For most of history true mastery of self control and willpower was regarded as a mythological act or feat of accomplishment that could only be reached by individuals who were more than human. Today, we are exceedingly lucky to live in a time when attitudes have matured and the science of biology has quantified the factors that determine the degree of self control we have and practice. This article will present some cutting edge biohacking techniques along with some rare philosophical mindsets for significantly increasing your will power, focus and ability to resist addictive behaviors.
A Story about Self Control…
David was my best friend for 4 years, towards the end of that time it became increasingly evident that he was a non violent, high functioning psychopath.
David was on the path to become a doctor. David at any given time had at least one woman intensely in love with him, he had to pay for abortions at least 3 times that he told me about. To this day he remains the most charming person I have ever met.
David partied; he loved nightclubs, bottle service, cocaine and occasionally smoking crystal meth. He had a contagious ability to energize any room.
The only other passion that matched his appetite for intoxicants was his religiosity. He came from an intensely religious mormon family (who I knew well, they were some of classiest, most generous people I’ve ever known). Sometimes in a drunken fervor he would explain to me how he was one day going to become a god of his own earth (this is part of the Mormon religion).
David carried an atlas of guilt on his shoulders. As his best friend and confidant, I heard from him almost daily about how bad he felt about his alcoholism, his wasteful spending, and his cheating on his lovely mormon fiance. Despite being incredibly hard working, smart, charming, healthy, financially stable, surrounded by caring family, and getting laid all the damn time David was profoundly unhappy because of his lack of will power when it came to his vices.
By the End of this Article…
Practicing self control will be demystified for you, beyond a pseudo-spiritual lifestyle of abstinence from things that feel amazing. Self control is not an ongoing process of self flagellation, it is an automatic system for making good decisions. Self control is like a software operating system your day to day thoughts and impulses run on. By the end of this article you will understand how to re-install, behaviorally configure and upgrade your software. Next time you face a task, temptation or challenge requiring a high degree of self control you will be able to confidently choose from a variety powerful tools to handle it.
A philosophy first articulated Aristippus of Cyrene, a pupil of Socrates. The core belief of hedonism is that…
All people should do everything in their power to achieve the maximum amount of pleasure possible to them.
It is also the idea that every person’s pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain.
Ethical hedonism, is the idea that we should have a dual focus on maximizing pleasure within the bounds of what is ethical. Therefor an ethical hedonist is a person who seeks to maximize their own pleasure but only if it’s morally right to do so.
The reason this is such a lifehack is because, by prioritizing ethics you actually get to be more hedonistic, both in qauntity and qaulity.
Aristippus wasn’t big believer in an after life so he figured that as long as you were above ground you might as well be enjoying yourself. He held the idea that pleasure is the highest good, I mostly agree!
1. Don’t Moralize Your Habits and Activities:
As human beings we have a tendency to moralize our habits into good behaviors and bad behaviors. Most of us are raised in some kind of religious system of black and white ethics. This is actually a major failure point of self control:
- Once something has been categorized in our mind as indulgent, a guilty pleasure, naughty, or not allowed it becomes WAY more difficult for us to resist it.
- Saying that something (having casual sex, drinking alcohol, wasting time on celebrity websites, watching the Jersey Shore, etc) is NOT what a good person would do causes our brain to anticipate WAY more pleasure from it.
- Basic human nature and the evolutionary psychology of scarce resources management make our minds irresistibly attracted to what we cannot have.
- Instead of categorizing habits and activities, into good and bad we need to look at them as shades of gray and take a more pragmatic and machiavellian view of our habits. They are just a means to accomplishing our ends.
- Don’t make an activity a ‘forbidden fruit’.
Study on Guilt: A professor of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University conducted a study on guilt, pleasure and self control.
Participants who had been primed for guilt both liked the candy more and said they would be willing to pay more for it than those primed with neutral words… In another study, female participants were primed by showing half of them covers of health-related magazines and the other half covers of neutral magazines… Once primed, they were asked to imagine that they were participating in a chocolate taste-test and were asked how guilty they would feel if they were actually consuming the candy bar… the authors show that this pattern of results is unique to guilt and cannot be explained by a contrast effect that generalizes to other negative emotions.
When Guilt Begets Pleasure: The Positive Effect of a Negative Emotion
So the study showed what most people would probably agree with; that feeling guilty about a particular activity makes it more pleasurable and more desirable (they were willing to pay more for the chocolate). I actually did a short interview with the primary researcher of the study, she had some great insights.
Your Brain is Tricking You: Next time you feel that all too familiar pang of guilt and simultaneous desire when confronted with something you know is not good for your goals, realize that your brain is playing a clever trick on you, it’s simply an archaic cognitive mechanism that unfortunately is not going to end up satisfying your very much.
2. Your Brain is a Crappy Predictor of Future Pleasure
: The brain does a surprisingly bad job of anticipating what’s going to be highly pleasurable for you in the future. How many times have you been really excited about something only to discover that it’s quite mediocre? Be more mindful of your brain telling you that you are going to enjoy things that will actually suck…
- Getting drunk
- Getting high
- Eating shitty food
- Smoking a cigarette
- Blowing money at the mall,
- Having unprotected sex with an unhealthy person
3. Minimize Exposure:
The simplest self control hack which nobody practices is that, if you have a self control problem with something, avoid that thing.
- If you have a problem with alcoholism, stop hanging out with your drinking buddies.
- If you have a problem with cigarettes, walk out of the room anytime someone lights up, don’t hang out at places that people are going to be smoking, avoid going to stores where the cigarettes are displayed conspicuously and pay for your gas at the pump.
- If you have a problem with shopping and being a spendaholic; avoid malls and stores. When you do go to the store write up a concise list of what you are shopping for.
- If you have a problem with cocain, don’t go to that party where people are going to be using cocaine.
- if you have an issue with sexual promiscuity. Cut your contacts and ties with a person you are inappropriately attracted to or only see and communicate with them in a highly professional environment.
- If you have a problem with snack food, don’t go down the snack food aisle or better yet order some delicious healthy snacks.
- If you have a self control problem with wasting time watching TV, then sell your TV or cancel Netflix or your cable service.
The secret to practicing this kind of preventative self control is to plan your day, week, interactions and social life proactively with avoidance in mind. It can also mean…
- Initiating difficult conversations
- Setting boundaries
- And sometimes cutting off relationships
It may be hard but living a healthy and happy life accomplishing your goals is worth it.
4. Arbitrary Habit Formation Triggers Gains in Universal Self Control:
Consumer research done at University of Texas, Dallas around financial self control products and services collaborating with the findings of Oaten and Cheng has vindicated a powerful philosophy of self control that should appeal to everyone’s common sense.
Developing small habits in a particular domain of your life, increases the amount of self control you have in that area and in general.
Here’s some examples of common self control areas that people struggle with and small arbitrary habits that could be seriously beneficial:
Snack Food: Go buy a bag of almonds every Monday evening.
A word to the wise: if you abstain from junk food for a while and then enjoy sparingly it’s really amazing! Once I went 6 months without a candy bar, after all that time devouring a Reese’s bar I felt like a greek god consuming ambrosia on Elysium!
Soda or energy drinks: Make green tea every morning or make it every evening before going to bed so you can have it in the morning.
Use of hard party drugs: Once a week when you are going out to hang with friends, skip the booze and take some social smart drugs instead and see how it affects your social mindset, tell your friends about it, they will be fascinated. Or before you are going out to socialize, make it a point to shine your shoes. Or joke with the taxi driver.
Alcohol Consumption: When you are drinking alcohol, smell your drink twice for every time you drink it. Or make sure you know and use the name of whoever you are talking to before ordering or pouring yourself another drink.
Sexual Promiscuity: If some one you are attracted to is just a little disrespectful or unkind to you stop talking to them. My personal favorite, if I’m flirting with someone and they demonstrate flaky behavior several times I will unfriend them on social media. Practice some more self control with your masturbation habits; If you are single, wait 5 days in between getting yourself off, imagine your sexual energy pervading more into other areas of your life like your work, creativity, social life, etc.
Not playing on social media when you should be working: Schedule your social media usage. DO NOT post on social media as you feel like it or as a share worthy thought comes to mind. Instead write your status updates as an Evernote, then make it point to always share at 8:45AM in the morning.
5. Habit Formation Process:
Habit formation should have 3 parts:
- Pick a trigger.
- Associate it to a behavior.
- Then reward that behavior.
Example: Practicing my Spanish
- While waking up in the morning I listen to some salsa music.
- Then I walk downstairs in my hostel kitchen and conversate with the employees in Spanish.
- Then I walk to the market down the street and buy my favorite fruit from a street vendor.
6. Stress depletes self control:
Stress and will power have a kind of inverse relationship.
Biological signs of willing power: Slowed down breathing, decreased pulse rates and puts us into a balanced autonomic nervous state. We become more tranquil while exerting willpower.
Biological signs of stress: Fight or flight biology; faster breathing, hypertension, increased pulse rates, spikes in adrenalin and cortisol.
When you are highly stressed it’s almost impossible for your body to drop into a will power state. If stress management is an issue for you (and lets be honest, if you are human it probably is) check out our podcast on Life Hacking Stress.
7. Addiction to Tech:
One of our biggest addictions is our compulsive use of technology.
- Sporadic rewards are a great driver of human addictions and habits, this is why technology is so compelling. Maybe we will get a good message from a friend or an opportunity will pop up we are waiting for if we check out social media or email every few minutes.
- Even in social situations, when we really should be paying more attention to our physical companions. We look at our phones instinctually, without even thinking about it. As though it’s a physiologically itch.
As opposed to just scratching that it when you have the inclination, force yourself to ask yourself:
- Why do I want to check my phone right now?
- Could my energy be better served by interacting socially with real flesh and blood people?
- Or maintaining my focus on the task at hand?
8. Using the Fear Trigger for Willpower:
Fear is a powerful tool for self control. Human beings will almost always choose short term pleasure over long term gain, if we aren’t emotionally experiencing the consequences of our actions.
Case Study: The Amygdala-less Lucy and a disappearance of self control.
A Psychology Today article brings us a fascinating story of how biological changes drastically affect self control. A 24 year old woman started suffering severe seizures after a prolonged fever, the medication wasn’t working so the doctors eventually decided to perform a temporal lobotomy to save her life.
- The temporal lobotomy solved the seizure problem and Lucy’s life returned to normal, for the most part.
- Several years later she suffered another surgery. After this at the hospital she awoke in a groggy state and was left unattended in an examination room. Half an hour later she was found in another room close by giving fellatio (a blowjob) to a male patient who she did not know!
- Occasionally Lucy would forget to take her anti-seizure medication, she would have a seizure and then a few hours later she would engage in overt sexual activities like public mastrobation and trying to seduce family members.
- She would also lose control around food and would have intense binge eating episodes.
So what’s the biology behind this extreme lack of self control? There’s a part of the brain called the Amygdala, there are actually two Amygdalas. The Amygdala is a very old part of the croc brain, mostly concerned with threat detection and fear. It’s this part of the brain where fear responses will put the brakes on impulsive behaviors. The temporal lobotomy Lucy underwent actually removed one of her Amygdalas and when she had a seizure the remaining one would turn off, leaving her fearless and endowing her with the sexual boldness of a succubus.
My example of not dating ‘crazy’ women: You hear men talk a lot about ‘crazy’ women: men complaining about their crazy ex-girlfriends, ex-wives and baby’s mothers. You hear men talk about how girls who are a little crazy are easier to attract, easier to seduce and freakier in bed. To be honest, despite ample opportunity, I almost never date or spend time with women who are ‘crazy’ and it saves me TON of stress, time and money. If I think back on the past several years of my dating life it’s mostly just been a lot of fun with almost no drama, negativity or heartache.
So why do I have so much self control in this area? Once upon a time as a very young man, I spent 2 days in a county jail for a traffic warrant. It was a seriously boring 2 days of crappy food, uncomfortable beds and uninspiring conversation with the other inmates. One thing that I recall VIVIDLY was that a lot of the guys were spending a whole lot longer time in jail than me because they had been dating, living with and making babies with ‘crazy’ women. My emotional memory of those guys in jail is all the motivation I need to ‘just say no’ to women who seem unstable or mean.
Life Hack for Emotionalizing Fears: Watch morbid documentaries. Unless you’ve had a close friend or family member die or suffer visibly in front of you because of their vices it may be difficult for you to really scare yourself into practicing self control when it comes to addictive behaviors. I recommend watching documentaries about drug addiction, alcoholism, prison, crime and other societal problems. These documentaries will give you the emotional experience of the negatives of addictive and unhealthy behaviors which will give you mental fortitude to say no when it matters the most. Where to find these documentaries?
Documentaries done by Vice Media
Top Documentary Films
9. Nootropics and self control:
Are there Nootropics or brain supplements that have a positive demonstrated effect on self control and willpower? Increased self control or willpower is actually one of the most common ways people describe their experiences on a variety of brain supplements and Nootropic stacks. Three in particular are highly demonstrated as effective at increasing willpower.
Piracetam, increases perception of reward and arousal. Increases dopamine. This has been shown to help those suffering from alcohol and methamphetamine addiction. On the Wikipedia page there are 6 different studies linked where Piracetam helped people with alcoholism issues. The dosage of Piracetam I prefer to have a really powerful, productivity buzz all day runs about $40 for a 2–3 month supply.
5-HTP, a precursor to Serotonin, one of the essential feel good Neurotransmitters. Ray Sahelian, M.D. who wrote the book on serotonin said: “Low serotonin levels may lead to addictive behavior such as gambling or other habits caused by weak will power… Along with food selection.” $17 for a monthly supply.
10. Practice of compartmentalization:
Mental compartmentalization is key to self control. When an activity challenges your self control as opposed to swearing it off.
Say to yourself, ‘I will do that thing at some point and really thoroughly enjoy it, at that time’. Example of compartmentalization for self control:
- I was staying recently at a hostel in Nicaragua, I was about to go to bed but there was a bunch of people partying in the courtyard within earshot.
- I’m was very tempted to go party with them but instead I said to myself: This coming Thursday I will go hang out and with all these people and be very social and enjoy everyone, but not now. Now I’m going to go watch this documentary on this topic that interests me and go to bed early so I can get this project done early in the morning.
11. 10 minutes of meditation daily significantly increases will power:
Meditation practice consistently builds gray matter and increases the density of synaptic connections in areas of the brain that control decision making and emotions.
Why is meditation so great for will power? The core activity of meditation is to hold your body very still and keep your mind either focused on a very specific topic (Focused Attention) or in the moment and hyper receptive to what’s going on around you (Open Monitoring). During meditation you must resist the temptation to itch your body or become mentally preoccupied with your past or future. If you are not experienced with meditation it really can be challenging to keep your body completely still and stay in the moment mentally as opposed to moving backward and forwards on a mental time travel trip through your life experience.
Download: Guided Meditation on Inner Calm
This 10-min meditation uses the principle of desensitization that is commonly used to work with stress, addictions, phobias, forgiveness/conflict, and trauma. You will be asked to bring your body into a state of relaxation, then bring to mind some situation that is creating stress for you, then return to feelings of relaxation. Remember that you are in control of this practice, and if it starts to feel like unpleasant rumination rather than meditation, it may not be the best practice for you in this moment. This practice can give you the capacity to better handle cravings and stress when they arise in everyday life.
12. Regular Physical Exercise Correlates to Gains in Self Control:
A study done by Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, Oaten and Cheng found a strong correlation between physical exercise and self control ability. Aerobic exercise has a more positive affect on the mind than anaerobic exercise does, so cardio and intermittent training will do more for you mind than pumping iron. Here’s the results reported:
During the regulatory exercise phase, participants also reported signiﬁcant decreases in perceived stress, emotional distress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits.
2006 Australian Study: Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise
13. Snack throughout the day:
The more hungry you get the less willpower you have. Think about the person who has a big lunch, works hard all day without eating, then pigs out on fast food on the way home. My favorite is indulgent, yet heart and mind healthy snack is dark chocolate covered almonds.
14. Switch Hands:
Dr. Thomas Denson, of the University of New South Wales conducted a study which demonstrated that switching to your non-dominant hand helps you build control over the emotions of anger and aggression. Practice moving your mouse to the other side of your computer for 15 minutes a day, stirring your tea with your non-dominant hand or focusing on your non-dominant side while doing martial arts or sports.
15. Reruns of TV shows & self control:
Two studies conducted by Social Psychological and Personality Science found that watching television reruns actually restores willpower, whereas watching a brand new episode (or a nightly news program) depletes will power. I assume the same holds true for watching your favorite movie repeatedly vs watching a new movie.
16. Try to move tasks, that require a lot of your strength and willpower to earlier in the day:
17. Liquid Boosters of Will Power.
Reasonable doses of caffeine from black coffee or tea (I prefer caffeine rich, green tea). Chocolate (organic raw chocolate, my current favorite being raw Cacoa hearts, que delicioso! Not Reese’s) also contains caffeine, neurotransmitter precursors which will make you feel happier and antioxidants that fight stress.
18. Exercise Executive Function with Dual N-Back Software Training:
A University of Switzerland study and a 2012 German Study demonstrated that a few weeks of Dual N-Back training will consistently increase Executive Function. Executive Function is our ability to practice mental discipline, to concentrate intently on one thing while completely ignoring something else, to mentally compartmentalize activities, direct attention with specificity or to apply all creative energy towards a task until it’s completion.
From the abstract of the German study: Following [N-Back] training, participants showed improvements in the trained task as well as in the transfer working memory updating task. As for the other executive functions, trained participants improved in a task switching situation and in attentional processing.
This University of Minnesota study focused on the transfer effects between Executive Function, Dual N-Back Training and Self Control, Self-Regulation and the Executive Function: The Self as Controlling Agent.
From this paper: in the present study we have provided evidence that complex WM training can produce transfer effects to executive functions.
Indeed, Dual N-Back training aficionados frequently report gains in self control and ability to focus on mission critical tasks while ignoring distractions.
Dual N-Back Pro is the highest rated Dual N-Back training software on the market for Windows, Mac and Android devices. Dual N-Back Pro also makes the bold money back guarantee that 20 sessions of 20 minutes each will result in measurable gains of 15–20 IQ points in addition too improvements in working memory.To download a free demo of the Dual N-Back task join the Limitless Mindset Community.
19. Daily Social Media Count Up
Social accountability is a great motivator, if you are trying to break a habit it may be a good idea to do a post a daily count up on your social media accounts: Day 17 without Smoking, Day 22 Sober, etc. Each day your friends will (hopefully) applaud your self control, it also lets them know not to invite you out for a night of debauchery or to take a smoke break. This tactic might be somewhat counter intuitive considering there are three studies demonstrating that telling people about your goals, demotivates you from accomplishing them. To counter balance this effect keep your resolution to yourself for 10–14 days then start your daily social media count up. Post in the mornings during weekdays, this is when it will get the most visibility.
A seriously effective social accountability tool created by Yale University economists for quitting smoking, loosing weight, eating right or whatever your self control intensive goals are.
- You start by creating a Commitment Contract for your behavior: You commit to exercising consistently, studying Spanish for an hour a day, going a month without drinking, ect.
- Then you set the Stakes of what happens if you fail to exercise self control: Your money is donated to charity or cause you hate and (or) your friends or social network are notified are some of the most effective motivational stakes. That’s right! One of the strongest motivators of habit changing action is knowing that your hard earned money is going to go towards a cause you oppose if you fail to practice self control. Example: If you are Pro Life on the Abortion issue, select a Pro Choice charity to recieve your funds if you fail.
- Select a Refferee: Your best friend, spouse or roommate holds you accountable to your Commitment Contract. If you break your Commitment they can report it to on your stikK account.
- Support: Other users on stikK will support and encourage you in your goals, posting encouraging messages on your Wall
You can set Commitment Contracts as one time events with a deadline (I will go one month without drinking alcohol) or as ongoing commitments (I will workout twice every week). There are currently over $28 Million dollars on the line for Commitment Contracts and hundreds of thousands of users meeting their goals.
21. The Gift of Rejection:
For several years I used to smoke a couple cigarettes a week in social settings. I used the whole ‘I only smoke when I drink’ justification. Actually a girl inspired me to quit, not by supporting me but by disappearing on me. One of my best lady friends, had been talking me up for weeks too her friend Tammy. Our mutual friend arranged an epic night out on the town together, me and my date hit it off immediately and had awesome sexy chemistry on the dancefloor.
Then things went south, fast…
I will never forget the profound look of disappointment and momentary disgust on Tammy’s when she saw me sneaking a puff outside that night. Our date ended with a cold goodbye and afterwards my texts to her went mostly unanswered. Honestly, it took me a couple years after that to completely kick the habit but her complete rejection of me was the genesis of me questioning whether I should improve myself and kick a very insidious habit. Rejection is almost unmatched in it’s motivational power:
- Think of the sales person who works smarter because they lost a sale.
- The business person who improves their product as a result of losing a big potential customer.
- The frustrated young man who works harder than ever before to improve himself after a tough break up.
- The employee who aggressively begins acquiring skills as a result of being passed over for a promotion.
So may we never shy away from giving or receiving the profound gift of rejection.
22. Appify (and Outsource) Self Control with Coach.me
Coach.me takes all the features that make social media so addictive and distracting and instead puts them them to work as motivational tools so you follow through on your winning habits daily.
How it works:
- With a single click you ‘checkin’ to habits as you complete them daily.
- Add popular habits from the database or add your own personalized habits.
- Over time the App builds useful statistics and visual representations of your personal performance and progess.
- Intuitive Apps for iPhone, Android and web browser
- Coach.me enlists the help of both your friends and strangers on the social network to encourage you to follow through with your habits. They can leave you props and encouraging comments on your habit checkins. Don’t let them down!
- You can set yourself reminders (with notifications) of certain habits.
When it comes to habituating discipline I prefer behavioral conditioning over ego gratifying introspection. The bottom line with any tool is measurable results delivered. Which is where really Coach.me shines. For example, currently I’m on a +70 day hot streak of brain training, with the progress I’ve made there’s NO way I’m missing a day of brain training!
What Lift™ habits do we recommend?
Hour 1: Empire Building
It’s free (also ad free!) and takes maybe 120 seconds a day to update. If you are serious about your goals you really have no excuse — download Coach.me now.
23. Selfies Improve Self Control
Sounds crazy right? Indulgences in camera phone powered narcissism are good for will power?
Self control is universally correlated to activation of a part of the brain, the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex (rVLPFC), sometimes also called the right inferior frontal gyrus. This part of the brain gets turned on by, you guessed it, narcissism, specifically seeing photos of ourselves. This includes:
- Taking Selfies frequently and looking at them.
- Framing a photo of yourself somewhere you will see it frequently.
- Placing a mirror on or near your desk (arguably a better as it provides real time feedback — this is what we did at the sales jobs I had in the past).
- Taking a trip down memory lane, looking at your Facebook photos.
- Or my personal favorite, making Youtube videoblogs and watching them.
On a level that a psychologist would appreciate, looking at photos of ourselves reminds us of the people we are trying to be.
5 Steps to a Self Control Mindset:
- Avoid triggers.
- Realize that your brain is tricking you! You aren’t actually going to enjoy this activity, it’s just that there may be a an unpredictable reward from it.
- Demoralize the activity; look at it in shades of gray, not black and white.
- Compartmentalize that activity for a future moment where you will be an ethical hedonist.
- Go eat a snack (like some healthy chocolate) or drink some Bulletproof™ Upgraded™ Coffee or Green Tea.
Letting me know what self-control challenges are the most frustrating for you and which of these lifehacks you are going to employ to overcome them. Don’t underestimate the power of taking action now! In the comments below let me know what steps you are taking today!
Consider that the incremental daily biological effects of practicing self control will probably make the difference for someone you love, between living a long, happy life or dying, painfully and prematurely. Consider sharing this article with them.