Self-Control and Willpower

Self-respect is the root of discipline: the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel

At the beginning of the Best Day Ever Summer Challenge, I made the comment, “Nothing tastes as good as making a promise to yourself and keeping it.” The phrase rang with me as I turned down everything from my favorite cheeses to skipping the grand opening for a new cupcake shop. The entire experience made me curious about how willpower and self-control are formed. If we didn’t have it to start with, can we learn it?

Nothing tastes as good as making a promise to yourself and keeping it.

Thinking back to my childhood, I tried to identify areas where my willpower muscle had been strengthened growing up. My parents were excellent at helping me and my brother set goals and meet them. They were quick to show us how accountability in our own actions brought about positive results and they modeled good behavior for us. My brother and I got lucky. We had parents that understood that greater self-control is a predictor for success. What if you didn’t have that type of upbringing? Is it too late for you? No. It is never too late to learn a new skill or strengthen a dormant muscle. Here are some proactive ways you can work to strengthen your self-control and willpower:

Practice internal locus of control

At work, we call this “ILC!” It means that you believe you can change things. It means that you accept responsibility rather than blaming others. If you have ILC, you will say “I am going to have an apple instead of that delicious chocolate chip cookie because I have the choice and I choose to be healthy.” If you have a more External Locus of Control, you will say “It’s not my fault that I’m hungry for the cookie! It’s because my husband ate all the oatmeal this morning and I didn’t get a good breakfast and now I’m starving! I deserve to be happy!” Take a stand. Make a choice. Take responsibility. Look at what you can do to change the situation and empower yourself. Don’t ever wait for anyone to do things for you.

I’ve been good all day; why spoil it now?

Think globally, not locally

Think about the big picture, not just the now. Last week, my husband had a delicious bag of Smart Pop White Cheddar Popcorn. He snacked on it in bed while I drank my...water. My water was delicious (not!) and I could smell his popcorn. Thinking locally would have been, “I have been so good all day; one handful of popcorn won’t hurt me! Plus, it’s only like 30 calories. No big deal. I’m hungry NOW!” Thinking globally is more like, “I’ve been good all day; why spoil it now? I need to think long term and make the right decision.” This means that you think about the “why” behind your goals, not just the method you are using to achieve them. Remember the greater picture. Remember the “why.”


Pinpoint the areas in your life where you are lacking self-control. For me, it’s cheese (even more than cupcakes) and organizing. Design a few concrete phrases you can easily say to yourself when you are being tempted: “I love having a clean and organized house.” “I am proud of myself for making positive choices around eating.” Use tools available to you like the app Habit Share and get an accountability partner to help you on your path. 


There is little in life more powerful than public shaming or public cheering. If you are going to practice your self-control and quit a habit (such as smoking) tell as many people as you can. Get them to support you. Think about them when you’re wavering in your strong decision and every time you see them and they say, “How’s it going to today?” answer them as if your goal had already happened “Well, I am really loving being a non-smoker.” “I’m noticing that I can take a deep breath now that I’ve quit smoking.”


Nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a proper bringing-up, a sound set of values – and witnesses.
— Franklin P. Jones

Celebrate your wins! The more wins and notches you have on your belt for your self-control battles, the more confident you will be in yourself and your ability to do anything. Savor the moment. Take a mental snapshot so you can think back about your success the next time you need a boost of willpower. I had one particularly difficult night last month when my entire family insisted on going to Olive Garden and ate all my hot button yummy foods (fettuccine alfredo, Olive Garden salad, lemon chiffon dessert). As I sat there eating my chicken breast with nothing on it and smelling the wafting bread sticks, it was a challenge but my Dad told me afterward he was proud of me for setting a goal and sticking to it. That made the last 90 minutes all worthwhile! I have a mental snapshot of my Dad saying how proud he was of me – I can hear him say it right now as I type this. Anytime I have a weak moment in the future, you know what I’m going to be replaying in my head – his positive reinforcement. 

Test yourself on small tasks and strengthen your willpower to conquer bigger challenges. Before you know it, you’ll have built up your willpower and self-control muscles and be able to climb any mountain, succeed at any workout program and eat healthy for the rest of your life.