How to Gain More Self Control

posted: 02/21/18
by: Katie Morton
Serious young man studying from a phone in a coffee shop.

Do you ever wonder why you stay up late checking Facebook or surfing your favorite web sites when you'd be better off sleeping? Or why you dive face first into chocolate cake or ice cream when such indulgences run counter to your health and wellness goals? Sometimes we feel like we have no self-control.

Blame it on dopamine. In the book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., writes:

"When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn't create happiness itself--the feeling is more like arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling."

Dopamine makes us feel desire and stress simultaneously, and we mistake the fulfillment of our desire with happiness. The crappy thing is that we may only feel a brief sense of relief when we give in to our hankerings. (I've never heard anyone say, "I'm so happy I ate a whole pint of ice cream an hour ago!") If we can distract ourselves from the craving, we can interrupt dopamine production, while obsessing about what we want only makes it worse.

In actuality, when we do give in to a craving and pay very close attention to what happens while we're indulging, the experience just about never lives up to our expectations. Maybe a bite or two of cake tastes fabulous, but if we're really tasting it instead of shoveling it in, by the fourth bite we feel a little queasy from all that sugar. Perhaps a little bit of Facebook is fun, but it starts to feel disappointing when we really pay attention to our experience of sitting in an uncomfortable desk chair while our eyelids droop and sleep is lost.

So how to we gain more self-control? We can harness dopamine so we have more control over our actions.

Get Dopamine to Work for You

Sometimes it can be tough to take care of boring, routine tasks like cleaning when there are temptations to do anything but that all around us. McGonigal has some strategies for making dopamine work in our favor.

  1. Fantasize About the Payoff: I hate emptying the dishwasher. However, I can imagine what it's like to cook dinner when the kitchen is spotless and the dishwasher is empty. It makes cooking a joy when I can just drop a dirty pan into the dishwasher when I'm done, furthering my goal to keep the kitchen clean.

My fantasized payoff (a kitchen that looks like a magazine shoot--or at least doesn't look embarrassing!) gives me that hit of dopamine I need to fuel my kitchen-cleaning ambitions. The next time you want to avoid doing what you know you should, try fantasizing about the payoff of doing it.

  1. Reward a Dreaded Task: Many of us have tasks that we must do, yet we can't seem to motivate ourselves. Maybe you want to take better care of your health, but you feel a sense of dread when you consider going to the gym. A great example of rewarding a dreaded task is to watch your favorite TV show while you work out.

Another way of rewarding a dreaded task is to bring a project you've been procrastinating on to a restaurant for a leisurely working lunch. You can people watch and eat great food while you work, the perfect enticement to show up and undertake anything that's been causing you to procrastinate.

Next time you're tempted to give in to old habits and time wasters, think back on these tips: fantasize about a better payoff, or reward a dreaded task with a fabulous treat.