Three Factors for Improving Self-Control

To start, try setting a goal.

Desk, New Year, Winter, Christmas, New Year Resolutions
Desk, New Year, Winter, Christmas, New Year Resolutions

Self-control is difficult, but by revealing it as reliant on diverse processes, we can improve its reliability. We also open up the possibility to enhance control by understanding individual mediators and how we affect them. The cybernetic model of control highlights three stages: goal setting, conflict monitoring, and implementation. Within each step, research has identified elements that make for superb self-control.

Mediators of Self-Control

The cybernetic model is a study of control developed by Norbert Wiener in 1948. It’s based on a system of feedback loops that models control in people, animals, and machines. Importantly, each element connects to another, creating a feedback loop.

Goal/Desired state acts as a gatekeeper for the monitoring system. Without definitive, well-structured goals, it is impossible to monitor and implement effectively.

When you develop goals, you create a feedback cycle between goal-tracking and implementation. Monitoring allows us to measure the distance between the actions we desire to make and the ones we’re currently acting out. If the gap is wide enough, we need to implement different behaviors that put our monitoring system at ease and better align with our goals.

Managing one’s finances, for instance, works on cybernetic characteristics. Initially, someone sets a goal to reduce spending. They notice that their most significant non-essential expense is on take-out food. So, they develop a goal meant to tackle this aspect of their budget. Next, they monitor spending behavior. They look for instances where behavior shifts from the desired state (eating out). Finally, when they notice a discrepancy, they make a behavior change, like cooking at home.

Although self-control can be difficult, anyone can improve his or her chances of success by improving these processes. By expanding on each component, we can suggest, research-backed, ways to increase self-control.

Improving Control through Goal-Setting

Goal setting makes up the entire foundation of self-control and future-oriented thinking. It acts as a representation for outcomes you desire and are committed to attaining. They are distinct from wishes, dreams, and intentions. Wanting to weigh less and committing to the necessary steps involved are wholly different. A goal implies that an individual has committed, thought, time, and emotion to change.

We can think of this process as creating a discrepancy between our current and future self. It’s this dynamic that puts self-control into motion.

To improve our goal setting, we should follow the research of Latham and Locke; good goals are specific and challenging, yet attainable. We should avoid “try my best” intentions and identify actionable steps that help us reach our desired state.

We can use our finance goal from earlier to provide a concrete example. If we assume that someone is currently eating out five times a week, his or her goal could be to eat out three times instead. The following week, if they meet their goal, they can reduce that to twice a week. These steps are readily measured and specific, yet they challenge ingrained behaviors.

Additionally, it’s simple to progress monitor specific, proximal goals. An individual only needs to count the times they spent getting takeaway or eating at a restaurant. This action allows for continual feedback at the end of every day and week. If you don’t like the results, it’s in your hands to hold yourself accountable. Vague goals make this process impossible because we have no way to measure “wanting” or “trying.”

Increasing Autonomy

Self-determination theory tells us that goals designed with personal values in mind lead to better control. Intrinsic motivation is a powerful driving force for behavior. Whereas, extrinsically motivated resolutions feel less relevant.

In one study individuals created a goal and reflected on its importance. After doing so, they reported having an easier time overriding goal-related impulses. The reason for this is simple. Autonomously created goals are personally relevant. We monitor them with greater urgency, and we understand the ramifications of failure.

Externally assigned goals can hold the same gravitas as those we create for ourselves, though it does take additional effort. For extrinsic goals to become personal, you must make an effort to reflect on their importance. A dreary goal like eating more vegetables can hold personal significance if you think of it as a way to keep your health in check and doctors bills down. Instead of leaving the goal at its base, you find reasons to make it personally relevant.

Improving Control Through Monitoring

After establishing specific, autonomous goals, the next step is to improve conflict monitoring. Recognizing discrepancies between current and ideal state allows us to modify our behaviors. In doing so, we move back into alignment with our desired future self. Three mediators affect this area of control, conflict monitoring, attention, and acceptance.

Conflict Monitoring

Neuroscience models of control emphasize systems in the brain that monitor for goal conflicts. These models posit that discipline starts in the brains conflict-monitoring region. Which, in turn, evokes a concept called error-related negativity (ERN). ERN is a neural response to conflict that acts a detector and draws on our mind to respond.

Individuals with visceral reactions to goal conflicts seem to have better self-control. That is, they have an unusually high ERN toward their resolution.

People who set self-aligned goals have higher ERNs, which may be why autonomous goals are beneficial in the first place. There’s also a bit of research showing that ERN relates to emotional control, an executive function used in self-regulation.

To raise control, we should change how we detect and respond to discrepancies in our behavior. If we fail to hold ourselves accountable, we have little hope for self-improvement. We’ve got to take the necessary steps to shift our responses if we want to better our self-control.

Acceptance & Attention through Meditation

The process involved in conflict monitoring begs the question, what should we do when we notice a conflict? Ideally, we make an immediate behavior change aligned with our goals. However, as often happens, we can’t. Instead, we continue making the same mistakes for the sake of comfort. In these situations another choice is presented to us; how we react to our failure.

It’s easy to think that our best course of action is to highlight failures. The higher the admonishment associated with failure, the more likely we are to avoid doing it again. At least, that’s what we believe.

Research points to the exact opposite being true. When we acknowledge and accept failure, we have an easier time remaining focused on our goals.

Admonishment automatically triggers a need to defend and judge ourselves. In response we remind ourselves of other failures, distracting us from the moment. Worse yet, if we go too far, we risk pushing ourselves to the deep end. We think we’re incapable of doing such hard work. Ultimately we give up on our goals altogether because we don’t think we’ll ever be able to accomplish them.


One solution to this problem is meditation. In multiple studies, meditators exhibited better conflict monitoring. They also had an easier time accepting slip-ups. Moreover, in an additional study, researchers found that a simple self-affirmation exercise improved self-control. Acceptance-based interventions have even been linked to fewer relapses in dieters and smokers. The more accepting they are of self-control lapses, the easier time they have at staying on track.

It’s possible that this increase in control stems from our ability to acknowledge that mistakes are natural. We can’t always resist temptation and to believe so would be foolish. Giving ourselves leeway from time to time ensures we can respond with acceptance and a renewed commitment.

Meditation’s effects extend beyond acceptance. Several studies link it to increased attention and concentration, both components of regulation. Keeping our goals in mind cultivates a stronger bent towards conflict monitoring. The easier it is for us to notice a conflict, the better our ability to react correctly.

Implementing Goal-Directed Behaviors

The final, and I would argue, most important, step to goal attainment is implementation. Shifts in behavior make up the bulk of our self-control experience. Our reactions to conflicting stimuli decide how well we’re able to stick to our goals. Monitoring for conflict won’t do enough to ensure that we act in the right manner, we’ve got to commit to changing our response.

The biggest obstacles we face during this step are fatigue and failing to anticipate situations that break our commitment.

Leisure & Perspective to Battle Fatigue

After bouts of self-control or hard work, we feel fatigued. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that control requires effort. However, what that does to our internal control can be challenging to measure. What studies have shown us, is that stress and fatigue lead us to fall back on our habits. If we have positive habits, this is great. If we’re looking to change our behavior, this is an absolute show-stopper.

Stress doesn’t mean it’s impossible to change our behavior or develop new habits. However, it is something we need to make mindful choices around. There are many ways to combat stress; exercise, deep breathing, better rest, and a bevy of other options. Unfortunately, diving into them is outside of the scope of this article.

The effects of fatigue extend to another aspect of self-control: motivation. We’ve been raised to believe that effort begets reward. Since initially changing behaviors can feel especially challenging, it’s understandable that we give in from time to time. However, when our willpower succeeds, we feel good. We acknowledge that we’ve earned a reward for putting in so much effort. This belief can lead to goal-failure after subsequent self-control attempts.

Inzlicht helps construct a view of impulse control as “effortful and aversive, with self-control fatigue being the result of decreased motivation to pursue goals seen as obligations and duties.” Instead, we have a greater motivation to chase more gratifying and exciting goals.

We end up seeking out rewards rather than being wary of our next potential conflict. Our brain has shifted its motivation, from giving attention to conflicting cues to seeking out rewards for good behavior.

Research has revealed a tricky way for individuals to create goals and become resilient to fatigue. Rather than focus solely on a target, think about the reason you’re pursuing the outcome. Whether you’re seeking financial freedom, a healthier life, or more time away from work, we each have an underlying why that drives our desires. Leverage that to your advantage and make the immediate benefits of your work meaningful. Research shows personally chosen goals are supported by better self-control, even in the midst of fatigue.

Inzlicht, Legault, and Teper highlight autonomous motivation as a core tenet of self-control. Goals with a personal meaning bolster goal-setting and conflict monitoring while mitigating the effects of fatigue.

If-Then Plans for Better Behavior

Our goals are often spurred on by healthy, positive intentions. We want to lose weight, pay off students loans, and get promoted, but we fail to account for the small steps that make up each of those goals. That failure means we don’t know what we should be conflict monitoring or what triggers the behaviors negatively associated with our goals.

Implementation intentions or, if-then plans, are premeditated responses to specific situations and behaviors. They function as a self-regulation approach meant to boost goal-attainment. ‘If-then plans’ improve control because of their definitive, easily-practiced nature. They should be so simple that you can walk through the specific steps in your head as your plan develops.

Creating implementation intentions takes practice. You need to identify situations where you experience goal-failure and make a plan to address them. Implementation intentions like, ”If it’s Tuesday, then I’ll exercise” are useless. They’re not proximal, ‘Tuesday’ doesn’t specify a time. Nor do they tell us what causes you to miss a workout. You need to build your if-then plan around whatever disrupts your behavior.

If-then plans work because they associate control over your behavior with goal-disruption. So, when you encounter conflict, you’ve primed your brain to react immediately. Research shows that, with proper rehearsal, these plans work even in the face of fatigue.

The interplay of the Cybernetic Model

Focusing on a single mediator will likely reap enormous benefits for goal-attainment. However, the full weight of this research comes from the connection between each factor. Goal-setting improves progress and conflict monitoring, thus aiding future if-then plans. It can also help us understand the ‘why’ behind our goals and change our perspective when we feel fatigued. Every aspect of the cybernetic model benefits another ultimately leading to better goal achievement.

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Originally published on reedrawlings.com

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