Every day we deal with distractions, struggle to concentrate, and do our best not to procrastinate.
Whether we’re trying to study for a test, lose weight, kick a bad habit, or work toward a future goal, willpower always plays a part.
So why do some people ‘stick at it’ so much better than others? What’s their secret, and how can you learn to cultivate more self-discipline?
This article covers Self-Discipline Theory and the evolution of the concept, to answer some of your most common questions about willpower.
Keep reading to learn more about the techniques, skills, and activities that can help you build better self-discipline and take more control of your everyday life.
This article contains:
- What is Self-Discipline Theory?
- Common Questions around Self-Discipline
- 4 Important Techniques and Skills We Should Know
- A Look at Self-Discipline in Kids
- 5 Ideas for Building Self-Discipline in Children
- 5 Exercises, Activities, and Worksheets Designed to Improve Self-Discipline
- 3 Tests and Questionnaires
- A Take-Home Message
What is Self-Discipline Theory?
What is self-discipline, and how does it work? Many of us feel like we don’t have enough of it, or want to improve it, but can we develop it? Let’s start with a definition of self-discipline and look a little closer at the theory behind it.
In the psychological literature, self-discipline often goes by self-control or willpower: “effortful regulation of the self by the self” (Duckworth, 2011, p.2639). We’ll be using the terms interchangeably in this article.
It is also defined as: “the ability to suppress prepotent responses in the service of a higher goal…and that such a choice is not automatic but rather requires conscious effort.” (Duckworth & Seligman, 2006, p.199).
The APA provides a nice overview of a few key self-discipline characteristics that have been used by psychologists in the literature. It involves (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Tagney et al., 2004; Moffitt et al., 2011):
- The ability to quash an impulsive response that undoes our commitment;
- The capacity to delay gratification, holding out against short-term temptations so we can meet longer-term goals; and
- The ability to use “cool” rather than a “hot” emotional system of behavior.
There are numerous different theories about how self-discipline works and how we can tap into it to accomplish our goals.
One of the most well-supported willpower theories concerns ego depletion: the idea that willpower is limited, that we rely on a finite reservoir of mental resources to resist temptation (Baumeister et al., 1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Gino et al., 2011).
According to this theory, we use willpower daily to resist urges and push ourselves, until those resources dwindle or run out.
Say we’ve stopped ourselves from telling off a co-worker, chosen fruit over chocolate at 3 pm, and held back from the bread rolls before dinner – this theory would view such acts as depleting events. At the end of it, we theoretically have fewer mental resources to resist continued urges. We might then skip the gym in our ‘weakened state’ or take a cab home instead of walking.
Support for Ego Depletion Theory
Early empirical support for ego depletion theory included the famous ‘cookie’ experiment conducted by social psychologist Baumeister and colleagues (1998). In this study, participants were asked to choose between snacking on cookies or radishes – guess which one required more willpower?
Afterward, they were given a puzzle to solve – an unsolvable puzzle, but they didn’t know it – to observe which group of participants would persevere longer. As the researchers predicted, those who had snacked on cookies persisted 11 minutes longer than those who had resisted them.
Some interesting – but now disproven – extensions on this theory included the idea that willpower was related to our body’s glucose supply. The original idea being that when sugar levels dropped, so did our self-discipline (Donohoe & Benton, 1999; 2000; Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007).
Evidence to the Contrary
Since the early ‘90s, researchers have presented other findings that question the validity of Baumeister and colleagues’ ego-depletion theory. Rather than relying on a finite supply of willpower, there is evidence that our attitudes and beliefs may have a moderating influence on our self-discipline (Muraven & Slessareva, 2003; Muraven et al., 2008; Job et al., 2013).
This includes findings from Muraven & Slessareva (2003), which showed that ‘depleted’ participants could compensate for lower self-control resources through higher motivation – even performing as well as non-depleted participants with high motivation.
And as the authors so aptly describe, this “can help explain why, when depleted, people may lose control of their appetites but not their temper” (Muraven &Slessareva, 2003, p.906).
Another study in this same direction comes from Mindset researcher Carol Dweck and colleagues Job, Walton, and Bernecker (2013). This study demonstrated that participants who believed self-control was plentiful and unlimited had high willpower performance, both with and without glucose boosts. Participants who believed in finite and easily depletable willpower, however, performed poorly on experimental tasks as the demands on their self-control grew.
In a nutshell, then, and as Muraven and Slessareva argue, scientific evidence suggests that both motivation and self-control resources are essential components of self-control (Muraven & Slessareva, 2003).
Common Questions around Self-Discipline
After “What is self-discipline?” the most popular questions people ask are probably:
- Why does it matter? and
- How can I improve it?
Here’s what the research says:
Importance of Self-Discipline
Willpower helps us resist short-term urges and impulses to pursue longer-term goals. If you’re saving for a car, for instance, practicing self-control about impulse purchases will improve your chances – maybe even get you there faster.
Walter Mischel’s early marshmallow experiment was one of the first studies into delayed gratification, and it gave rise to a surge of later studies linking self-discipline with success (Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970).
In a nutshell, it appears that self-discipline – or delay gratification, at least – is not as straightforward as it seems. There is evidence suggesting that low or high self-control in childhood can have influences on our choices and behaviors in later life, but that our beliefs regarding the environment can play a big role too.
Given that our capacity for self-control can be improved, then, how can we build more self-discipline in children?
A couple of decades later, researchers followed up with the students to find that those who could delay gratification had comparatively better academic performance and higher educational achievements than those who didn’t (Shoda et al., 1990).
This corresponds with later findings that have shown self-control to have a more significant positive impact on academic success than cognitive intelligence, and that pupils with more self-discipline had better grades, school attendance, and test results (Duckworth & Seligman, 2006).
Logically, it makes sense in a way – but that’s not the only important role of self-discipline. Among other things, research findings also point to the parts that self-control can play in:
- Reduced risk of obesity – due in part to higher impulse control and the ability to delay gratification (Tsukayama et al., 2010);
- Better muscular and aerobic fitness (Kinnunen et al., 2012);
- Lower likelihood of engaging in risky or criminal behaviors (King et al., 2011; Ford & Blumenstein, 2012); and
- Greater occupational and career achievement in terms of income and job satisfaction (Converse et al., 2014).
So, what about the second question – how can we develop more self-control? In the next section, we’ll look at some techniques that may be helpful.
4 Important Techniques and Skills We Should Know
1. Develop Your Self-Awareness
How many temptations do you think you resist every day?
It’s impossible to know because most of our decisions are unconscious. By becoming more attuned to when, where, and how we exercise self-control, we can start to manage our behavior a little better.
For example, have you ever gone to the supermarket when you’re really hungry? If so, chances are you made a few more impulse buys than you would have if you’d gone on a full stomach. There are many benefits of self-awareness. Being aware of what we do, when we’re doing it, is the first step to making better decisions and resisting those that don’t help us over the long-term.
As a start, we can try to recognize and avoid temptation – either by steering clear of it or distracting ourselves from it (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999).
2. Believe in Willpower
As Dweck and colleagues illustrated, the beliefs that we hold about willpower can affect our ability to practice self-control (Job et al., 2010).
By viewing self-discipline as an unlimited resource, the participants in their experiment were able to exercise the same degree of willpower after a ‘depleting’ task as before it, demonstrating the impact our beliefs can have on our actions.
It suggests that you and I can do the same. That choosing not to view self-control as a depletable resource might give us some of the motivation we need to overcome – at least mild cases of – ego depletion (Vohs et al., 2012).
3. Regular Physical Exercise
You can also enhance your capacity for self-control by merely practicing it. In a 2006 study, Oaten and Cheng demonstrated that students who engaged in a 2-month exercise program showed significantly enhanced self-regulation behaviors. Through regular physical exercise – which in itself involved repeated acts of willpower – participants outperformed the non-exercise group on self-regulatory visual tracking tasks.
They also reported positive increases and improvements in other domains related to self-discipline: emotional control, spending, study habits, attendance to commitments, healthy eating, and household chores. At the same time, they reported significant reductions in perceived stress and unhealthy habits, such as smoking and caffeine consumption (Oaten & Cheng, 2006).
4. Intention Implementation
Practicing the implementation intention technique can help you improve your self-control, work toward breaking bad habits, and change unwanted behavior (Gollwitzer, 1999). The method involves creating an “if-then” plan that specifies when, where, and how you’ll act to achieve a goal.
Implementation intention has been shown to increase the likelihood of goal achievement by helping us bridge the gap between our goal intentions and our behaviors (Gollwitzer & Brandstaetter, 1997). By identifying and committing to concrete goals, then specifying the precise goal-directed behaviors we’ll engage in, we help to make this behavior more automatic when the time comes around.
In the next section, we’ve given you an introduction to an Intention Implementation exercise.
A Look at Self-Discipline in Kids
We’ve heard of Mischel’s Marshmallow Study (if you haven’t, read our delayed gratification article), but what else do we know about self-discipline in kids?
Here’s an overview of some key research findings to date (Makin, 2013):
- In 1972, the influential Marshmallow Study demonstrates that kids waited an average of 6 minutes before eating a marshmallow that was placed in front of them, despite being told that they could have two marshmallows for waiting 15 minutes. Kids who delayed gratification for longer did so by either hiding the marshmallow or distracting themselves.
- Almost a decade later, a similar experiment is carried out on pigeons by researchers Grosch and Neuringer (1981). pigeons who could distract themselves during the waiting period were more likely to exercise self-control (waiting for a preferred food vs. instantly eating an inferior one) – so, it’s not just human kids (Vandervelt et al., 2016).
- Close to sixteen years after the Marshmallow Study, the delay gratification children from the experiment are shown to have better academic success, SAT scores, and social and emotional competence than those who showed low self-discipline (Shoda et al., 1990).
- In 2005, researchers suggested children don’t understand the impact of conflicting mental states on their behavior until they are at least seven years old (Choe et al., 2005). They propose that maybe, it’s because they can only observe behavior that corresponds to one of our desires (Wellman, 1990).
- In 2009, it showed that children’s ability to delay gratification at four years old had been linked to their obesity risk at eleven years old (Seeyave et al., 2009).
- Mischel and colleagues’ brain imaging research looks at the original Marshmallow Study participants in middle-age, to show that prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum activity differ between high- and low-delayers facing temptation (Casey et al., 2011).
- 2012 research finds that kid’s ability to demonstrate self-discipline is moderated by their beliefs about the environment. More specifically, children who believed their environments were unreliable waited significantly less time to succumb to gratification than those who thought the environment was reliable (Kidd et al., 2012).
- In 2016, Daly and colleagues found that kids with low self-control during childhood are more likely to smoke throughout adulthood; over half of this relationship was attributed to adolescent smoking (Daly et al., 2016).
In a nutshell, it appears that self-discipline – or delay gratification, at least – is not as straightforward as it seems. There is evidence suggesting that low or high self-control in childhood can have influences on our choices and behaviors in later life, but that our beliefs regarding the environment can play a significant role, too.
Given that our capacity for self-control can be improved, then, how can we build more self-discipline in children?
5 Ideas for Building Self-Discipline in Children
Mischel and Metcalfe’s (1999) ‘Hot and Cool’ System understanding of self-control can help us understand how to help kids improve their self-control.
According to this framework, self-discipline is viewed more as emotional self-regulation than simple delay gratification.
It suggests that we have two processing systems:
- A ‘cool’ and rational cognitive system – this helps us make more strategic, objective, and thoughtful decisions, and it underpins self-regulation or self-control.
- A ‘hot’ and impulsive, emotional system that undermines the former.
Using this paradigm, building self-control is about helping kids develop their capacity to use ‘cool’ processes. Here are a few ideas:
1. Build Trust
A trusting environment is viewed as – you guessed it – more reliable (Kidd et al., 2012).
Think of a homeless child who is asked by an unfamiliar experimenter to hold off eating a hot meal, versus a daughter whose mom asks them to wait. The former, accustomed to a shifting environment where their food could be stolen, is less likely to hold off eating than the latter.
The role of trust in self-discipline has also been examined by Michaelson and colleagues (2013), who found that participants were more likely to choose hypothetical immediate, smaller rewards from character vignettes they considered low in trustworthiness.
2. Encourage Children to Practice
Delay gratification and ‘cool system’ activation has been linked to higher right prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity – and we can strengthen this brain area through repeated practice (Casey et al., 2011). Within reason, we can give kids the chance to practice delay gratification, exercise their PFC’s neural pathways, and enhance their capacity for self-discipline.
3. Provide Motivation
As we’ve seen in studies, motivation plays a significant role in self-control. Muraven and Slessareva’s (2003) participants were more likely to persist at a task when they believed doing so would help others, or when they were told they’d be paid.
Providing the right motivation for children can be one way to make willpower exertion a voluntary choice, rather than a chore.
You might encourage them with praise and recognition while helping them see the benefits of self-discipline through empathy: “I understand that you’re not tired now, and I’ve been there before. But I have gone to bed early before many times, and the next day I always feel energetic for the picnic!”
4. Role Model Good Behaviors
Show your child how to manage their ‘hot’ processing systems by demonstrating good behavior. If you lose your temper every time someone cuts in front of you on the road, they are more likely to learn that this kind of response is okay.
Visibly practicing soothing and calming positive self-talk can help them pick up techniques and skills that they can take away and apply by themselves later (Meichenbaum & Goodman, 1971).
5. Reward Desired Behaviors
Positive reinforcement is also a good way to encourage acts of self-control, and rewards can be good incentives for new adaptive behaviors. Think about how you might reinforce kids with attractive rewards such as staying up five minutes longer, computer time, or stickers – use this set of Kid’s Reward Coupons to help!
5 Exercises, Activities, and Worksheets to Improve Self-Discipline
Try some of our favorite Toolkit exercises to build better self-discipline, or give them to your clients to take home and practice.
1. Increasing Self-Control through Repeated Practice
Research has demonstrated that, on average, we resist two impulses out of every five that we face daily (Muraven et al., 1999) – in other words, we spend more than half our waking hours trying to resist our urges and impulses. When we don’t resist them, statistics suggest that we act on up to 70% of those desires; but when we do resist, we can decrease that figure to as little as 17%.
By practicing self-control, we can build up our willpower just as we build up fitness by exercising. To cite Muraven and colleagues’ figures, we can improve our self-discipline through as little as two weeks of consistent practice. So, here’s a worksheet that helps you take it step by step, by performing small acts of self-control in your everyday life.
Click here to get this exercise from our Positive Psychology Toolkit.
2. Red Light – Anger!
Here’s an exercise that parents and teachers can use with children who find it tough to control their anger. It gives a small description of how anger starts small and grows to become bigger – often harder to control. Kids are invited to draw how they think their anger looks in both scenarios.
The final page shows a bright red “Stop” signal. The instructions ask the child to think of the warning signs that indicate their anger is growing.
These help them understand when to pause and practice self-control before the situation gets out of hand – then they can write their anger stop signs in the boxes. Examples include “I start to sweat,” “I want to throw something,” and “My voice gets louder.”
Download this free Red Light: Anger! worksheet.
3. Implementation Intentions
As discussed, implementation intentions (“if-then” approaches to planning) can be a concrete and effective method for connecting your behaviors to desired outcomes. In other words, they bridge the gap between intentions and actions, leaving us with more mental resources for avoiding distractions and competing goals (Gollwitzer, 1999; Achtziger et al., 2008).
Use this exercise to learn more about the theory behind “if-then” statements, then clarify what you want to achieve – your intention. As you follow the steps, you’ll plan when, where, and how you’ll start acting toward your goal, as well as how you’ll overcome obstacles: “If X happens, then I will do Y.”
Get the Implementations Intentions worksheet.
4. Self-Control Spotting
In this kid’s exercise, children can read and think about some examples of self-discipline and its opposite. There are eight boxes at the bottom of the page for kids to cut out, including examples like:
“You feel sad, so you write in your diary,” “You feel upset, so you scream out loud,” and “You feel angry, so you shout at your friend.”
Above this, there’s a larger table with two columns: “This is Self-Control,” and “This is NOT Self-Control.” Kids are prompted to cut out the examples and place them where they feel they belong in the two columns. It’s designed to help children build self-awareness about how self-discipline looks and feels, so they can start to improve their own capacity.
Here’s a link to the Self-Control Spotting worksheet.
5. The Spheres of Personal Control
If we believe that our capacity for self-control is unlimited, we can motivate ourselves to practice more willpower even when our mental resources are depleted. But that doesn’t warrant wasting time and energy trying to control factors that we can’t, such as natural disasters or another person’s behavior – this can end up having detrimental effects on our mental health (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
Here is a tool that works by helping you cultivate more self-awareness about what lies outside your sphere of personal control so that you can apply your mental resources more strategically and thoughtfully.
First, you’ll think of a valued goal you want to achieve, and the desired outcomes of accomplishing it. Then, you’ll identify the actions you need to take to achieve it, before distinguishing between those that you can and cannot control.
The PDF includes more on the research and theory behind this exercise, as well as tables to fill in and examples to guide you. Here you can access the Spheres of Personal Control.
3 Tests and Questionnaires
Besides waiting around for marshmallows, how can we measure self-control? There are almost as many measures of the concepts as there are definitions for it, but they can be thought of as falling into a few categories (Duckworth & Kern, 2011):
- Executive function tasks assess the ability to exercise top-down control over lower-level cognitive processes (Willians & Thayer, 2009). Examples include Stroop Tasks, Set Switching Tasks, and Continuous Performance Tasks.
- Delayed Gratification tasks are exactly what they sound like, and this category includes Hypothetical Choice Delay Tasks (cf. Michaelson et al., 2013), Real Choice Tasks (like the Marshmallow Test), and Sustained Delay Tasks (cf. Grosch & Neuringer, 1981).
- Self- and Informant-report Personality Questionnaires – these include standalone assessments and measures featuring multiple subscales.
If you’d like to look more into the latter – which you can often do yourself – have a look into some of the examples below (Duckworth & Kern, 2011).
1. The Tangney Self-Control Scale (SCS)
Developed by Tangney and colleagues (2004), the SCS is a 36-item measure that uses a 5-point scale. It assesses five dimensions: a general capacity for self-discipline, healthy habits, deliberate/non-impulsive action, reliability, and work ethics (Unger et al., 2016).
Example items include:
- Sometimes I can’t stop myself from doing something, even if I know it is wrong (Reversed item);
- I have worked or studied all night at the last minute (Reversed item);
- People can count on me to keep on schedule;
- I am good at resisting temptation; and
- I do certain things that are bad for me if they are fun (Reversed item).
2. The Eysenck I7 Impulsiveness Scale
This measure features items about impulsively doing and saying things so that it can be seen as a somewhat narrow measure of self-control (Eysenck et al., 1984; Duckworth & Kern, 2011).
Nonetheless, it’s a hefty instrument that includes 77 Yes/No questions.
- Do you sometimes put down the first answer that comes into your head during a test and forget to check it later?
- When you watch a favorite TV program, can you feel with the hero or heroine when they are sad, happy, or angry?
- At a fairground, would you prefer to play darts and see sideshows to going on the big dipper and the dodgem cars?
- Do you get so “carried away” by new and exciting ideas, that you never think of possible snags?
- Would you prefer an unexpected outing to one you have looked forward to for a while?
3. Barratt Impulsiveness Scale Version 11 (BIS-11)
This is a multi-scale instrument incorporating items that measure non-planning, cognitive, and motor impulsiveness (Barrat, 1985). Developed as a “multifaceted” assessment of trait impulsivity, it has been widely used in the field for over 50 years.
The 30-item BIS-11 measures six correlated components: attention, cognitive instability, motor impulsiveness, perseverance, cognitive complexity, and self-control. Sample items include the following (where 1 = Rarely/Never, 2 = Occasionally, 3 = Often, and 4 = Almost Always/Always):
- I am restless at the theater or lectures;
- I often have extraneous thoughts when thinking;
- I spend or charge more than I earn;
- I can think only about one thing at a time;
- I say things without thinking; and
- I am more interested in the present than in the future.
A Take-Home Message
Temptation is everywhere, but by practicing our self-control, we can learn to strengthen it. Self-awareness, motivation, the right mindset, and greater willpower can all help us build better self-discipline, which in turn can have potential benefits for our success and long-term goals.
Have you had any struggles with willpower today? How did you manage? How about strategies for success, can you share any with us? Try some of the exercises, techniques, and approaches we’ve shared today, then let us know how you go. Share your experiences in the comments!
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