Table of contents:

6 tips to help you master self-control
6 tips to help you master self-control

An excerpt from the book “Will and Self-Control. How genes and the brain prevent us from fighting temptations Irina Yakutenko will help you understand how to give up momentary pleasures and develop iron willpower.

6 tips to help you master self-control
6 tips to help you master self-control

Tip # 1. Get out of sight of anything that might tempt you

If you quit smoking, do not keep cigarettes at home. If you suffer from shopaholism, immediately after the paycheck, withdraw money from the card and put it in the nightstand or on the deposit, where it is more difficult to get it, and never carry large sums with you.

If you lose your will at the sight of starchy foods - cook bread and pastries only yourself. It's one thing when a fresh white loaf is lying in the kitchen and you just need to cut off a chunk (or you can even nibble off a loaf, which really), and quite another thing is when you need to breed a story for four hours with dough and yeast.

It's important to make seductive things as hard to reach as possible so that the automatic response of the limbic system does not negate your efforts to subdue your passions.

Even if the limbic system is played so hard that it forces you to get dressed and go to the store for bread and cigarettes (this happens in extreme cases), along the way you will have a chance to change your mind and prevent a disaster.

Tip # 2. If the temptation cannot be avoided, focus on the most abstract characteristics of it

When Michel (Walter Michel is a psychologist, a leading expert on self-control. - Ed.) Asked the kids, whom he tortured with "marshmallow" tests, to think about the most tempting qualities of sweets, they could not stand even a few minutes.

Children who were encouraged to think of marshmallows as white soft clouds lasted much longer, both toddlers "broken" by the idea of thinking about the taste and smell of a treat, and those who weren't given any instructions.

The essence of the "marshmallow" dough: a small child was seated in a chair in a separate room and offered to eat marshmallows with one condition. The sweetness could be eaten right now or you could wait fifteen minutes and get two marshmallows already. In some cases, children ate marshmallows without even listening to the conditions. But there were also those who were able to hold out for the allotted time and receive a well-deserved reward.

It is on the "hot" system of automatic reactions that all advertising is aimed: remember how temptingly hot caramel flows in television spots, into which shiny nuts fall, and how unbearably appetizing all this beauty is covered with thick viscous chocolate. And how the people from the yoghurt advertisement lick their lips and roll their eyes voluptuously: looking at the unearthly bliss they experience, we immediately want to run to the store in order to feel it too.

By deliberately renouncing everything attractive in the source of your desires, you keep the "hot system" (limbic) off, and the "cold" (prefrontal cortex) already knows not to succumb to temptation.

Think about your pretty colleague solely in the context of your joint projects and her professional qualities, and when going to visit your aunt, choose sweets, guided by the beauty of the packaging, and not your own taste preferences.

Tip # 3: Make your limbic system work for you: use it to blacken the cause of your temptations

The limbic system is a powerful ancient tool that allowed our ancestors to survive, making them want something very much, such as sex, or, conversely, very much not want something - say, to be eaten by a tiger. Spurred on by the emotional call of the "hot" system, animals persistently achieve their goals, because desire is the best motivator.

The basic settings of a person are such that at the sight of a chocolate bar he feels exactly the desire, and not disgust or disgust, no matter how much millions of unsuccessfully losing weight would like. But, using the prefrontal cortex, you can knock these settings down, artificially creating more powerful ones. To do this, you need to properly imagine the consequences of the action, which would be good to avoid by using the “hot” emotional system as fully as possible.

The brighter and more expressive you imagine something, the stronger your desire or reluctance.

If you are unbearably tempted to smoke, imagine yourself, still young, but dying of lung cancer in a cold, shabby ward, where the ship is changed every two days, and the linen is completely left from the previous patient. If you have an irresistible desire to eat a pack of cookies, draw a picture in your head of how you find in your husband's phone a completely unambiguous correspondence with an unknown (but, obviously, slender) passion.

When at two o'clock in the morning you want to watch another episode of your favorite TV series, although the next morning there is an important meeting for which you are not ready, imagine how you are eating only buckwheat for the third month without work. See yourself crawling behind the sofa to find the rolled ten-ruble coin, because without it you won't have enough money to pay your rent.


Unleash your imagination to the fullest: here you write to your friends and humiliatingly beg from them for at least a little cash. So they refuse or borrow, but at the same time they look at you contemptuously and a little disgustedly, and after that they stop calling for general meetings - you still have nothing to pay with in a cafe. Imagine how you diligently mend torn tights for an hour: it seems to you that everything is very neat, but a friend at the meeting asks loudly what is this strange pattern on your right knee.

For each temptation, you can come up with a lot of options for retribution, but it is very important to choose one that really hurts.

For example, you are a girl and you cannot quit smoking in any way, but lung cancer does not bother you at all. But it worries you that your office colleague is not looking in your direction. So, imagine not a hospital ward, but how awful it will smell from your mouth, how disgustingly yellow your teeth and fingers will become. It is likely that for you personally, this picture will work more effectively than the threat of premature death.

There is nothing shameful here: only focusing on what is really important to you, and not following the imposed standards (cancer is a horror-horror), you can achieve results and how to irritate the limbic system.

Having understood which of the options for the nightmare future touches you the most, you need to “turn on” a picture of this option in your head every time you meet with the temptation.

At first, you will forget to do this or call up the created image too late, after eating a chocolate bar or skipping a fitness class. But if you continue training, pretty soon the brain will pave the necessary neural pathways in the head and firmly link this or that temptation with a disgusting picture.

And then, when looking at a dangerous object, a "slanderous" plot, perfected to details, will appear before, and ideally instead of, the usual reaction of lust. But even if the limbic system has time to want something harmful, a detailed and properly emotionally colored disgusting picture will quickly replace the habitual desire. […]

Tip # 4. Come up with a clear strategy for dealing with a situation when you are faced with temptation

Imagining the disgusting consequences of the unwanted act that you set out to do is a very effective way to deal with the desires of the moment. We can say that this is heavy artillery, which makes sense to use to combat the most formidable temptations. There is another tactic to ward off the smaller temptations that await people with willpower problems at every turn. Walter Michel calls her plan "if … then."

To develop it, you first need to observe yourself for some time and find out in which situations you most often show weak-willedness, for example, open a tab with your favorite social network. Let's say you find yourself surfing Facebook or VKontakte when you have a boring task at work.


Or you are tempted to check the likes if you know that there is a particularly difficult task ahead - say, you are preparing for a session and have reached a difficult ticket. Remember this state and come up with control words that you will tell yourself the next time you feel it. Nothing special is needed, simple enough: “No, I can't, I’m working,” or “This is a temptation, stop!”, Or even “Stop! Don't be distracted, rag! (although it is better to do without negativity towards yourself).

If I'm bored and ready to open Facebook, I say to myself “Stop! Don't be distracted!”, Take my hands away from the keyboard and look out the window for 10 seconds. Then I go back to work.

Despite the seeming simplicity and even some clumsiness, the "if … then" plan works very well. On the one hand, the “if… then” plan knocks down the automatic response of the limbic system and gives several saving seconds, during which the unhurried prefrontal cortex has time to turn on and take action. A time lag is especially helpful for those who have an anterior cingulate cortex "floundering": such people do not have time to cut off the conflict between a momentary impulse and a long-term goal in time.

On the other hand, the alternative behavior scenario acts as a red herring. For this technique to work, it is important not only not to look at the stimulus, but not even to think about it: the mental image ignites the limbic system just as well as real prototypes.

Tip # 5: Provide yourself with external coercion

There are rare lucky ones who do not need to prod themselves: they have enough internal motivation to do exclusively right things and give up the wrong ones. But most of these tasks are difficult - for various reasons.

For some, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) does not work well, and they do not track the conflict between the momentary desire - instead of the gym to stay at home and drink beer - and global goals - to lose weight and build muscle by summer. Others have an overdeveloped amygdala, they react to any temptation and therefore cannot begin to study English at home, although they bought themselves the best textbook and even cleared the table.

Instead of hoping for the thousandth time that today you will somehow be more strong-willed than usual, deprive yourself of a choice.

If you sign up for an English course, you are guaranteed to study at least during the lesson. The likelihood that you will reach the place of its holding increases many times over when the courses are paid (on the other hand, it makes sense to enroll not in the best school in the city, but in the nearest one, otherwise disgust from a long road in traffic jams or crowded transport will "overcome" the pain of money spent).

Most people leave the gym after a couple of sessions because it is difficult to pull iron and few people can voluntarily doom themselves for the sake of the vague prospect that someday in the future they will (possibly) have a toned body. It is much easier to obey the orders of the coach. And financial motivation and awkwardness in front of a stranger who is waiting for you at the appointed hour additionally stimulates not to miss classes.

Council number 5.1. Deliberately create situations where you cannot avoid a useful, but not very pleasant business

Refinement and expansion of the previous advice. If you have problems with motivation, then when choosing between an activity that is pleasant now, but harmful afterwards and not very attractive at the moment, but promising great benefits in the future, you will more often choose the former. Therefore, do not put yourself in such a situation and make sure that there is no such choice.

For example, download an app that blocks social media during business hours. Turn it on during a trip on the subway, and then you will have no options but to finally start reading a book that you have been carrying in your bag for a long time, but have never opened. Translate all gadgets into English and buy movies without a Russian soundtrack - this way you will get the language learning off the ground, avoiding the temptation to watch everything in Russian.

Make a rule that you only play new episodes of your favorite TV show from your phone on the stand in front of the treadmill. This tactic is a self-made external coercion, and, unlike the hundredth time promises of "Find time and sit down to English", it really works.

Tip # 6: Get yourself a deadline

“On the last night before the deadline, I do my best.” If you are one of those who often say this, know that you are mistaken. Yes, a deadline, especially if sanctions follow its failure, is a powerful external compulsion that makes almost everyone work.

In time trouble, a very brightly emotionally colored goal appears, that is, the very motivation that people with self-control problems usually lack. But the stress response that is inevitably triggered under these conditions suppresses PFC and lowers the quality of work.

After working all night before submitting the project, you may finish it, but it will clearly be worse than if you systematically worked on it for several months.

In the situation “To hand over the project or not to pass it in any way,” this decision is justified, but in order to succeed in your career and life in general, it is more useful to master the valuable skill of working stably for a long time. Although the deadlines are also useful here - though not real, but modeled ones.

Will and self-control
Will and self-control

You've probably noticed that in situations where you need to run somewhere in a couple of hours, work is as productive as possible. Especially if you have to run not to the clinic or to the kindergarten for the child, but to the cinema or to visit friends, that is, where something pleasant is expected.

This offensive phenomenon (“Oh, just accelerated, but already we need to round off!”) Has a completely scientific explanation. The need to leave is an external compulsion and at the same time a deadline. You know you only have two hours - a clearly limited amount of time that almost anyone can hold out without being distracted.

If you need to run away for a pleasant occasion, self-control at this time is additionally supported by dopamine replenishment from expectation (as you remember, dopamine is responsible just for the anticipation of pleasure). Having completed emergency work, a person feels satisfaction - he has worked well, now he can legally rest.

Having secured such pleasant deadlines for yourself, you will get several hours of full-fledged work - without wandering around social networks and extraneous sites.

But it is important not to overdo it: extrinsic motivation also does not work indefinitely, and it will not be possible to stretch more than two, maximum three hours on one expectation. But two hours of continuous thoughtful work is sometimes worth a full day.