Learning To Take Control

In the last article, I described “self-control” and ended by noting that it can be learnt. I also made a case for ‘control’ being a valuable ability to have. Sometimes of course we want to let go and our creativity would benefit from freedom to think and behave without restraint. But there are many occasions across the day – whether at your desk, in your car, or in conversation with a colleague – that being able to inhibit yourself is important and could make the difference between success and failure.

So how do you go about developing better control? Well, as I mentioned, you can do so through ‘brain training’ (the aim here is to improve executive function- the ability of your brain to take top-down control over other brain functions and behaviour). But evidence, real evidence, only supports a few techniques to do this along with many many hours of practice (Jaeggi et al., 2011).

You can think of self-control as a balance between your default tendency and your executive control (your temptations or desires and your ability to ‘do the right thing’). “I really want to eat that chocolate biscuit but I am trying to reduce my fat intake.”  So to gain control, you can either work on your default tendencies or your executive control. What this means in practice is that you can either keep telling yourself to try harder (we all know that will-power is a fickle beast) or you can work with your habits and tendencies as we have discussed in the past.

A word of warning about your will-power. In a recent run of papers (ending in a book – see references),  Baumeister and colleagues have explored the way in which our ability to control ourselves waxes and wanes across the day. He argues that will-power is like a muscle: it needs developing through practice, and it requires energy to function. It also gets tired and fails. His experiments are intriguing and have far-reaching implications. There are many ways to test the strength of self-control. One task involves the participant responding as fast as possible to stimuli that appear on the screen (this response becomes the default tendency). Now-and-again a stimulus appears that the participant has been told to inhibit themselves to – they have to resist the temptation to make the default response and instead do nothing. You can do this task with food pictures and show that as people get more hungry they find it harder to inhibit their responses to the images! What Baumeister has shown is that you can tire the self-control system and hence induce errors. One example: If you have to be vigilant (perhaps paying careful attention to words on a screen) for a while and then carry out the inhibitory control task, your performance deteriorates. Basically, the self-control system has become fatigued and fails. That’s why after a long day in the office it is easy to lose your temper, or to fail to maintain your diet, or to decide not to go to the gym after all.

The main lesson here is to avoid self-control ‘situations’ when you are tired or have been concentrating for a long time. You can also use ‘pre-commitment’ strategies. If you know when you are most vulnerable then don’t put temptation in the way at those times. For example, schedule the difficult work and decisions when you know you will be fresh; don’t buy biscuits if you know that you’ll eat them if they are in the house; after checking your email first thing, turn it off so you are not tempted to keep flicking back to it. Pre-commitment allows the executive system to make the decisions ahead of time, so that the lazy temptation system can’t hijack your good intentions later.

In terms of working with the default system (lazy, desires, habits), you can use Implementation Intentions to create new ‘healthy’ habits (see the March Newsletter for several habit building techniques). These simple techniques help you to develop new defaults – they take some effort at first, but soon become automatic. Then you can worry less about keeping an eye on your default tendencies.

You can also focus on how you specify your goals. There are various ways people have focused on this – such as SMART goal setting (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound). Essentially, the more focused and developed your goal is, the more likely you are to achieve it. This is not rocket science, but people rarely do it! So for example, the second of these two statements is more likely to result in goal achievement:

1.  I am always being distracted when I am trying to work. I think that I spend too much time doing non-essential stuff. I am going to cut down on my email and Facebook checking during the day;

2.  I will check my email once in the morning at 9am and once in the afternoon at 2pm. Each time I will act on any emails that require less then 2 minutes attention. I will put the others into a ‘to do’ folder which I will then attend to on Tuesdays and Fridays between 9-10am. Otherwise, my email will be off.

In fact good goal-setting and Implementation Intentions work really well together.

Be more aware of when you get self-control system failure. Analyse why it happened. Take steps to prevent it recurring by supporting your executive system and working with, not against, your habits and defaults.

– Dr John –


Baumeister RF, Tierney J (2012) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Jonides J, and Shah P (2011) Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training. PNAS vol. 108 no. 25 10081-10086.

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