For many people, self-control represents a deeply desired; yet, allusive attribute that too often slips through our fingertips.
There is a multitude of areas in everyday life where so many of us want to do better.
This is particularly evident given the millions of people (including almost half of Americans) who make New Year’s resolutions each year. Such resolutions often involve goals related to diet and fitness, finances, relationships, and the reduction of unhealthy behaviors (i.e., smoking).
Unfortunately, however; an 80 percent failure rate has been estimated for such resolutions (Luciani, 2015). Moreover, general efforts to change behaviors result in relapse over half of the time (Kottler, 2012).
Why are we so consistently disappointed by our failed efforts at self-improvement? For one thing, these objectives are not easy. Fulfilling one’s dreams “takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort” (Jesse Owens, brainyquote.com).
This article will look into the research behind self-control and self-discipline (terms to be used interchangeably); including the many benefits thereof and how to attain them. Several interesting research studies will also be described.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself but will also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
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What are the Benefits of Self-Control and Self-Discipline?
Let’s begin our inquiry by exploring the evidence supporting the many benefits of self-control to health and socioemotional wellbeing.
1. Weight, Fitness, and Health
It has been said that “eating constitutes the greatest obstacle to self-control” (Mahavira, brainyquote.com). Of course, the endless stream of weight loss-related advertising, including gym memberships, weight loss programs, and even weight loss surgery is ample evidence for the enormous business surrounding weight loss. Not to mention the personal weight-related struggles experienced by numerous people.
Losing weight is an all too common goal that is greatly enhanced by self-control. For example, in a 12-week diet and self-discipline exercise program among overweight adults (e.g., a body mass index of at least 25 kg/m2), researchers found higher levels of trait self-control among those who were more successful in achieving program goals.
More specifically, participants with relatively higher self-control ate fewer calories (including less fat), burned more calories, and achieved greater weight loss (Crescioni, Ehrlinger, & Alquist et al., 2011).
Several additional studies investigating self-control (also referred to as ‘self-regulation’) and weight loss have included youth participants, often with a particular interest in how early self-control might protect against and subsequent weight gain during adolescence.
This topic was researched in a large-scale longitudinal study, including ten U.S. sites (Francis, & Susman, 2009). Participants included 1061 children from age 3 to 12 years. Self-control and body mass index (BMI) were assessed at baseline, as well as at multiple time-points covering a total of 9 years.
Interestingly, children with lower self-regulatory skills had higher BMI’s and more weight gain at each time-point. In other words, self-control had a significant impact on weight gain from childhood through early adolescence.
In a similar study by Duckworth, Tsukayama, and Geier (2010); self-control was assessed among fifth graders who were followed until eighth grade. This study found that fifth graders who were higher in self-control evidenced significantly decreased BMI’s over the following three years.
Finally, weight gain during the transition from childhood to adolescence was examined in another longitudinal study among 844 children (Tsukayama, Toomey, & Faith et al., 2010). This study, which included both parent and teacher ratings of self-control, indicated that those who were higher in self-control were less likely to be overweight at age 15.
The authors noted that the ability to control impulses and delay gratification represented significant factors affecting the avoidance of weight gain during adolescence. The combination of these studies provides compelling evidence for the power of self-control early in life to predict healthy weight over time— including during early and middle adolescence.
Along with weight, a more general measure of physical fitness has been examined concerning self-control. Specifically, in a cross-sectional (non-longitudinal) study including young male participants, various fitness-related outcomes were assessed including BMI, muscle fitness, aerobic fitness, and leisure time physical activity (Kinnunen, Suihko, & Hankonen et al., 2012).
Findings indicated that self-control was associated with lower BMI and higher levels of muscular and aerobic fitness. Interestingly, fitness indicators remained significantly related to self-control, even regardless of participants’ BMI measures.
Medical conditions in adulthood have also been linked to measures of self-control during adolescence. For example, in a compelling study by Miller, Barnes, and Beaver (2011), 9 out of 10 physical and brain-based health issues were significantly less likely among adults who were rated as higher in self-control during adolescence.
More specifically, lower self-control was predictive of a higher odds of experiencing depression, ADHD, other mental illnesses, poor hearing, stuttering speech patterns, asthma, cancer, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. These findings represent a powerful example of the benefits of self-control.
2. Academic and Career Success
Fred Rogers (e.g., ‘Mr. Rogers’) referred to discipline “as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline” (brainyquote.com). He had a point.
Along with health-related outcomes, self-discipline also plays an important role when it comes to children’s education. For example, a longitudinal study, including 164 eight graders, found that self-discipline assessed in the fall was related to a variety of important educational outcomes measured in the spring (Duckworth, & Seligman, 2005).
This study indicated that self-control had a significant positive impact on grades, attendance, and time spent doing homework. Being higher in self-control was also related to fewer hours spent watching television.
The importance of self-discipline reported in this study was maintained after statistically adjusting for IQ and achievement test scores. This research lends support to parents who have consistently—and perhaps frustratingly— tried to impress upon their adolescents the importance of being disciplined when it comes to homework, screen time, and general study habits.
With rapid increases in technology related to office automation, large numbers of people are working from home. While telecommuting has several advantages for employees, such as increased flexibility; it also has its challenges.
Primarily, when employees work in a potentially distracting environment without in-person supervision, productivity may be negatively impacted. Indeed, employees require a certain degree of self-discipline and motivation to succeed in their jobs (Olson, 1983).
To address predictors of occupational success; Converse, Pathak, and DePaul et al. (2012) took a comprehensive look at self-control. The researchers conducted two studies, with the first one examining self-control among 249 full-time employees. In this study, self-control was related to higher salary and occupational prestige.
The second study consisted of an impressive longitudinal design and 1,568 participants whose self-control was assessed during childhood. After 20 years, those who were rated higher in restraint achieved greater career and occupational success (i.e., job satisfaction, salary, and prestige).
It was also reported that self-control benefited educational achievement; which, in turn, predicted higher wages and occupational prestige (Converse et al., 2012). These findings are particularly relevant for employers, given their implications regarding which employees will be most successful. And they are undoubtedly salient to telecommuters.
3. Risky and Problem Behaviors
Behavioral theories seeking to explain deviant, unhealthy, and risky behaviors often address the role of self-control. For example, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory posits that inclinations toward criminal actions occur as a function of an individual’s ability to control his/her tendency to engage in such behaviors.
Those people who are higher in self-control are predicted to be better able to postpone immediate gratification in favor of long-term rewards. More specifically, “long-term consequences influence the actions of a person with ample self-control, whereas the elements of criminal behavior reflect easy and immediate gratification of universal, fundamental, human desires.
A person with adequate self-control is less likely to attend to, or invest in, these features of a situation than is how or her less-controlled counterpart” (Gibbs, Giever, & Martin, 1998, pgs. 41-42).
This theory was tested using a large sample (N = 1000) of American college students (Ford, & Blumenstein, 2012). Researchers found a higher risk of binge drinking, cannabis use, and prescription drug misuse among participants who were lower in self-control.
A review of risky behavior would be remiss if not addressing the period of adolescence. Adolescence is marked by substantial increases in dangerous behaviors such as fast driving, substance use, and risky sexual behavior— among others.
While it is not uncommon for youth to misjudge the risks involved in their actions (i.e., adolescent drivers tend to overestimate their driving skills), there are other factors at play when it comes to significant increases in preventable forms of death that occur during this period. One such factor is self-control; as holding-off on temptations can be particularly challenging among young people.
Consequently, several studies have investigated the various constructs (i.e., self-control) that predict dangerous behavior among adolescents. For example, self-control theory has been investigated concerning youth sexual behavior because of its potential for undesirable and unhealthy outcomes (i.e., unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease).
For example, Hope and Chapple (2004) examined data from a longitudinal study consisting of 709 participants who were between 15 and 17 years of age at the final assessment. A sub-sample of this group was also created, consisting of participants who had initiated sexual behavior (n = 223).
Researchers found that lower self-control significantly predicted having initiated sex, increased numbers of sexual partners, and a more casual (versus committed) relationship with sexual partners.
Research has similarly indicated that the lack of self-control is related to more impulsive or under-controlled sexual behavior, as well as the inability to resist engaging in sexual conduct with an individual who is not the primary sexual partner (Gailliot, & Baumeister, 2007).
Similarly, Wills and Stoolmiller (2002) followed a sample of 1,526 6th graders through 9th grade. A composite substance use score incorporating cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use were created. Researchers found that increases in substance use over time were higher for those who were lower in self-control.
Finally, in a study examining criminal behavior and substance use among adolescent males already involved in the criminal justice system, a global scale of low self-control incorporating multiple subcategories was included as the predictor. Results indicated that the self-control sub-factors of risk-seeking and volatile temper were significant predictors of drug use, and both property and violent crimes (Connor, Stein, & Longshore, 2009).
4. Various Additional Outcomes Related to Self-control
Research addressing the benefits of self-control also has taken a look at broader spectrum outcomes. For example, in a study by Tangney, Baumeister, and Boone (2004); two extensive investigations were conducted using a new measure of self-control among college students.
Findings indicated that higher self-control was related to better relationships and interpersonal skills, higher grade point average, less binge eating, more secure attachments, and better adjustment as defined by less psychopathology and higher self-esteem (Tangney et al., 2004).
An additional study suggesting that self-control is related to a range of outcomes was conducted by de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, and Finkenauer (2012). In their meta-analysis of 202 self-control studies, the investigators found positive relationships between higher self-control and the following outcomes: Happiness, good grades, committed relationships, and love.
Lower self-control was related to the following non-adaptive outcomes: Binge eating, alcohol use, occasional speeding, and lifetime delinquency. The authors further noted that the effect of self-control was about the same regardless of whether it was being examined as a risk or protective factor (de Ridder et al., 2012).
These findings are consistent with other research supporting a significant association between self-control and both happiness and general wellbeing (Hofmann, Luhmann, & Fisher et al., 2014). Overall, these studies provide convincing evidence for the impact of self-control across a range of critical psychosocial outcomes.
Most Interesting Scientific Findings
In addition to the evidence explored above, we reflect on interesting findings that have come from research.
1. Processes, Measurement, and Moderators
Hofmann et al. (2014) conducted three studies aimed at explaining relationships between self-control and life satisfaction. Using adult participants in each study, a measure of relatively stable, trait self-control was examined in relation to life satisfaction ratings.
The authors reported evidence for a significant relationship between self-control and both positive emotions and life satisfaction. Perhaps more interestingly, high self-control, and positive outcomes were moderated by the ability to manage conflict.
More specifically, those with higher self-control also were able to act in a way that reduced conflict and distress. Moreover, individuals with high self-control were also better able to avoid temptations and thereby avoid ‘vice-virtue’ temptations (Hofmann et al., 2014).
This research suggests that there is more involved in how self-control affects outcomes, with conflict avoidance representing a key mechanism.
In the previously noted meta-analysis by de Ridder et al. (2012), additional interesting information about factors affecting the link between self-control and desired outcomes were also presented. Namely, the authors reported a stronger association between self-control and automatic behaviors versus more consciously control behaviors.
Automatic behaviors are those that are more habitual (i.e., writing pages in a novel each day as part of a routine); as opposed more controlled behaviors that require adjustments (i.e., trying to manage multiple competing resources to make time to work on a novel).
The authors suggest that self-control is not as related to resisting temptations as is often thought, but may instead be more about forming and breaking habits. Associations between self-control and outcomes have also been found to differ when it comes to real versus imagined behaviors.
Unlike actual behaviors, imagined behaviors consist of those “that one intends to do, thinks one can do, or thinks one should do” (de Ridder et al., 2012, p. 80). Imagined behaviors are more akin to wishful thinking (i.e., “I’m going to sail the world next year!”).
In a study by de Ridder and colleagues (2012), behaviors and self-control were more strongly associated with imagined versus real behaviors. The authors suggest self-control measures and constructs may be convoluted by the types of behaviors included, and how they are defined and measured.
Along with the need to unpack the nature of specific behaviors (i.e., real versus imagined; automatic versus control), the researchers also suggest that self-control is overestimated when only self-reports of behaviors are included.
In a research article by Duckworth and Gross (2014), self-control was examined in relation to grit. The authors define grit as “the tenacious pursuit of a dominant superordinate goal despite setbacks” (Duckworth, & Gross, 2014, p. 319).
Grit is thus more consistent with strength of character or perseverance in the face of adversity. The authors note that, while self-control and grit are indeed correlated; they represent distinct constructs that should not be used interchangeably. In other words, a person may have one, but not the other.
A person who is high in grit is described as someone who works persistently toward achieving a primary goal, perhaps even for years. He/she may be a highly productive person who can suppress conflicting lower order goals; as well as to deal with setbacks by creating alternative lower order goals and continuing to work tenaciously toward the primary goal (Duckworth, & Gross, 2014).
Consistent with this example, grit involves exceptional achievements that often cover a lengthy period to complete; whereas, self-control involves making decisions on more of a day-to-day basis (Duckworth, & Gross, 2014). Overall, this research and the proposed models provide important directions for future research addressing these concepts, as well as important treatment implications.
Treatment and Intervention
Intervention strategies that include self-discipline components have found some promising results, including within educational settings. For example, Cincinnati implemented a district-wide program aimed at helping instructors to teach self-discipline to K-12th-grade students (Brown, & Beckett, 2006).
Teachers were supported with tools needed to deal with disciplinary issues without removing students from the class. While there were multiple components to this large-scale intervention, promoting student self-discipline was an essential factor in achieving desired outcomes.
Impressively, the program resulted in reductions in both suspensions and expulsions within the Cincinnati school district (Brown, & Beckett, 2006).
Lastly, in a paper by Mofﬁtt, Arseneault, and Belsky et al. (2011), the implementation of large-scale self-control programs are discussed. The authors propose that such programs could have significant societal benefits by improving health, wealth, and public safety.
Longitudinal, prospective studies that assessed self-control in children and followed them over time are presented. It is proposed that the multitude of positive outcomes predicted by increased self-control imply that large-scale self-control programs have the potential to realize important societal outcomes related to taxpayer costs and overall prosperity among citizens (Moffitt et al., 2011).
In sum, each of the studies described herein presents important evidence for the benefits of self-control; as well as the justification for continued interventions promoting it.
22 Things You Can Do to Realize These Benefits
Happiness is dependent on self-discipline. We are the biggest obstacles to our happiness. It is much easier to do battle with society and with others than to fight our own nature.
While becoming more self-disciplined isn’t easy— as it often goes against our immediate desires and impulses, it is attainable.
Here are several ways to become more self-disciplined:
- Be informed: Don’t jump into the idea of achieving an important goal without doing your research. While you may be excited and eager to get started; by understanding what it takes to be successful and the steps needed to get there, your objective will be much more obtainable.
- Avoid labeling yourself: We all have that voice in the back of our head that repeats all sorts of nonconstructive information. If your voice is telling you things like “That’s just not ‘you;’” or “you’re just not the type to succeed at that goal” – it is essential that you learn and practice a more positive story about yourself.
- Don’t put your life on hold: Sure, it’s better to attend that big reunion, wedding, or other meaningful events when you are looking your best. But don’t make living life contingent upon fulfilling all of your goals. Keep striving toward achieving them, but enjoy your life in the meantime.
- Consider the timing: Be conscious of the timing in which you want to exercise more self-control. If certain times of year are more challenging (i.e., for many, the holidays are not the best time to initiate health and fitness plans), focus on a more reasonable period.
- Don’t beat yourself up for perceived failures and setbacks: As you are on your journey toward better control, there will be occasional setbacks. Do not conceive of them as failures that define your entire attempts at self-improvement. All of your hard work thus far is not defined by one set-back today. Forgive yourself and get back in the program.
- Identify your short- and long-term goals— and be specific: Simply stating “I’m going to be more disciplined in how I deal with my finances,” or “I’m going to become more fit,” won’t cut it. You need to write out the specific goals along the way, and to display such goals in a place where you will see them each day— like on a big piece of paper in on your kitchen wall.
- Choose goals that are right for you; don’t succumb to others’ expectations: How you achieve self-control benefits is dependent upon your personal goals, abilities, and motivation. Pick objectives that are meaningful to you.
- Aim for realistic goals: A sure way to fail at achieving self-control objectives is by choosing unattainable goals. If you’ve never run before, a marathon probably is not in your near future. Realistic goals are essential to success.
- Don’t overdo it: As you are enthusiastically plunging forward with your new self-control program, if you notice that it’s wearing you down or impeding other areas of your life, you may be overdoing it. It is important to check-in with yourself regularly to make sure all is on track.
- Self-monitor your progress: Self-monitoring means keeping a consistent record of your progress. Psychologists often include self-monitoring as part of intervention programs, not only as a way to collect data; but also because it is related to improved compliance with program objectives. How you monitor your progress is up to you (i.e., could be on your phone, your computer, or a piece of paper), the important thing is that you do it.
- Share your plan with a friend: By sharing your new self-control objectives with others, you will be more likely to stick with them.
- Seek help as needed: If your plan is proving exceedingly tricky because something is blocking or sabotaging your progress, it may be time to ask for help from a friend or professional.
- Be optimistic; picture your end goal: It seems obvious, but by always imagining yourself in a positive light and having an upbeat attitude, you will be more likely to succeed.
- Take breaks: Sometimes, a new self-discipline approach can become overwhelming and will cause the person to feel deprived. By giving yourself reasonable breaks (i.e., a person trying to lose weight may allow one day a week in which the demands are less stringent), you will be less likely to give up altogether.
- Practice self-care: While you may be doing great toward achieving your goals, remember to take care of yourself in other areas, so that you remain well-rounded and healthy.
- Don’t create new problems: Becoming more disciplined should not involve unreasonably expensive programs, foods, practitioners, classes, etc. For example, individuals attempting to achieve New Year’s resolutions may eat all sorts of unhealthy foods during the holidays, only to be followed by overly expensive healthy foods after the new year (Pope, Hanks, & Just et al., 2014).
- Reward yourself: Don’t forget to reward yourself along the way. Small, but meaningful, rewards help maintain motivation.
- Identify positive role models: As you venture toward your objective, be aware of individuals who either inspire or sabotage your efforts by their behaviors. Stick with the first group.
- Avoid distractions and temptations: Along with timing, efforts at self-control are enhanced when you are not subjected to conditions that interfere with your progress (i.e., a kitchen full of junk food will not help someone working toward healthy eating).
- Adjust goals, but only as necessary: If you are finding that your original goals were either too hard to be realistically met or not challenging enough, it’s okay to adjust them.
- Share your successes: As you find yourself doing well with your plan, share your progress with others who will be proud of you. This will enhance your self-esteem and continued motivation.
- Be IN for the long-haul: Remember, becoming more self-disciplined may be a new mindset for you; and mindsets can be difficult to change. Changing our behaviors and expectations is always challenging, and rewards take time to realize. But if you stick with it, while also framing your goals as lifestyle (as opposed to temporary) changes, you will be more likely to see results.
You must adopt the sort of lifestyle changes you can maintain for as long as you live. The same is true with any change you are prepared to initiate. This isn’t a sprint but a marathon.
Kottler, J. (2012, p. 15).
A Take-Home Message
While becoming more self-disciplined is not easy, it is manageable. After all, “emotional self-control is the result of hard work, not an inherent skill” (Travis Bradberry). This idea leads to some important takeaways:
- Research indicates that improving self-control is 100% worth it. There are a myriad of benefits of self-control that cover multiple domains of functioning (i.e., fitness, diet, risky behaviors, school and career success, happiness, etc.). Moreover, the benefits of self-control are evident among all age-groups.
- You do have control over your self-control— you were not born lacking in it, and thus you can change it.
- Along with intervention research indicating that self-control programs have shown effectiveness, there are many specific ways in which you can improve your efforts at achieving more self-control (i.e., realistic goals, appropriate timing, regular self-monitoring, and meaningful rewards— among many others).
- From a research standpoint, self-control is not exactly straightforward. Researchers need to investigate both further how self-control is measured and researched; while also addressing important moderators that affect its relationship to outcomes. In doing so, readers will better understand what is meant by ‘self-control’ and what can be done to increase it and reap the benefits.
Consumers have access to a vast amount of useful information when it comes to increasing self-control and realizing aspirations. If you, like so many of us, have a specific self-improvement goal in mind or would like to be more disciplined in general, you can do it. Once you gather as much information as possible and devise your strategy; be excited and positive about the future— for you are on your way toward a more disciplined and fulfilled life.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Self Compassion Exercises for free.
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