TLDR; The #1 driver to better self-control is not your mindset, it is your environment. Yes, self-control can be trained. But initially there is an easier way: it can be avoided. The secret to self-control is to structure our environment so you don’t have to use it. In this article I will explain 5 tips to skyrocket your self-control in a short period of time so you can reach either your fitness or your business goals faster.
How to improve self-control fast
We all have days where we lack the willpower or self-control to stay consistent with exercising or eating healthy. Some weeks you are feeling super motivated to crush your goals, but they are only followed by weeks where you wonder where all the motivation and drive went. You start skipping your workouts, eat more fast food and stay up late watching funny cat videos instead of dreaming about hitting a new PR. But before you conclude with simply having no self-control or willpower; I have good news. (No, I am not going to go all David Goggins on you telling you to simply work harder).
All these tips have helped me tremendously by going from being the worst student in high school. I mean literally the lowest grades in class, to graduating university with top grades, starting my own business, staying in decent shape year around and publishing a book - despite not being a naturally disciplined person. These tips can do the same for you, regardless of how little willpower or self-control you have today.
Environment: the real driver of self-control
Contrary to what most people think, the first and most important driver of self-control, is not your mindset, it is your environment.
My first real encounter with discipline was when I joined the military at age 19. Before that I was probably the least disciplined person you would ever have met in most areas of life. I always used to snooze as long as possible, snack every hour, only read or do cardio when I felt like it (which never was).
Image: Me serving in the Norwegian missile artillery in Northern Norway at age 19. My first real experience with discipline.
Now I had to wake up super early, only eat at certain times, keep my room super clean and run regardless of how I felt. Naturally, I became more disciplined - or so I thought. Because, when I left the military, I noticed that I feel right back into my old lazy habits of sleeping in and snacking every waking hour, making me 10-15 kg bigger than I am today.
The real driver of change - for both good and bad - was my environment. Am I telling you to join the military? No. You can make much more sustainable improvements in self-control by making simple changes to your home, kitchen or office space.
Day 1. Design your environment to save willpower
Key point: We humans like to think we make our choices based on our own personal judgment. However, there is a catch. Our choices are often just based on the options we are faced. - James Clear
Example: Let’s say you walk into your kitchen and suddenly spot a bowl of cookies on the counter and you start snacking. Since you probably were not deliberately searching for cookies before they occurred in front of you, your choice of eating cookies was simply a reaction to an option you were faced with.
As James Clear puts it in Atomic Habits; the secret to self-control is simply to structure our environment so we don’t have to use it. And that is true regardless of what you are trying to achieve, whether that is learning a new skill, doing your homework, working out or eating healthy.
In the case of mindless snacking on candy throughout the week, try to simply avoid buying the foods on your “avoid list” to eliminate the occurrence of these options, and thus save your willpower.
The Cookie Experiment: Studies show that willpower is a diminishing resource that gets drained during the day the more you use it. In a famous 1998 study by Roy Baumeister, known as the "Cookie experiment", researches brought people into a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. The table before them held a plate of the cookies and a bowl of vegetables.
Some subjects were asked to eat the cookies, while others were supposed to stick with only the vegetables. After either indulging or avoiding the temptation of cookies, they were given 30 minutes to complete a difficult geometric puzzle.
The researchers found that people who ate radishes (and resisted the tempting cookies) gave up on the puzzle after about 8 minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for nearly 19 minutes, on average.
The conclusion was that drawing on willpower to resist the cookies had drained the subjects’ self-control for subsequent situations.
So what is actually willpower?
Willpower is the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. You can also see your willpower is a battery fueling your self-control. That means it is a diminishing resource that gets drained the more it is used to resist temptations during the day.
When drawing on willpower to resist snacks, using social media during work, or any other unnecessary temptations, you drain your self-control for subsequent situations. That includes eating healthy, working out or staying focused on the most important item on your todo-list.
So, seemingly disciplined people are actually not any better at avoiding temptations when they are put in front of them. They are simply better at structuring their day, so they don’t have to use discipline.
Remember; everything in your house will be eaten at some point when your cravings kick in. But if you don’t have certain types of foods in your house, you remove those mental debates on whether or not you should eat them.
- Key point: The most important exercise to improve self-control is simply to design your environment so you don’t have to use self-control. If you master this, you will start lose weight even without thinking. Out of sight, out of mind.
References: Baumeister, R. (1998): “Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?”
Day 2. Divide preparation and execution time
Secondly, we make good habits easier to perform, by first and foremost preparing in advance. If you pack your training bag the day before, the effort of actually going to the gym seems much less.
Preparing healthy meals in advance also makes it much easier to make better choices when your hunger kicks in - and you don’t have time to make that healthy chicken salad instead of a quick toast. When your fridge contains a few Tupperware boxes with ready to go nutritious meals, your success rate of actually eating healthy increases drastically. It all comes down to planning and preparing in advance. Ideally, you should separate the time for planning & preparing and execution time. I often rephrase an old quote from Brian Tracy;
"Each minute spent planning saves 10 minutes in execution"
NB: I am not sure what research that backs this up, but you get the point. If you plan your day and your workouts in advance, ideally the day before, the gym becomes a place where all your energy and willpower is spent on simply executing, not dwelling on what your next move should be.
Day 3. Make 1 big decision to eliminate a 1000 small
Now that we have eliminated physical distractions draining your willpower, let's talk about how making decisions over and over again will drain your willpower. This is true even if it’s the same, tiny decision — like constantly resisting the urge to check your email or continually trying to follow a new, strict diet. Constraints can make it easier to stick to good habits by eliminating the number of decisions you need to make to move forward.
People often say that they want options. But when it comes to getting things done, options aren’t always a good thing. When everything is a possibility, it actually becomes harder to make the right choice (or any choice at all). This is called the paradox of choice.
Meanwhile, when we place a constraint on ourselves, it can become much easier to get something done. This is especially true if it is a constraint that forces us to start small.
- Exercise: If you want to start exercising, set a rule for yourself where you are not allowed to exercise for more than 5 minutes. You have to stop exercising after 5 minutes, before adding 1 more minute per day. I talked with a reader who used this strategy to make his first weeks of exercise very easy and then gradually built up to doing more. Now he has run several marathons.
- Nutrition: Further, if you want to eat healthy, you could limit yourself to eating the same meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner this week. By limiting the number of choices you have to make, it’s more likely that you’ll actually eat something healthy rather than get overwhelmed trying to figure out all of the details of the perfect diet.
The leanest people I know eat mainly the same foods every day. Personally, my first 2 meals of the day are always, while I rotate dinner among my 5 best recipes. That is also why intermittent fasting works great. You eliminate the decision of whether or not to snack before bed or what to eat for breakfast. Since you already have made 1 big decision, you rule out a 1000 small subsequent discussions. Less decisions equals more willpower saved for what really needs your attention.
- Key point: We often think that we want an open road and the ability to choose any direction for ourselves. But sometimes, what we need is a tunnel that reduces our choices and sends us in a focused direction towards one goal.
Day 4. Audit your peers
Now we move into the more challenging areas. If you want to build lasting habits, it is key to join a group where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. If you want to be a positive, active and healthy person, you cannot be surrounded by negative, lazy and unhealthy people.
Over time, you become the sum total of the people you identify most with, regardless of how “strong minded”, resilient or independent you believe you are. The values of our peer group form our attitude. So, choose with care. That even goes for what people or info you follow online. Unfollow, mute and avoid unhealthy negative input ruthlessly.
Day 5. Change your lens
Lastly, if you can ́t change your physical environment or peers, change the way you mentally frame hard things. See each workout or healthy meal for what it will give you, not what it will take from you. See how each workout is an essential stepping stone on your journey towards your goal.
The more positive you are able to frame the long term benefits of a hard task, the less you need to drain your will-power to get it done. But since I had my vision in place, and I know where this would take me - I did not focus on how hard or embarrassing each workout was in the moment. I mainly focused on how good this workout would feel later on, and how bad I would feel if I skipped a workout.
Over time, with more experience, my body got more used to exercise and the endorphins made the workouts enjoyable also in the moment. But initially you will need to stay focused on your why and focus on the benefits, not the costs.
And having a positive attitude always gets easier, the more you sleep. When you’re tired, you’re probably more likely to make whatever decision comes easiest and requires the least amount of effort. You’re probably less likely to spend time thinking and acting in accordance with your long-term goals or thinking creatively through a challenging situation.
Next action to 5x your self-control in 5 days:
In summary, here is an experiment for the days ahead summarizing the 5 key points.
- Day 1: Through away or hide all candy, chips or any other foods not helping you reach your goal.
- Day 2: Shop and prepare healthy meals for the next 3 days. Pack your training gear and make it easy to access anytime.
- Day 3: Make a few big decisions to limit a 1000 small daily draining your will power. Constraints save willpower. Examples are intermittent fasting, finding 1 training program, 1 meal plan, making 1 type of content, or checking social media once per day.
- Day 4: Become aware of who you surround yourself with and how their attitudes of health and fitness affects your attitude. Unfollow, mute and avoid unhealthy input ruthlessly.
- Day 5: This is the hardest part, yet most important long term. Start reframing your mental association with training and eating healthy by reading, watching and listening to uplifting and motivational content.
TLDR; See the video version of this article on my YouTube channel:
If you want to put this into a step by step program with weekly accountability, you can sign up for my free mini-course on how to build a lean energetic body and a strong mind for life and business, by mastering 4 keystone habits.