The keys to self-control (II): avoiding some of the pitfalls

In the previous article about self-control, we concluded that self-knowledge is the foundation for our ability “to control ourselves.” Elaborating on that subject, this article looks at some of the “pitfalls” that can be avoided in the process of strengthening our willpower.

As we said, nothing is more effective for addressing these challenges than careful observation, and staying much more focused on the ultimate goal, the major reason that inspires us to exercise our willpower to achieve it.

The road leading to that goal is plagued with difficulties: the more structural reason behind these difficulties is that the objectives being pursued are long term. And this fact tends to create a strong feeling of “inferiority” to the overpowering dopamine rushes fueled by short-term “mirages.”

Here’s a clear example to illustrate what we are talking about: every student has, at one time or another, aspired to improve their grades. This resolution is often made at the beginning of the course, for instance. If we are in college and grades are largely based on a final exam, the brave student will face a major challenge: it is hard to measure their progress along the way, and the success or failure of their undertaking is hinged upon a single, isolated activity: the final exam. It takes just a few short hours to measure the results of their efforts. It is understood that a resolution is made when autumn rolls around, and up to about a month before the exam there is a continuous temptation to do anything but study, with the classic excuse of: “There’s still time.”

If we take a closer look, this example reveals some very valid points to consider, as long as we assimilate what we said earlier about dopamine. The solution is obvious: establish a few daily habits that enable us to keep up to date on all fronts. We are also aware of the main difficulty: dopamine is triggered by any mundane distraction (e.g., movies, refrigerator, beer). Suffice it to say, trying to convince ourselves that “this hour of studying matters” will generally not do the trick.

Here is where we can turn the tables on the dopamine process and have it work in our favor. In reality, few things motivate us more than realizing that we are making progress, that we have advanced significantly. The motivation is so strong that simply becoming aware of our progress fires off a major shot of dopamine in our body. Thus, it all comes down to carving out a path with its respective milestones, which allow us to enjoy incremental victories every so often. It’s actually just common sense, yet we rarely apply it.

The pitfall of apparent progress

At the same time, that feeling of progress can also work against us. One very common strategy among those who decide to get in shape is to divide the challenge two: exercise and go on a diet. But here comes the pitfall: sometimes perceiving that we are making progress in a particular area makes us feel justified to slack in another. It’s kind of like someone who exercises hard for two hours and then celebrates with a buttery croissant. The cause of this paradox has to do with a lack of self-awareness, losing perspective of why we are doing things and why we are putting our willpower to the test.

In other words, mistakenly thinking that self-control is self-defeating; the challenge revolves around what “I shouldn’t” do, which leads to stress over achieving a set of goals that we ultimately view as opposing forces, contrary to our desires.

When we think things through, and clearly visualize the objectives we desire deep down, our actions are not self-defeating, but in fact work in our favor. As we gradually internalize this reality, it becomes easier to face our day-to-day challenges and say “no” to what doesn’t behoove us, even though it appeals to us.

This common act of self-deception has much in common with the moralistic conception of willpower. We tend to put labels of right or wrong on actions related to challenges involving willpower: eating salad is the right thing for someone on a diet; eating pizza is wrong. By that logic, when a person behaves accordingly, they are being “good”; if not, they feel like they are being “bad.”

This view causes a tremendous amount of tension for the person being judged on the fulfillment of their objectives. If they fail, they feel guilty. If they succeed, they feel “good” in a way that is not always related to actual goodness. Stress certainly does not help, but tends to hinder the use of willpower: it makes us lose sight of why things are done.

Our judgment changes completely when we start to talk about what we really want: someone on a diet eats salad because they want to feel healthy, because they want to look good in their own eyes, because they want to have a fruitful life and see their children grow up and their children’s children too; and the fleeting satisfaction of a doughnut does not measure up to the great objective of being healthy, no matter how much dopamine is released by the fat contained in such junk food.

The limits of the “I shouldn’t”

Anyone who is told not to think about something, given the very structure of human thought, will likely bring it constantly to mind. Then, if we add the attraction people feel toward something that is forbidden, it becomes clear that the “I shouldn’t” strategy is not suitable for overcoming a challenge of willpower.

In terms of thoughts, but also other challenges in which the aim is to stop doing something, a negative struggle must be reinforced by a clear big-picture perspective, and being more aware of what we really want. Living positively is a far more effective and rewarding approach.

Opening the inner windows to let fresh air come in is also a good strategy. Freely expressing our thoughts, observing internal processes and the emotions generated by a challenge of willpower are all good tactics for properly handling these challenges. Contemplating and airing out our emotions leads to better self-awareness and therefore better self-control. Without a doubt, a good conversation with someone we trust can do wonders.

The “what on earth…” effect

Lastly, we have the one that is probably the main obstacle for a challenge of willpower: the “what the heck…” effect; or, like the old expression, “it’s a lost cause.” Basically, it is a disproportionate and irrational response to failure: after stumbling on one obstacle, giving up on the rest.

Once again, we fall into this trap when we are too focused on the short term, and it happens after we lose sight of what we really want. This can easily occur, because in the whole process associated with a challenge of willpower, the best feeling we get comes when we are making our resolution. We understand that the rest of the journey will require an effort and won’t bring very much satisfaction along the way.

That explains why we burn out if we are not aware of this reality. However, by getting familiar with this situation and understanding it, we have a great opportunity to gain perspective, remember what is really worth achieving, and advance toward that even if it means an uphill battle.



  • MCGONIGAL, Kelly. “The Willpower Instinct”.