How to Gain Self Control?

Will she give in to temptation?

I know there are people who actually think that we have collectively lost our willpower and self-discipline during the last decades. The reason that is usually offered is that life is too easy these days: we have grown soft and gained boatloads of weight! I disagree, but I think there’s a grain of truth to it.

But let’s put my philosophizing aside and concentrate on how to gain self control.


I have been thinking about self control a lot lately, because I’ve been reading Kelly McGonigal’s book Willpower Instinct. (It’s an excellent book – one that everyone should read.)

It’s a captivating read because it helps you to better understand your behaviour, but at the same time it teaches you things about self control and willpower you didn’t know. (In my opinion, that’s an ideal combination in a book).

According to Kelly McGonigal, self control is an instinct just like the fight-or-flight instinct (aka stress response) we are more familiar with. Instead of running away from a saber tooth tiger or consuming a piece of chocolate cake, it makes us pause and plan before we act.

Our willpower instinct is called on when we have an internal conflict – usually between something that would give us an immediate reward (like a piece of chocolate) and a long-term goal (like losing weight). How likely we are to resist temptation depends on our physiological state –whether we are in a state of calm or stressed out. Stress is the #1 enemy of self control, because stress response inhibits the functioning of prefrontal cortex.

I was really intrigued to find out that there actually is a physiological measure – heart-rate variability – that is a good measure of our capacity for self control. In Kelly McGonigal’s words:

For example, recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability goes up when they se a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics who show the opposite response – their heart rate variability drops when they see a drink – have greater risk of relapse.

The key to gaining more self control is to do whatever needs to be done to keep our heart rate variability high (i.e. in a state of calm instead of stress).

How to gain self-control – four practical tips

Here are four tips from the book that can help you improve your self-control. They tips are all pretty easy to put into action too.

  1. Practice mediation:  Practice meditation for 10-20 minutes per day, focusing on the sensations of your breath. Every time your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. (Brining your wandering mind back again and again is the point of this exercise).
  2. Breath slow: Breathing slowly increases the heart-rate variability and brings you back to the state of calm. Try slowing your breath for 4-6 breaths a minute (don’t hold your breath though).
  3. Take short exercise breaks: Even better news is that short bursts of exercise help more than long ones, especially if you do them outdoors. I love this tip because it’s easy to take a short 5-minute exercise break even during a workday.
  4. Take on a small willpower challenge: Committing to some small, consistent act of self-control increases your general willpower. The small commitments can be things like straightening your posture every time you notice yourself slumping, saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah’, stopping swearing, opening doors with the non-dominant hand etc.

I was excited when  I realized the Kaizen challenge I talked about in breaking bad habits is an excellent way to train my willpower muscle. Yay! 🙂


I’ve been so impressed with McGonigal’s book that I’ve started meditating or slowing my breath for 10 minutes every day. I used to meditate regularly years ago, but I gave up the habit at some point because it felt so pointless.

I reasoned that if meditation and slowing your breath will help with self control, I’m ready to give 10 minutes of my day to it. I don’t want to be a willpower wimp for the rest of my life – one that fails to reach important goals in life because of a lack of willpower.

I don’t think I’ve transformed into a willpower ninja quite yet, but maybe in a year… 🙂


Use the comment section to tell me when your willpower caves in….


  1. Sounds great Satu! My old weightloss program leader used to talk about flexing and strengthening your willpower muscle!

    I’m hoping that my 30 day challenge falls into the fourth point – a small challenge to build up to bigger and better ones!!!

    Thanks for always sharing such great ‘finds’.


    • Satu says:

      I will probably be buried with some book…. Can’t help writing about the books I read.

  2. Aimee says:

    My willpower is the weakest around food. It often seems that one bite leads to disaster. The changing point for me was when I stopped trying to fix the problem all at once. Instead I started taking it one step at a time. Instead of giving up snacking all together I figured out better things to snack on. I try to plan ahead so I’m not “tempted” by foods I know I will overeat like desserts or pizza. Last night we went out to dinner and I was able to find the nutritional information online beforehand. I already knew exactly what I was going to order. Of all things I was most excited about the bread roll which is warm and soft. Last night was probably the first time I didn’t even eat it. I saved it for last with the idea that I would savor it. Well after eating my soup, salad and shrimp I wasn’t hungry for the bread. I gave it to my husband instead. That was a huge moment for me.

    But as I always say I’m a work in progress. I think meditation and breathing exercises are so good for the soul. I wish I could say I practiced them both, but I don’t…yet. I do see how they could be useful in achieving better control over my willpower.

    Thanks for sharing this Satu. Very interesting, particularly the heart rate variability.

    • Satu says:

      HI Aimee! That was an interesting and encouraging experience. I’m still pretty rigid with my food habits – if I splurge I tend to eat the same things/amounts without paying attention to what I would really like to had. Then I realize it wasn’t that satisfying.

      You’re a runner, so I suspect your heart rate variablity is already pretty good! 🙂

  3. Marion says:

    Hi Satu! I think that my self-control goes down the toilet when I’m very mentally or physically tired. My best idea to keep self-control is to have days where I get away from heavy thinking and times where naps are more important than anything else.

    I’ve heard that meditation will actually save a person time because it helps a person function more effectively. When I just sit outside doing nothing, I feel a lot better within 20 minutes. So that makes me think that meditation would work.

    Sometimes, I think that it’s great to have no self-control for a while. I had years of my life where I ran myself ragged with self-control and I wasn’t very happy. I’ve learned to let the housecleaning go, sometimes, for the sake of relaxing. So there still needs to be a balance, I guess.

    Re: My presentation at TOPS on Tuesday, I’ve changed my mind a bunch of times. I guess I didn’t realize how marvelous it is to have little presentations on my blog as often as I like. I don’t have to pick so carefully. If I don’t say something one day, I can say it in the future. 😀

    🙂 Marion

    • Satu says:

      Great comment, Marion! I ended writing a post about it. 🙂

  4. Nowadays, there are so many temptations and distractions that grab one’s attention and interest, and there isn’t enough resistance, mostly, because these temptations and distractions are pleasant. There are smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, TV programs, entertainment, restaurants, etc, and people find it difficult to reject some of them, so they can do something better and more satisfying in the long run.

    Greater success requires rejection of immediate pleasure.

    Both willpower and self discipline are required for accomplishing any goal, and they are not so difficult to develop. There are simple exercises one can do, which will strengthen these inner powers.

    Step 4 in your article, “Take a small willpower challenge”, is a great way to develop willpower. I have written an article about this subject, with a few simple exercises at

  5. Kate says:

    I think step number four to strengthen will power is the most important. Practice makes perfect. I know for me that the more I exercise self control, the easier it becomes to resist temptation.

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