June 2015: How to Reduce the Need for Self-Control

Successful couple of young athletes raising arms to golden summer sunset sky after training. Fitness man and woman with arms up celebrating sport goals after exercising in countryside field.Willpower, self-regulation, and self-control; whatever you call it, many claim it is the cornerstone to success with goal achievement. In fact, I have written many articles myself on being able to increase willpower and self-regulation.

Recently I came across an article by Job, Bernecker, Miketta and Friese (2015) that argues will power is not in limited supply. In other words, just because we utilize willpower to go to the gym, does not mean we will be any less capable of using this resource to say no to that cookie. It is a fascinating study that aims to prove the only people that are limited in their ability to use willpower are those that believe it is a limited resource. That’s right, if you believe you have limited willpower, then you do. This new insight got me to thinking. Why do we need to use willpower or self-control at all? If we want a goal, why don’t we just do what needs to get done to achieve it? Why can’t we treat our goals like brushing our teeth? We do it every day. It takes daily effort, yet the cognitive load on this activity is almost non-existent. What if we applied the same concept of brushing our teeth to achieving our goals? What if our goals didn’t take self-control at all, rather they were a series of automated behaviors, just like brushing our teeth? Sounds too simple doesn’t it?

Recently I have taken on some new health behaviors that looking back on how I implemented them, they carried very little need for self-control to implement them. All I did was create a plan, write it in my calendar and then performed the tasks. They were small tasks, nonetheless, as I was going for my daily morning walk this morning that I have been doing for about two months now, I got to thinking how natural and easy it has been to incorporate that activity into my daily routine. I started with a plan to go for a walk first thing in the morning three times a week. I did that until I was successful, then I increased it to four, then five, now, I go for a 45 minute walk most mornings and I don’t really think about it as a hassle at all. It is an enjoyable part of my morning. And, when I don’t go, I don’t worry about it, I just go about my day and go for a walk the following day.

I have been theorizing for some time now, that when we have goals, we tend to make sweeping changes in our lives that require cognitive load and take mental space, which causes us to utilize willpower or self-control in order to implement our new activity. But, what if like my morning walk, you made changes in your life in the same way?

There is only one way to find out if my hypothesis is true for you, and that is to try it. Here are some simple steps.

  1. Think about a goal that you have.
  2. What’s one behavior that you can do this week that will move you in the direction of that goal?
  3. Write it down in your calendar. Put the days and times that you will do this activity. Make it simple, maybe three times a week or something like that.
  4. At the end of the week review your progress and make adjustments the following week that are slightly more ambitious.
  5.  Once this behavior gets automated, add a second behavior.

Continue to your heart’s content.

That’s all. A few simple changes now leads to your desired goal later. Here are a few more ideas that will help you to reduce the need to self-control and make your health behaviors an effortless part of your life.

  1. Establish goals that not only have a compelling outcome, but are also fun to do in the process.
  2. Make your workouts fun
  3. Scale back slowly on undesired habits.
  4. Laugh a little, or a lot.
  5. Don’t overthink it.
  6. Get rid of the rules.
  7. De-stress.

Feel free to send me a message and let me know your thoughts. I would love to hear about your success with it.


Job, V., Bernecker, K., Miketta, S., Friese, M. (2015, June 15). Implicit theories about willpower predict the activation of a rest goal following self-control exertion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.


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