How to Build Self‐Control

Two Methods:Building Self-Control in the MomentBuilding Long-Term Self-Control

Building self-control can be challenging, but it is possible to create change in your life and manage impulsivity. Feeling more in control of yourself and your actions can lead to feeling more in control of life, feeling more empowered about who you are, and helping boost your feelings of self-esteem.

Method 1
Building Self-Control in the Moment

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    Recognize impulsive thoughts. Having strategies to help you resist temptation in the moment will help you build self-control. Start by making a list of the behaviors you’d like to control and the situations that often trigger the behavior.[1][2] By recognizing the moments when you get the urge to act impulsively, you’ll be more equipped to create a delay between the urge and action.
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    Place time restrictions on impulsive thoughts. Creating space in your thinking will help you reevaluate your actions from a more rational viewpoint. This will also help you learn how to create a delay in your actions instead of just acting upon your urges.
    • For example, if spending money or shopping is one of the areas that you want to build self-control, place a twenty-four-hour hold on any purchases before you buy anything. You can write down in a small notebook what you were thinking of buying and in twenty-four hours revisit your list and decide then if you really want or need the item(s).
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    Try belly breathing. This suggestion can come in handy if you are trying to quit smoking or curb your eating habits. If you have a cigarette or food craving, instead of immediately giving in to the craving, set your phone timer for five minutes, and focus on breathing from your belly. Remind yourself that a craving is just that, a craving, it is not a necessity. Take the five minutes of breathing to imagine the craving slowly disappearing every time you exhale. Take note of how you feel and if you still want to engage in eating impulsively or giving in to that cigarette.[3]
    • Try closing your eyes and breathing in slowly through your nose. Continue filling your lungs, fully expanding your chest and lower belly. Finally, breathe out slowly and naturally—your mouth or nose is fine.[4]
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    Find a healthy distraction. You’ll find it harder to avoid the urge if you simply sit and fixate on it. Instead, recognize the urge and actively try to distract yourself with something else. This can help distract your mind from the urge or craving and give you the space to truly decide if you want to act on that urge.
    • Sometimes doing something with your hands is helpful, such as crocheting, knitting, folding origami, or even texting a friend.
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    Have a go-to activity. In addition to momentary distractions, actively try to replace the behavior you want to control with a substantive alternative. By giving yourself more time to slow your mind, you can make a clearer, more empowered decision.[5]
    • For instance, if you’re trying to stop spending money, you can go for a walk in a green space where you won’t even have the opportunity to shop. Or if you’re trying to control overeating, you can develop the habit of hitting the gym when the urge to overeat arises.

Method 2
Building Long-Term Self-Control

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    Make a list of the habits or behaviors you want to control. If people in your life have made suggestions about your habits, take those suggestions into consideration. Remember that true change comes from the inside so also listen to your intuition and honor how you feel as well as feedback you have received from people in your life. You have to be committed to making change and building self-control in order to truly change your behaviors.[6]
    • Some examples might be smoking, eating, work habits, productivity, alcohol, controlling your temper, shopping or spending money, etc.
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    Choose the main behavior from the list you’d like to control. We all have areas of our life that could use more discipline and self-control, so remember to be easy on yourself and take things slowly. Look at your list and choose one thing you want to work on. Changing habits takes time, and building self-control takes effort. Honor your energy and set realistic goals that are achievable.[7]
    • Remember that you’re only in control of your own behavior while choosing. For instance, don’t choose something like “having a better relationship with my parents” since that requires effort from your parents as well. A goal such as “improve my communication habits with my parents” is better because it hinges on your behavior alone.
    • Be realistic about what kind of changes you can make that will fit into your life, your time, and your ability. If you try to change everything at once, as ambitious as this may be, you can risk self-sabotaging your efforts and giving up.
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    Research the behavior. Educate yourself as much as you can about how others have built self-control in similar situations. Ask friends or loved ones who have made similar changes in their lives. Do an internet search about the specific thing you are trying to change.[8]
    • For example, if overeating is the behavior you have decided to change, find books about impulsive eating (or binge eating) and gather as many helpful strategies as you can about how to build self-control around eating. Start a journal just for eating, for example, and write down or keep track of as many strategies as you come across. This gives you more options to try to discover what works for you.
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    Take an honest inventory of yourself. Keep a personal journal, so you individualize your experience in enacting change. Developing awareness about your own emotional triggers that cause impulsivity and lack of self-control will help you recognize the behavior. Nurturing awareness around your impulsive behaviors will help you feel more in control of yourself and can also help you make decisions about how you want to build self-control. It’s all about what feels right for you, and building self-control starts with awareness of why you sometimes feel impulsive.[9]
    • Staying with the example of binge eating, examine how you feel when you impulsively eat. Do you notice that you tend to binge eat when you are stressed? Maybe you binge eat to celebrate too. Do you find yourself binge eating when you feel anxious or sad?
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    Set realistic goals. Part of failing with regard to developing self-control is in getting frustrated with yourself for not changing overnight or being able to quit a behavior cold turkey. Set yourself up for success in your efforts by setting realistic goals and tapering away from the behavior rather than stopping all at once.[10]
    • If you're building self-control around compulsive eating, for instance, don’t try switching to nothing but fruits and vegetables all at once because it’s too dramatic a change—not to mention unsustainable.
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    Mark your progress. Always remember, the key is progress not perfection. Keep a calendar specifically dedicated to your efforts. When there are days that you felt you lacked self-control, mark it on your calendar, and journal about what preceded it that perhaps triggered your impulsivity. The more you become aware of yourself and your patterns, the easier it will be to see challenging times coming.
    • For example, maybe the holidays are a stressful time for you, and you notice yourself eating much more just from the pressure of everything you have to do. Next year, you will know that the holidays are a time that self-control becomes difficult for you, and you can prepare yourself by beefing up the strategies you learned about while educating yourself about binge eating.
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    Motivate yourself. Maintain clear reasons for yourself why you want to control the behavior and remind yourself of them continuously. Try to find your inner motivation and journal about it. You could also keep a list of reasons on a small piece of paper in your wallet, or program a reminder on your phone.[11]
    • For example, say you’re trying to develop self-control about smoking cessation. You could write down the cost of buying cigarettes, the effects on your health, the smell, caring for your teeth, etc. Also make a list of all the positives of quitting smoking, including having more money to spend on other things, whiter teeth, breathing easier, or whatever reasons you can think of that will motivate you to quit.
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    Channel the energy into positive behaviors. Try to fold in different behaviors to replace the behavior you are trying to build self-control around. Look at this process as a journey to find out what works for you and try not to get discouraged if a coping strategy doesn’t quite resonate with and instead move on to something else. Caring for yourself will reinforce that you are actively trying to change and practice better self control.[12]
    • For example, if you binge eat when you are stressed, start to explore other ways to manage your stress other than eating. Explore different relaxation techniques and replacement strategies, such as belly breathing, yoga, physical exercise, meditation, martial arts, or tai chi.
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    Develop new hobbies. Getting lost in a new found hobby such as cars, puzzles, motorcycles, sports, or painting—among countless others—can be a wonderful distraction as you practice self-control. Part of changing behavior is replacing that behavior with something that is healthier and not vulnerable to impulsivity.
    • There are many resources on the web that you can access to get yourself started, such as Pinterest or social media groups where you can meet other people with similar interests.
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    Build yourself up. Proactively encourage yourself to make the changes in your life that you want. Having a positive attitude can truly influence your ability to practice self-control. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel like you are not reaching your goals. Keep your focus on continually making the effort, and let go of perceived failure. Just try again.[13]
    • You can use your journal to reframe negative statements if you feel you gave in to impulsivity instead of reaching your goals. For example, if your goal is not to spend money impulsively but you went on a shopping spree, take another look at your goals and remind yourself you had a really bad day. Take some time to journal what you could do differently next time, such as go to yoga class. Congratulate yourself on your awareness and get ready to try again.
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    Use your support system. Let your friends and loved ones know that you are trying to change your behaviors. Ask people in your life who are supportive if you can call or text them if you need support. Part of believing in yourself and creating change also means allowing others to help you. Although empowering yourself is a large part of building self-control, letting others in your life give you pep talks, motivate you, listen when you need it, will help reinforce your decisions to create change.
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    Reward yourself. Make sure you are giving yourself proper kudos for attempting to build self-control and change. Rewarding yourself for practicing self-control will help reinforce positive behaviors to replace impulsive behaviors.[14]
    • For example, if you are quitting smoking cigarettes, you could save the money you would spend on cigarettes and treat yourself to a massage or spa day. Or if you are trying to not binge eat, reward yourself with a small gift, such as a new shirt.
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    Learn when to seek help. While building self-control is a wonderful and ambitious facet of changing your life and feeling more in charge of yourself and your choices, there are circumstances when a person may need more help than just their own willpower. Here are some suggestions for when to seek professional help and support:
    • If you are struggling with alcohol or other substances
    • If you are engaging in dangerous or addictive sexual behaviors.
    • If you find yourself repeatedly engaged in abusive or dangerous relationships.
    • If you are trying to control your anger, or are raging outbursts, and have hurt yourself or someone else in the process.


  • You will not find changes instantly, so have patience and stay calm.
  • Don't forget to sleep well. It will keep you healthy and mentally fit, as well as giving you a break from the stress of thinking about your behavior.
  • Give yourself a light punishment system. For example, if you bite your nails, then every time you catch yourself, go do a chore or a favor or chew some gum to keep your mind off the habit and avoid falling into another habit.
  • Do not punish yourself for making mistakes. People are not perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.
  • Trust yourself to do the right thing. You're not a failure even when it seems you failed it only interpret to there are better ways other than you took, meaning you learned at the end of the day so its not total failure. Not even at all.


  • Recognize when friends or loved ones are encouraging you in your destructive behaviors. Sometimes we are led into bad habits by the people around us, and it's important to take a step back and know when to say, "Guys, I just can't be a part of this right now." If they persist, ask them, "Do you know that this is hurting me?" and see if their behavior improves.
  • Don't get carried away with your desire to gain control. It isn't healthy, for example, not to eat. Don't let self-control become just another addiction.

Sources and Citations

  1. “Self-Control, Willpower, and the Problem of Diminished Motivation.” Connor, Thomas. Philosophical Studies. Apr2014, Vol. 168 Issue 3, p783-796. 14p
  2. “Why Didn't I Think of That? Self-Regulation through Selective Information Processing.” Trudel, Remi; Murray, Kyle B. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR). Aug2011, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p701-712. 12p.
  3. “Revisiting the Restorative Effects of Positive Mood: An Expectancy-Based Approach to Self-Control Restoration.” Egan, Patrick M.; Clarkson, Joshua J.; Hirt, Edward R. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Mar2015, Vol. 57, p87-99. 13p.
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Categories: Assertiveness & Self Esteem