Why People Who Wish for More Self-Control Actually Wind up with Less

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Here’s some bad news for folks who desperately need more self-control in their lives. Research shows that wishing for more self-control actually has the opposite effect.

In a 2017 study, psychologists measured participants’ desire to increase their self-control. Then the volunteers rated their current level of self-control. Lastly, they had to complete either an easy or a difficult assignment.

The volunteers who performed best on the challenging assignment were the least likely to say that they wanted to have more self-control. Those who did the worst were the most likely to wish for more self-control.

The desire for self-control had no effect on the volunteers’ performance on the easy assignment.

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These results could simply demonstrate that people with a lot of self-control perform better on hard tasks — they don’t wish for more self-control because they already have it.

But in a follow-up experiment, the psychologists managed to manipulate people’s desire for more self-control by asking them to write an essay about why self-control was a good thing OR how it could cause problems. This time, those who were prompted to see self-control as desirable performed worse on the difficult task. Those who were prompted to see self-control as problematic performed much better.

Consciously wishing for more self-control may seem like a positive thing — how are you supposed to become more disciplined unless you try? But in reality, this desire makes you focus on what you don’t already have, psyching you out in the process.

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So instead of just passively wishing for more self-control, try taking concrete steps to accomplish the specific things that you want to accomplish. For example, don’t just think to yourself, “I wish I had the self-control not to check Instagram every day” – actually install an app on your phone to limit your social media use.

The researchers also recommend reframing your thinking. Self-control isn’t something that people simply have or don’t have. It’s an unlimited resource, and you can tap into it at any time, regardless of what you’ve done before.