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Techniques Willpower > Self-Control

Deep urges | Higher goals | Inner systems | Benefits | No control | Desisting | Doing | See also


Willpower is first of all about self-control. If you cannot control yourself, then there is little hope to influence others. The most powerful leaders have an iron discipline within their own lives. They do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.

Self-control is...

Self-control is management of one's own behavior, in particular when the behavior is driven by subconscious urges that conflict with conscious goals. For this reason, self-control is sometimes called impulse control.

A classic test of self-control is how long a person can endure an uncomfortable situation, such as holding their hand in icy water. As the hand gets colder and less comfortable, the urge to pull it out mounts. People with 'normal' self-control are able to hold their hand in longer, typically for a minute or so.

Deep urges

A significant part of our inner system of motivation are deep urges that we have inherited from our evolutionary past. They pressure us into actions that perhaps we would rather not take.

This has led to a need for self-control where we know that simply giving in to these urges may give short-term gratification but which would damage us in the longer-term.

Higher goals

As well as the basic animal urges, we have higher goals that we consciously create by observing, experiencing and thinking about the world around us. Maslow's hierarchy of needs explains how we seek higher and higher goals until we become what we are capable of becoming.

In this way we set career goals, seek to be admired by others, want our children to succeed and so on. These goals are often set far out into the future, unlike the needs that are driven by more immediate urges which can easily damage our chances of achieving our higher goals.

Much self-control comes from these higher goals as we control short-term urges in order to achieve the longer-term goals. This can lead to an inner conflict between urges and higher goals.

We typically seek to suppress urges while driving ourselves on to do only those things that will achieve our goals, even if they are difficult or unpleasant. This is why students revise hard into the night and people take on jobs that they do not like as they seek to build their careers and support their families.

Inner systems

To help us manage urges, we also have inner systems of determination. In particular we have values, which contain social rules, and an aligned, conscience, which provides a counter-urge, pushing us to conform to the values. This uses effects such as cognitive dissonance to keep us on the the 'straight and narrow way'.

We also have a deep need for a sense of control, which drives us towards achieving self-control as well as control in the outer world. When we realize that we are out of control, this becomes very troublesome and we come to see that gaining control of our lives can best start with ourselves.

Some people have a greater ability control urges than others, although this can cause greater ego depletion as the person works hard to control themself.

Sigmund Freud identified three parts of our persona, each of which has a role in the urge-control struggle:

  • The id is driven by our urges and base desires. It seeks sensual pleasures and short-term gratification.
  • The super-ego is our conscience and counter-balances the urges of the id, pressuring us into good and socially acceptable ways of behaving.
  • The ego is conscious 'self' that makes decisions and has to choose between the negative and positive pressures of the id and the super-ego.

A critical decision that the ego has to make is the balance between short-term gratification and longer-term satisfaction. The manner in which we discount the future when making today's decisions has a significant impact on this.

Benefits of self-control

There are many reasons why gaining a better ability to control oneself is worth the effort that may be required. Galliot et al. (2007) note that self-control has been linked to a broad range of desirable outcomes, including:

  • Healthier interpersonal relationships
  • Greater popularity
  • Better mental health
  • More effective coping skills
  • Reduced aggression
  • Superior academic performance
  • Less susceptibility to drug and alcohol abuse, criminality, and eating disorders
  • Greater wealth

The correlation of self-control with wealth has been found in studies such as where it was discovered that poorer people are more likely to eat while food shopping, buy on impulse and eat unhealthy food.

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel offered preschoolers with the choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. In a review years later of how the adult subjects turned out, he found that those who waited were better adjusted with higher self-esteem and were better at handling stress. They were also less likely to abuse drugs, had better relationships, got higher degrees and earned more money.

No control

Sometimes we show little control and our lives run amok as we give in to urges and never seem to get anywhere near achieving (or even setting) life goals. Such people are called vapid, empty wastrels. Especially if they have clear talent, their lack of will to do anything with it seems such a shame.

Ways we avoid taking wilful control of our lives include:

  • Procrastination: Putting off things we should be doing.
  • Excusing: Giving reason for not doing the right thing.
  • Indulging: In excesses and little mores.
  • Escaping: Running away from responsibility.
  • Coping: Dysfunctional ways such as denial and displacement.
  • Lying: To ourselves and others.


Desisting means stopping or never doing something. When we are driven to a particular action then we know that we should really say 'no' to ourselves. From punching the boss to smoking a cigarette, there is much in life we know we should not do.

The first step to desisting is in noticing the urge before the action takes place. The next step is to stop the action.

Ways of desisting include:


The opposite of desisting is in making yourself do something that you do not feel motivated to do. When you know you should get up early and go for a run, the warmth of the bed can easily make you think 'next time'.

Ways of doing include:

See also

Self-development, Cognitive Dissonance, Urges


Gailliot, M.T,. Baumeister, R.F., DeWall, C.N., Maner, J.K., Plant, E.A., Tice, D.M., Brewer, L.E. and Schmeichel, B.J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 2, 325-336


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