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Is Self-Control Overrated? (And Will It Help You Keep Those New Year's Resolutions?)

With a large volume of research showing that self-control is a limited resource -- one that can be depleted as quickly as the money in your bank account -- is it worth the effort it takes to achieve self-mastery?
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Lack of self-control has been blamed for many of society's ills, from addiction and crime to obesity and debt. But with a large volume of research showing that self-control is a limited resource -- one that can be depleted as quickly as the money in your bank account -- is it worth the effort it takes to achieve self-mastery? If you don't have a solid reserve in place by early adulthood, is self-control a hopeless pursuit? Is self-control really the skill that will help you keep this year's annual resolution to lose weight, quit smoking, or break some other tough habit?

An Addict Can't "Just Stop"

If you know someone who has struggled with addiction, chances are you have wondered, "Why don't you just stop?" We know that addiction is a disease, not a matter of willpower. And though self-control by itself cannot prevent or cure addiction, it does play a role in the evolution of the disease.

Once addicted, changes in the reward, motivation, decision-making and memory centers of the brain leave addicts with little capacity for self-control. But research shows self-control is impaired long before that. One study found that both addicted and non-addicted siblings inherit abnormalities in areas of the brain responsible for self-control. In other words, certain people are biologically-predisposed to addiction, and these deficits in self-control are exacerbated by the effects of drugs.

Why Self-Control Matters

Described by psychologist Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., as our "greatest human strength,"self-control is a powerful predictor of academic achievement (even more so than intelligence) as well as career and relationship success. It also serves a protective function in delaying substance use and reducing high-risk drinking among youth.

The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment of the 1970s, which challenged young children to resist grabbing one marshmallow for 15 minutes in order to get two marshmallows, was among the first to demonstrate the link between self-control and positive life outcomes. Decades later, a New Zealand study similarly found that children with high levels of self-control have better health as adults and are less likely to abuse drugs, drop out of school, or have financial problems, a criminal record or an unplanned pregnancy.

How Self-Control Works

For the past decade, science has subscribed to the "resource model" of self-control, first proposed by Dr. Baumeister, which tells us that self-control is a limited resource. Use it all up passing up your morning doughnut and you may be at risk for bigger indulgences later in the day.

In recent years,a new science of self-control has emerged. Research now suggests that self-control is determined by attention and motivation rather than an exhaustible supply. In studies, people's ability to control themselves has depended on many factors, including incentives, perception of difficulty, feedback from others, changes in mood and personal beliefs about willpower. So if we pass up one treat and then give into a craving for another, it's not because we ran out of self-control. Rather, our motivation changed and we chose to pay more attention to our desire for a treat than the threat of weight gain.

Achieving Self-Mastery at Any Age

Even if self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted in the short term, over the long term it acts like a muscle: Feed it and it will grow. Whether you're a parent working to raise a healthy, drug-free child or a recovering addict fighting the urge to use, self-control can be cultivated at any stage of life. Here's how:

Practice Resisting Impulses. While avoiding temptation is an obvious tactic (as when an addict avoids the people, places and things that trigger the desire to use), there are also ways to practice self-control by facing urges head on. Verbal reminders and healthy distractions such as exercise, journaling or picking up a hobby have all proven effective in building self-control. Studies have shown that something as simple as breaking a habit (e.g., challenging yourself to stop using profanity or improve your posture for a couple weeks) can tone the self-control muscle and increase willpower in other areas of your life.

Think Big. In one study, abstract thinking was tied to improved self-control. When you think about things in broader terms, you're likely to make a better choice. To a curious teen, experimenting with drugs may sound enticing, irresistible even, in the present moment. But if they consider the bigger picture -- the hangover, the embarrassing behavior, the threat of addiction -- they may decide to refrain.

Relax. When you get worn down from managing emotions and making tough decisions, your self-control muscle needs some TLC. Some surprising activities can restore depleted willpower, such as watching television and smoking cigarettes. Fortunately, there are healthier ways to relax, such as exercise, reading and playing sports, which can be just as effective.

Eat Regular Meals. Studies have shown that you can't exercise self-control without energy (measured by blood glucose levels). While you don't need to consume a bunch of sugar to exert self-control, eating small, frequent meals may help refuel depleted willpower stores.

Make a Back-Up Plan. To help ensure that you practice self-control in weak moments, create a plan before temptation arises. For example, a recovering addict might go to a party knowing in advance, "If anyone is drinking, then I'll leave."

Pursue One Goal at a Time. To avoid overloading your self-control reserves, focus on one goal at a time. First tackle your smoking habit, then work on your diet or exercise routine. Once one habit has changed, you free up the willpower to accomplish the next goal.

Choose Your Friends Wisely. Just as having friends who use drugs or overeat increases your chances of doing the same, having friends with strong self-control influences your ability to exercise restraint in various areas of your life, according to one study.

Wouldn't it be convenient if self-control were overrated, freeing us to give in to our every impulse? As it turns out, mastering our urges is a worthwhile endeavor. And with so many things you can't change about yourself, including your genes, personality and intelligence, it's a relief to know that your ability to manage yourself is well within your control.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes the Promises Malibu rehab centers, The Recovery Place, and The Ranch.

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