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The Power of Self-Control: How to Overcome Temptation

Do you struggle with effective self-control? Do you find yourself giving in to uncontrollable desires more often than you would like? If so, you're not alone. Many people experience the challenge of overcoming tempting situations and staying on track with their goals.

But here's the good news: according to psychologist Walter Mischel, the author of "The Marshmallow Test", mastering self-control is not an innate quality, but a skill that can be developed and strengthened. This article will outline key practical strategies for overcoming temptation and developing positive habits to improve impulse control.

Whether you struggle with sticking to a healthy diet, resisting unnecessary purchases, avoiding procrastination, achieving academic success or simply teaching your children the power of self-control, the principles and techniques shared here will help you take control of your impulses and reach your long-term goals.

Why is it So Difficult to Say No?

The Elephant and The Rider Concept

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduced a useful analogy for behavior change. He describes our emotional side as "the Elephant" and our analytical, rational side as "its Rider".

"The Rider" is responsible for making decisions that require self-control, such as choosing a healthy meal or prioritizing good sleep habits. "The Elephant", being impulsive and irrational, often ends up engaging in reckless actions and wins the battle between the two.

One of the reasons why "the Elephant" tends to overpower the rider is because it is heavily biased toward immediate rewards. It is inclined to seek instant pleasure and discounts the benefits that come with delayed rewards. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as "future discounting."

To regain control and resist the allure of immediate rewards, psychologist Walter Mischel et al. observed in their research that by mentally transforming the immediate temptation into something abstract and psychologically distant, people were able to exercise better self-control and wait longer for larger rewards.

The Game-Changing Principle: "Cool the Now, Heat the Later"

A child thinking

Regardless of how old you are, the core principle of self-control remains the same. It's all about finding a balance between cooling the "now" and heating the "later." This means distancing yourself from immediate temptations and bringing the long-term consequences closer to your mind.

This is a powerful principle that has proven effective in managing uncontrollable cravings for both tobacco and food. By focusing on the future and the potential unwanted consequences of your actions, such as the complications related to weight gain or the risk of lung cancer, you can reduce the intensity of damaging desires.

Implementing this method can sometimes be challenging. Our brain is very good at rationalizing and justifying any willpower depletion, making it difficult to fully commit to this approach.

Fortunately, there are three powerful techniques to help you stay on track and make self-control a little easier in difficult situations.

1. How to Boost Self-Control with "If-Then" Planning

Whether you're studying for an exam or trying to control your own behavior, preparation can make all the difference. By creating an implementation intention through the "If-Then" method, one can train their mind to respond in a more controlled manner.

For example, "If I see a cookie, then I will have a cup of tea instead" or "if I want to smoke a cigarette, then I will go for a short walk instead". The more frequently you practice and rehearse these plans, the more effortless they become, allowing us to maintain control without exerting excessive effort.

The first step in creating a successful "If-Then" plan starts with becoming aware of what triggers your impulsive reactions. Keeping a journal can be a helpful tool in tracking these moments and recognizing patterns, much like monitoring stress reactions. By identifying your specific triggers, you can then create and implement "If-Then" strategies that will help you to change how you respond to them.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to making a change is actually sticking to it over time. This is true for a variety of efforts, whether it's trying to limit caloric intake, engage in more physical activity or quit smoking. One has to be truly motivated to stay on track and according to some experts, willpower is a limited resource. However, consistent practice helps the change become a habit. As we start to see the positive outcomes the new behavior brings, it becomes easier to sustain and it changes into something we value, rather than a burden.

It's also important to acknowledge that we are real people and slip-ups can happen. In such cases, the best approach is to let it go and then get back to our routine, without dwelling on the setback.

2. Change Your Perspective to Change Your Behavior

Psychologists call this "Cognitive Reappraisal." This technique is a key part of cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of therapy that focuses on changing thoughts and behaviors through the power of communication.

In order to change your perspective, you may consider looking at things from a different angle and challenge existing beliefs. By modifying your thoughts, you can elicit a different emotional response which will result in different actions. This method can help break bad habits.

For example, if you suffer from gout and drinking beer can trigger a painful flare-up, you can change your perspective on beer. Instead of viewing it as a "treat", you can view it as "poison" and be less inclined to want to drink it.

3. The Self-Distancing Principle: Step Back to Gain Clarity

When faced with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or rejection, it can be difficult to maintain self-control and overcome temptation. Take, for example, the heartbreak that comes from being rejected by a long-term partner or spouse. It's natural for individuals to dwell on these painful experiences, fueling their sadness, anger, and resentment, leading to a cycle of stress and negative emotions. This perpetual stress can ultimately affect their mental health and even physical health.

To break free from this pattern, it can be helpful to temporarily distance ourselves from our own perspective. By taking on an observer's point of view, as if we were a fly on the wall, we can reframe and understand the painful experience differently. This shift in perspective reduces stress, cools the "hot system," and allows us to engage the prefrontal cortex to reassess, make sense of what happened and move forward.

While it may not be an easy task to accomplish on our own, cognitive behavior therapy is a valuable resource for overcoming these struggles. Sometimes, a therapist expert can provide guidance and support when our own self-control help efforts fall short.


Self-control is not something we are born with, but rather a skill that can be learned, and improved upon at any age. It may require time and effort, but by implementing these strategies in your daily life, you can take control of your impulses and achieve your personal goals.

Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Self-control is a quality that can be developed through practice. Just like any healthy habit, this skill can contribute to our emotional well-being and a sense of satisfaction in life.

  2.  Specialized techniques used to control impulsive actions share one common principle: "cool the now, heat the later."

  3. Successful people use the "If-Then" planning method. It requires identifying triggers and consciously deciding on alternate responses or behaviors.

  4. Experts use the "cognitive reappraisal" method to effectively change one's perspective by developing new ways of thinking about challenging situations.

  5. The principle of "self-distancing" encourages us to step back and observe the situation as if it were happening to a friend or someone else. This can provide valuable perspective and help us make better decisions.

  6. These tools apply to both adults and children.

  7. If you want to make a change, think of it as a journey that requires practice and perseverance. The rewards are well worth it!

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