goals, one of which is long-term and the other short-term.

Young dieting beautiful woman sitting in front of delicious cream and chocolate tart cake
Eating dessert gives a result right away, so it is an easier choice. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

In the diet and cake example, the person knows that they will not lose weight overnight and by avoiding only one piece of cake as dessert. Losing weight is a long process. On the other hand, the cake is right there: it is a concrete goal that will immediately give them the pleasure they know from eating cakes.

We tend to choose goals that are not so distant. Yet, most of our important goals require patience and effort. This is where self-control techniques come in handy.

Learn more about Why We Make Mountains out of Molehills.

Tell Other People About Your Goals

In the cake example, suppose you tell your friends at the restaurant that you have started a diet and will not order dessert. There is no cake yet to tempt you, but you have created a new picture of yourself as someone who will not order dessert. Then dinner is over, and the dessert menu arrives with amazing cake photos. Now you have a bigger dilemma than eating the cake and losing weight: appearing weak in front of someone else or staying strong and saving face.

Telling other people about your goals can sometimes be an extra monitoring tool. The concept of saving ‘face’ is critical; thus, it creates a new dual-motive conflict over something more important than eating the cake. Now, not eating the cake contributes to both saving face and the long-term goal of losing weight.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Stay Focused on Your Goals

People set reminders, write down goals on post-it notes and stick them around their room, or create visualizations boards to stay focused on their long-term goals. One big problem with long-term goals is that their results are abstract and far in the future, but our minds have evolved to shift focus to concrete things at hand. Writing down goals and putting them into insight keeps reminding people of the goals that they forget.

A determined person working out while another person losing determination and looking at a cake
If other people know about your goals, they can help you monitor your behavior. (Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Learn more about Why We Forget.

Avoid Temptations

Sometimes the best thing you can do to deal with dual motive conflicts is to avoid them altogether. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, and you know that you cannot say no to donuts, you should avoid going to places where there are donuts. Since most people easily surrender to temptation, the most effective strategy is avoidance. Overcoming temptation isn’t always about having the willpower to say no.  

Studies have shown that avoiding temptations is a technique used by individuals at very young ages as well. In one study, psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues showed a plate of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks to children and told them they could have one immediately, but if they waited for some minutes, they could get two.

They left each child alone in the room with the plate. Some immediately ate one, some waited a bit but gave in, and some waited all the 20 minutes so that they could get two treats. The ones who succeeded covered their eyes or turned their chair around so that they would not see the ‘temptations’ at all.

To conclude, we make decisions easily in the absence of temptations, but some situations create what’s called a dual-motive conflict – a battle between willpower and temptation that we normally lose. Thus, the easiest self-control technique, if possible, is to avoid temptations to stay focused on the initial long-term intention.

Common Questions about Self-Control Techniques

Q: What are the three components of self-control?

Monitoring, standards, and strength are the three main components of self-control. All the self-control techniques involve at least one of these elements and try to create the motivation needed for controlling one’s behaviors.

Q: What causes a lack of self-control?

One main reason is that our willpower is limited, and we cannot face all situations with the same power. Thus, self-control techniques focus on not ‘tiring’ the willpower, or avoiding situations that require stronger willpower than we have.

Q: What are self-control strategies?

Self-control techniques or strategies help people keep trying to achieve a long-term or abstract goal, instead of giving in to a concrete goal that opposes the long-term one. They range from avoiding tempting situations to keeping the focus on goals.

Q: Why do we need self-control?

We need self-control to achieve our long-term goals, especially if they require actions against our taste. Hence, self-control techniques were developed through time to gain the necessary power for keeping up efforts.

Keep Reading
Tired of Battling Your Willpower? Enlist Unconscious Decision-Making
Eating Right and Exercising—How to Overcome the Challenge of Motivation
What’s Really in Control of Your Body? Is It the Conscious Mind?