Strategies for Self-Control

October 3, 2022

Cavan Bonner

In order to be successful at school and work, and achieve our personal goals, we all need to exercise self-control by resisting immediate temptations and desires that conflict with other goals. Traditionally, self-control is conceptualized as exercising willpower to resist these conflicting desires. It is intuitive to predict that the more we resist our desires and exercise self-control, the better we are able to achieve our goals. However, recent research assessing daily experiences has suggested that the relationship between self-control and success is more complicated. A recent study found that exercising self-control in everyday situations didn’t actually predict the attainment of goals, and led to mental exhaustion [1]. Other research has found that this form of momentary self-control is associated with negative emotions [2].

These studies suggest that actively resisting our desires in the moment isn’t pleasant, and, worse, isn’t enough to help us achieve our goals. However, when researchers measure self-control as a personality trait of being disciplined and dutiful, we find that self-control predicts success in many important domains of life, including careers, physical health, and interpersonal relationships. This personality trait isn’t the same thing as simply resisting temptation because people who are high in trait self-control actually report experiencing fewer temptations in everyday life [3]!

Why might this be the case? One plausible answer is that people high in trait self-control have additional strategies for addressing these conflicting temptations and desires besides simply resisting. Some of these strategies include proactively making plans that will reduce the future occurrence of temptations, altering situations that reduce the availability of the temptation, forming healthy alternative habits, distracting oneself from temptation, and re-evaluating one’s desires [4].

What are the practical implications? Many students and professors commonly experience temptations when they should be studying, paying attention to a lecture, or working on a research paper. It may be in the form of social media or distracting websites. If surfing websites endlessly is a problem, one might try out a web blocker like Freedom, which allows you to proactively schedule blocks of time when you cannot access certain websites ahead of time. This is just one practical example of how you can take a more strategic approach to self-control, and reduce the time you spend resisting temptations that conflict with your goals. In general, instead of simply exerting willpower to resist the temptation every time it occurs, it is better to reduce tempting future situations before they occur. 


[1] Milyavskaya, M., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). What’s so great about self-control? Examining the importance of effortful self-control and temptation in predicting real-life depletion and goal attainment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(6), 603-611. 
[2] Inzlicht, M., Werner, K. M., Briskin, J. L., & Roberts, B. W. (2021). Integrating models of self-regulation. Annual Review of Psychology, 72, 319-345. 
[3] Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R. F., Förster, G., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Everyday temptations: An experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1318–1335. 
[4] Milyavskaya, M., Saunders, B., & Inzlicht, M. (2021). Self‐control in daily life: Prevalence and effectiveness of diverse self‐control strategies. Journal of Personality, 89(4), 634-651. 

Cavan V. Bonner

Cavan Bonner received his B.A. in Psychology from Kalamazoo College in 2021, and currently works as a research manager at the Well-Being and Measurement Lab with Dr. Louis Tay. Cavan is broadly interested in how personality — including traits, well-being, and belief systems — develops over the lifespan. 

Well-Being Resources:

Office of the Dean of Students, Student Support Services

Counseling and Psychological Services


To join the conversation and learn more,
use the hashtag #PurdueStepstoLeaps  on instagram:

Instagram Logo