How to Master Self-Control and Supercharge Your Willpower

I am the absolute worst when it comes to gelato.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the dead of winter or the heart of summer. Any time I step foot in a gelateria, you can bet I’m coming out with a massive two scoops in a waffle cone.

Aside from making me incredibly poor while traveling around Italy (my gelato addiction once had me pay €20 for two scoops during a heat wave), my love of gelato is one of the biggest things I need to manage when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. 

Eat more veggies? No problem. 

Consume fewer sweets? Can do. 

Ignore the gelato shop? 

but why?

In case you can’t tell, this ☝️ has always, always, always been my Achilles heel—and learning to manage that temptation has been a huge lesson in self-control.


Self-control: AKA the payoff between what you want now and what you want later

While I’d love to eat buckets of gelato all day, every day, I also understand that this behavior isn’t conducive to my overall health goals. I have to balance what I want in the short term with what I want in the long term.

This balancing act? It’s something we all have to practice on a daily basis.

At college, you’ll need to fight your short-term desire to kick back and relax with your long-term goal to graduate.

At work, you’ll have to learn to bite your tongue sometimes when you don’t agree with someone (or learn to say what you feel in a more professional way).

In your personal life, you might find yourself juggling the desire to eat junk food with your desire to be more active and healthy. Or you could struggle with balancing your goal to save for a car or a house with the temptation to buy that latest video game, phone, or outfit.

You can’t escape it. Managing self-control is part of being human, and the ones among us who can delay gratification and improve willpower are in a better position to get what we want in life—as evidenced by the famous marshmallow test.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments exploring the importance of self-control. He would give children a choice: eat one marshmallow now or wait and get two marshmallows later. Mischel would then leave them alone in a room with a single marshmallow.

Guess what most kids did?

You guessed it—they ate the marshmallow. However, there were a few kids who chose to turn down the first treat now to get two treats later. These were also the kids who were likely to have better academic performance.


But let’s get one thing clear: self-control is really hard

Like water, humans want to flow down the path of least resistance. We want to do things that are easy while avoiding those that require more exertion. 


Because, like any other animal, we have instincts that have been developed over thousands and thousands of years. And while these instincts may have kept us from expending too much energy when we didn’t need to, they also hold us back in modern life.

This isn’t the only reason, though.

We’re also masters in self-sabotage when it comes to our efforts to improve discipline.

Have you ever procrastinated on a task, only to beat yourself up about it later? I know I have. I know that every time I skip a workout at the gym or order takeout instead of cooking, I say something along the lines of:


Here’s the thing, though: this type of self-talk is actually hurting our ability to do things in the future. 

If you punish yourself for trying but not succeeding 100% of the time, you’re probably less likely to repeat that behavior because you don’t want to experience the same negative self-talk.

When we beat ourselves up, we think we’re punishing our laziness, but we’re actually punishing our efforts. And if you punish something, you decrease the probability of it occurring again, so that makes it harder to start next time. 

—Dr. Rebecca Stafford

Contrary to what you might believe, self-control is also a finite resource.

We can’t have insane willpower every minute of every hour of every day. While you can strengthen and improve your self-control over time, you only have a certain amount in the bank on any given day. Researchers call this process ego depletion.

Think of it like a fuel tank. Every time you exercise self-control, you’re depleting your willpower just a little bit. Eventually, you’ll run on empty—and that’s where you might find yourself slipping.

Ego and willpower depletion demonstrated by passing a plate of cookies. By the fourth pass, they're much harder to resist!
Image via Alfonso Fernandez on Medium

Throw in the platforms that offer instant gratification (think: Netflix, TikTok, and Uber Eats), and it becomes even harder to practice self-control. When we’re used to having everything at our fingertips all the time, it becomes even harder to exercise willpower.

By now, you’ve probably gathered that mastering self-control isn’t easy OR something that happens overnight.

You have to work at it your entire life, but the payoff is absolutely worth it.

Here’s the good news: the more you work at it, the easier it gets. If you’re trying to improve your self-control, here are five tips that have helped me over the years.


Five tips to improve your willpower and self-control

1. Think of willpower as a muscle

You wouldn’t go into the gym for the first time and expect to be able to lift 300lbs. You have to train your body and build that level of strength over time. 

Maybe you might start with 10lbs, then gradually increase the weight every week until you reach your goal. Some weeks, you might not make any progress. In other weeks, you’ll have breakthroughs. These little steps add up over time, and eventually you’ll look back at where you started and realize how far you’ve come.

On top of that, you can also fatigue your muscles to the point where they won’t cooperate—no matter how hard you push yourself.

gif of young man falling on ground after physical exhaustion

Your willpower works in a similar way. You have to practice and train over time to strengthen it, and be aware that your willpower WILL fatigue. Once I made peace with this, it became much easier to focus my willpower and be more forgiving when I missed the mark.

That brings me to my next point…


2. Practice self-acceptance

Negative reinforcement is one of those things that works like a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

When you slip up on a goal, like trying to wake up early, you feel bad. You might even hate yourself a little bit for it. Over time, this chips away at your self-esteem, and you find yourself going from saying, “I can do it!” to “Why bother trying?” 

That’s why one of the most important things you can do is forgive yourself and accept that caving in doesn’t mean tapping out.

The very nature of practicing self-control involves experiencing setbacks. If you go in expecting to do perfectly 100% of the time, I can tell you that you will absolutely fail.

Instead, remind yourself that you will slip up…and that’s okay. Rather than adopt a defeatist attitude, accept that setbacks will be a part of the journey and work with them. When you have that gelato or hit snooze on the alarm, acknowledge that you gave in to that compulsion and try to do better next time. Eventually, you’ll find that whatever you’re trying to accomplish gets just that bit easier and easier—until it’s no longer a struggle.



3. Self-awareness = self-control

Let’s say you have a project due, and you’re working on it at home. The only problem is that every time you get started, your roommate asks if you want to hang out. This happens every day of the week. Before you know it, you’re behind on your project and have to pull an all-nighter.

This type of situation isn’t uncommon. We’re all going to face distractions in our daily lives, whether it’s a friend or a roommate wanting to hang out, the desire to hit snooze on our alarm, or the McDonald’s that we default to when there’s nothing else to eat in the house.

The key is being aware of yourself and the temptations that might exist around you, so you can put yourself in the best position possible to succeed.

For example, if you know you might get distracted by your roommate, you choose to work in the library or at a local cafe, so you’re not tempted to hang out together. Likewise, if you’re struggling to go to the gym, it could be worth exploring other types of physical activity that you do enjoy, like dancing or martial arts.


4. Focus on one thing at a time

You don’t have infinite willpower, much like most of us don’t have infinite money in the bank. Knowing this, you need to pick and choose where you’re going to “spend” your willpower and which goals to prioritize.

Try to do too much, and you’ll spread your limited resources too thin. Instead, use your willpower sparingly and focus on one or two goals at a time. As you build habits, like waking up early or cooking instead of eating out, you can shift your willpower to other tasks instead.


5. Reflect on your achievements

We’re all guilty of remembering our failures more than our successes. You could be making incredible strides toward your goal. However, the one day you slip up is the one you’ll remember. As the mistakes add up (as they naturally will), it’s easy to get caught up in thinking you’re a failure and that you’re never going to achieve what you set out to do.

That’s where it’s important to stop and reflect on what you did right—not get hung up on what you did wrong.

Pencil in time to stop, reflect, and look at how far you’ve come. Rather than fixating on the one day that didn’t go according to plan, think about the six others that did. Chances are, you’re actually doing really well most of the time. This knowledge alone can help you maintain momentum and give you the boost to keep practicing self-control.


Finally, don’t forget that too much self-control can also be a bad thing

Don’t get me wrong: having discipline and willpower is important. But it’s very easy to swing too far in the other direction and not allow yourself to have any fun whatsoever, simply because you’re too scared to slip up or let yourself go.

Gelato tastes good. Sleeping in feels fantastic. And you need to be lazy every now and then. Don’t get so caught up in being disciplined that you forget to enjoy the little things in life as well.

Remember: everything in moderation…including moderation.