HOWTO: Control yourself

Why is self-control so hard?

Even though you have control over what you choose to do, you may find yourself in the puzzling position of regretting the decisions of your prior self.

For instance, if you need to lose weight but you bust your calorie budget with that extra piece of cake, you appear to be knowingly acting against your own “better judgment.”

In this case, better judgment captures the tension between the preferences of your present self and your future self.

Following your better judgment in any one moment rests on your will.

Fortunately, will seems to depend on environment, bodily state and mental state – all of which you can influence.

This article presents two complementary models of “will” as it relates to enhancing self-control:

  1. an abstract psychological model that breaks down will into willpower and “willenergy”; and
  2. a neurobiological model that looks at will throught the lens of neurotransmission.

The goal is to provide effective techniques that lead to higher self-control.

I’m also coining the term willenergy so that I can define another important concept: willenergy bankruptcy.

Many struggling with self-control are in an unrecognized crisis state, and they must declare “willenergy bankruptcy” to break themselves out of a vicious cycle.

Key takeaway: Don’t rely on self-control

The key takeaway of this article is that self-control has to be managed like a limited, scarce resource.

As a result, you need to engage in lifestyle design to minimize the need for active exertion of self-control.

In fact, much of my advice here reflects the “Least Resistance Philosophy” that I’ve written about since 2009:

Mold your environment so that the path of least resistance is the path of maximum productivity.

If you enjoy this article, you may enjoy articles in the least-resistance series:

I also recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear, which takes this approach to its limit.

The paradox of self-control

It’s easiest to define self-control through the absence of self-control.

There is a paradox embedded in the notion of self-control: if your self is not what is controlling your actions, then what is?

At first glance, you seem to be in total control of your self.

You choose to do homework or watch TV.

You choose to abstain from eating or eat candy.

You choose to lay in bed or go for a run.

Yet if you control your actions, why is regret over choices with foreseeable outcomes such a common occurrence?

Whenever you fail to do what you think you should do, you are experiencing what philosophers called akrasia.

Akrasia is a practical way to think about what self-control means: if we have high self-control, we experience low akrasia; if we have low self-control, we experience high akrasia.

Improving self-control, practically speaking, is minimizing akrasia.

Theories for why humans engage in akratic behavior stretch back millennia.

Some early philosophers and some modern non-philosophers even argue that akrasia is impossible: in their view, if you did something, then it truly was your rational preference to have done it.

Unfortunately, defining akrasia out of existence leaves foreseeable regret intact.

With foreseeable regret as the metric, akrasia abounds: addiction, overeating, procrastination and under-sleeping are all instances of akrasia.

Intuition tells us that we engage in akratic behavior through a lack of “will.”

In fact, according to the Oxford Languages dictionary, akrasia is

the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.

A stronger will leads to actions more in alignment with better judgment.

But, what exactly is will?

A abstract model of will

To avoid a philosophical debate around the definition of will, I’m going to stick to the reframed problem of minimizing akrasia.

That is, we’re trying to minimize the difference between what we felt we should have done and what we actually did.

By the definition of akrasia, “will” is whatever accounts for this difference.

And, we can measure akrasia in the amount of foreseeable regret experienced.

So, without defining will, we can still model and measure it.

For any given model of will, it can be put to the test empirically:

  1. Do actions that should strengthen will under this model lead to less akratic behavior?

  2. Do actions that should weaken will under this model lead to more akratic behavior?

Fortunately, there is a lot of scientific (and non-scientific) literature on self-control from which to pluck models of will.

More importantly, as you begin to experiment with self-control, you can use these same metrics to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

For an accessible review of the research on self-control, I highly recommend Willpower by Baumeister and Tierny:

Drawing on the research surveyed in Willpower, I’ll describe a relatively simple model of will that has two elements: (1) willpower and (2) “willenergy”.

In present usage, the term willpower seems to be used to refer to both concepts, but there is value in splitting them apart.

What is willpower?

Willpower is the capacity to act in spite of a specific aversion or not act in spite of a specific urge.

For stronger urges and aversions, it takes higher willpower to overcome them.

For example, turning down a bowl of broccoli takes less willpower than turning down a bowl of ice cream.

In the research, willpower is likened to a muscle: there is a maximum capacity for exertion.

And, attempting to override an urge or aversion too strong results in willpower failure: we engage in a behavior where we know our future self will experience what was foreseeable regret.

For example, if you have a presentation due tomorrow morning, but you stay up late procrastinating on Netflix instead of working on it, you know you’re going to regret your behavior come morning.

In this case, the urge to watch Netflix combined with the aversion to the work was too strong for your willpower to overcome in the moment.

This definition also provides the first hint about how to improve self-control.

Suppose you are working from a coffee shop instead of home. Suppose you leave your headphones home too. Now you can’t watch Netflix. Now, your willpower only has to overcome the aversion to the work rather than also fight the urge to watch Netflix.

What is willenergy?

Under the muscle analogy, willpower also seems to weaken with each use.

Repeated exertion starts to limit total maximum capacity for exertion.

And, eventually, no exertion of willpower is possible.

We might reasonably term this scarce resource willenergy.

With willpower, even something as seemingly benign as not eating from a bowl of tempting snacks seems to draw down this resource.

Making decisions – passively or actively – seems to exhaust this reserve.

Willenergy depletion leads to decision fatigue, in which the quality of our decisions or even the ability to make them at all seems to deteriorate with repeated use of willpower.

For example, after a long day of work, the temptation to crash on the couch, eat junk food and watch TV can quickly override the desire to exercise or cook a balanced meal or engage in activities with long-term benefit.

How are willpower and willenergy related?

You can think of willenergy like a rechargeable smartphone battery.

Just as different apps draw down the battery at different rates, different urges and aversions draw down willenergy at different rates.

In physics, power is the rate at which energy is expended in the moment – the change in energy per unit of time.

By analogy, under this model, the more willpower we exert or the longer we exert it, the less willenergy we have afterward.

And, when willenergy is depleted, no willpower can be exerted.

As a model with testable predictions, I invite you to test this for yourself.

A neurobiological model of will

The benefit of the “will = willpower & willenergy” model is that it allows you to make predictions about how to influence and manage your will (and hence, akrasia) in day to day, human-scale contexts.

Modern neuroscience has developed complex models of will, as experienced through the sensations of satiety, pleasure, reward, motivation, focus and energy.

Neurotransmission pathways drive these sensations, and three kinds of neurotransmission in particular are responsible for the bulk of them: the seratonergic, dopaminergic and adrenergic pathways.

All three of these pathways can be manipulated, but the dopaminergic pathway is particularly important for motivation.

It is oversimplifying matters to fully equate dopamine and motivation, especially since other actors are involved in the sensation of motivation and dopamine does more than drive motivation.

However, in general, increasing dopaminergic activity is linked to increased sense of motivation.

The full science of neurotransmission and dopaminergic pathways in particular are beyond the scope of this article, but the neurobiological model provides a gut-check for the more abstract psychological model of will: for any given prediction from the abstract model, we can check to see if it already has known effects on dopaminergic activity.

For a great overview of the neurobiological model, I recommend this episode of Professor Huberman’s podcast.

Medical warning

One reason I raise the neurobiological model is that if you feel you have a severe or abnormal deficit of will, then you may actually have the condition aboulia, atypical depression, or a disorder of diminished motivation.

These conditions requires prompt medical attention from a qualified treatment provider or team of providers.

Aboulia is a side effect of some medications – particularly those which push down dopaminergic activity, such as SSRI-class antidepressants or other dopamine antagonists – so it is important to work with a qualified medical provider when adjusting medications.

Your Should Do/Shouldn’t Do list

Everyone has a To Do list system.

If you think you don’t have one, then your To Do list system is probably an agglomeration of your short-term memory, your email inbox and objects strewn about the environment that need some kind of attending.

Self-control requires an additional list, your Should/Shouldn’t Do list.

Everyone has a Should/Shouldn’t Do list too.

The default one is your feeling of regret after action or inaction.

It’s the kind of regret where you say, “I knew better, but I did it anyway.”

Of course, to engage in meaningful self-control, you have to map out what it is you feel you should do, and what it is you feel you shouldn’t do.

The Should/Shouldn’t Do list makes foreseeable regret a measurable concept.

You can measure your prior behavior against this list, and you can figure out if you’re becoming more akratic or less akratic with time.

Once you’ve mapped out your “should dos” and “shouldn’t dos”, then you can start crafting strategies to manage willpower and willenergy that tilt your life toward your should dos and away from your shouldn’t dos.

I strongly encourage you to keep a written list on paper or on your phone.

Every time you catch yourself thinking or saying, “I should X” or “I should have done X” or “I shouldn’t do Y” or “I shouldn’t have done Y”, you can add it to the list if it’s new, or add an exclamation point if it’s already there.

In fact, if you do nothing else from this article but this one activity, you will find yourself stunned by how often you give yourself excellent advice in the moment, only to completely disregard that advice later.

As the exclamation points pile up, this list becomes a dashboard for your self-control (or lack thereof), and it tells you where to focus your efforts in managing willpower and willenergy.

Hacking willpower

Recognizing that there is a maximimum tolerable limit to willpower in any one moment leads to two classes of strategies for managing willpower:

  1. The first class of strategies centers on increasing this limit – increasing the maximum urge or aversion that willpower can override.

  2. The second class of strategies focuses on bringing “should do” actions under the limit, while pushing “shouldn’t do” actions over the limit.

Willpower hack: Avoid temptation

The existence of a limit to how much temptation one can handle argues strongly in favor avoiding contexts and situations in which willpower has been an insufficient safeguard in the past.

For instance, if you find yourself more likely to overeat at certain restaurants, avoiding these restaurants entirely while on a diet removes the need to exert willpower in the first place.

Willpower hack: Strengthen through practice

How can you increase willpower?

That is, how can you increase your maximum tolerance for any momentary urge or aversion?

If the muscle analogy holds, then a progressive overload approach may work for you.

That is, you can steadily acclimate to stronger and stronger temptations over time.

Be careful with this approach, however, as choosing a temptation beyond your limit will cause willpower failure.

In fact, because of this, it’s safer to strengthen willpower by overriding aversions that pose no real harm.

For example, taking a cold shower is a good way to condition your willpower.

If your willpower fails, the only harm is that you’ve not taken a cold shower.

Willpower hack: Reward yourself

If something seems just beyond the limit of your willpower, you may be able to boost that limit in the moment by offering yourself a reward for completing your objective.

For example, you can tell yourself that you’ll get to watch one of your favorite shows if you work on your report for an hour.

Willpower hack: Break it down

Alternatively, if instead of setting a reward for a task just beyond the limit, you break down the task into small steps such that the first step is below the limit, then you’ll trick yourself into starting on the task.

For instance, if instead of telling yourself to work on the report for an hour, you tell yourself you’ll just write one sentence of the report, you’ll probably be able to do that much.

Curiously, there’s a very good chance that after the first sentence, you’ll find the willpower to write the very next one.

Willpower hack: Make “should do” things easy

It tends to be the case that the things you feel like you should do are those where there is future gain and present pain.

Consequently, the easier you make it to do these things, then the greater the chance it will fall within the limit of your willpower.

For instance, if you find yourself struggling to eat healthier foods, you can put those healthier foods right on the counter or toward the front of the refrigerator/pantry as a reminder to eat them.

Or, if you find yourself struggling to make your morning run, you can lay out your workout clothes the night before (or even sleep in them!) and then place your running shoes and socks right next to the door.

Willpower hack: Shift hard tasks to high willpower times

In the neurobiological model, dopamine is highest after restful sleep.

As a result, it makes sense to take on your most dreaded tasks first thing in the morning, when you’re more likely to have the willpower to face them.

Ultimately, this may even require shifting your sleep schedule to make sure you have time in the morning to focus on your most challenging tasks.

Willpower hack: Make the “shouldn’t do” things hard

Just as things you feel you should do have future gain and present pain, the “shouldn’t do” things tend to have future pain and present gain.

As a result, the harder you make it to do these things, the greater the chance you will have the willpower to avoid them.

For example, you could place junk food in hard to reach places if your goal is to eat less of it.

Or, you could not even have it in the house, so that when a craving hits, now you have to go all the way to the grocery store.

Willpower hack: Leverage high willpower during low willpower

In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about “commitment devices” – mechanisms that allow you to leverage high willpower against times when you know you may have low willpower.

A commitment device is a way of locking in the actions of your future self when willpower would otherwise be insufficient in the moment.

That is, it allows you to leverage a high willpower state in the present to protect against a low willpower state in the future.

For an inventory of such techniques, I recommend Atomic Habits.

One simple example of a commitment device is to throw out all of the junk foods in your home when dieting while you’re not hungry.

Or, you could set your internet router or your web browser to block out web sites that you feel waste your time after 9 PM (or even all the time).

Hacking willenergy

Seen as a scare resource, willenergy is subject to optimization in the same way all resources (e.g. time, money, attention) are: how should you allocate this limited resource in order to maximize its effectiveness?

In addition, we can look at how to increase the available willenergy.

Willenergy hack: Avoid temptation

As with willpower, avoiding temptation works for conserving willenergy.

Even when you do have the willpower to resist a temptation, resisting it still costs you willenergy.

So, avoiding temptation is doubly important when harnessing self-control.

Willenergy hack: Sleep

If willenergy is a finite resource, it’s natural to wonder when it gets refilled.

Sleep is one of the most important ways to replenish willenergy.

Once again, through the lens of neurobiology, dopamine is highest after sleeping, and it wanes with every waking hour.

Everyone is familiar with the negative effects of fatigue and lack of sleep on decision-making.

Getting enough sleep and getting high-quality sleep are among the simplest ways to boost your reserve of willenergy.

Willenergy hack: Eat well

Proper nutrition seems essential to managing willenergy as well.

Unbalanced, sugar-heavy diets that send dopamine surging (and then crashing) can lead to unevenness in willenergy over the course of the day, over even lead to dependence on sugar to spark motivation.

Eating a balanced diet is important for keeping willenergy consistent over the course of the day.

Willenergy hack: Exercise

Somewhat paradoxically, exercise boosts willenergy.

While exercise may deplete physical energy, exercise can increase motivation by modulating neurotransmission.

I’ve taken this approach to an extreme, combining a walking pad treadmill and a motorized standing desk to create an environment that enables me to combine constant low-grade exercise with work all day long:

There are combined treadmill and desk solutions as well:

I’ve used bike desks in the past and while they offer superior caloric burn rates to treadmills, I find them hard to use for more than an hour at a time.

For my work office, I slid an under desk elliptical machine in front of my chair, and this allows me to maintain a constant rate of low-grade exercise even there:

Willenergy hack: Automate

Any regular task that can be automated should be automated, so that a task that otherwise would need even a small amount of willpower will no longer draw from the reserve.

The effect of automating large tasks will be immediately apparent, but automating a large number of small daily tasks can also have a dramatic impact.

For Apple users, Shortcuts on both macOS and iOS have become powerful ways to automate in whole or in part many common tasks.

Willenergy hack: Form habits

For tasks that require some level of human intelligence, anything that can be made truly habitual will avoid drawing on the reserve of willenergy, because the decision-making and execution will occur below the threshold of conscious thought.

For powerful advice on how to create automatic habits, I recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Willenergy bankruptcy: A vicious cycle of willenergy depletion

The techniques needed to boost willenergy, somewhat paradoxically, often need a modest exertion of willpower.

For example, eating well, sleeping enough and exercising regularly require small draws of willenergy.

Importantly, these behaviors create more willenergy than they consume.

However, if one hits “willenergy zero,” maintaining good sleep habits, proper diet and regular exercise becomes difficult.

As a result, your starting reserve of willenergy become lower and lower on a day to day basis.

This makes it ever harder to get good sleep, nutrition and exercise.

Without intervention, this vicious downward spiral can lead to burnout, feelings of helplessness and sense that you have lost your agency.

If you find yourself totally depleted of willenergy, it may be time for “willenergy bankruptcy.”

In a financial bankruptcy, it’s possible to restructure obligations to make paying them off in whole or at least in part possible.

In a willenergy bankruptcy, you have unilateral permission to restructure and dump obligations so that you get enough time to eat well, sleep enough and exercise regularly.

For example during a willenergy bankruptcy, you can move your entire email inbox into a folder labeled with today’s date and “willenergy bankruptcy.”

Once you have the virtuous cycle re-established, steadily raising your willenergy with time, then you can consider picking up lingering obligations with the surplus.

Caveat: Self-control versus behavior change

This article focused on self-control when it comes to the moment of choice.

Self-control is a key factor in the more general process of behavior change, and real behavior change is hard without being mindful of the principles that determine self-control.

But, self-control is not the only factor involved in behavior change.

In fact, my hope is that this article indirectly explains why relying on self-control alone is a problematic when confronting addiction, habit formation or behavior change more generally.

Real behavior change relies on designing your lifestyle to avoid drawing down on the very limited resources that underpin the will.