How to improve self-control

Self-control is crucial for making good and sound decisions and for leading a successful life. Willpower is essential for making a career and for being well-off, but also for avoiding drug abuse or staying in good health. We already learned that self-control is to a large extent learned during childhood, but is there a way for adults to improve their levels of self-control?


A study by Malte Friese and Yves Schaffner from the University of Basel and Claude Messner from the University of Bern suggests that mindfulness meditation might help. Participants in their study had just participated in a three day introductory mindfulness meditation seminar. At the end of this seminar, all of them watched short film clips that elicited strong feelings of disgust. Afterwards, they completed an intermediate task, and finally, they completed a test assessing their concentration and inhibitory control. Participants were divided into three groups: Group 1 was allowed to show their emotions after watching the clip and performed a connect-the-dots task before completing the final test. Groups 2 and 3 were asked to suppress their emotions after watching the clip. Group 2 performed the same connect-the-dots task as Group 1 before completing the final test, while Group 3 meditated for three minutes before doing so. 

When the researchers compared the performance of Group 1 (no suppression of emotions) to Group 2 (suppression of emotions, NO meditation), they found that performance in the suppression condition was impaired. This was not the case when comparing Group 1 to Group 3 (suppression of emotions and meditation). They come to the conclusion that “a brief period of mindfulness meditation may serve as a quick and efficient strategy to foster self-control under conditions of low resources”. They think the mechanisms behind this finding might either be an increase in self-awareness, which has been shown to reduce the effects of ego-depletion, or an increase in relaxation. They also outline that meditation has been shown to change activity in brain regions associated with self-control. Thus, increasing our state mindfulness seems to improve our self-control in the current situation. However, the authors also cite research that has found meditation training to lead to increased control and more efficient use of limited brain resources. 

The original article was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. There is an article on this study and on what mindfulness is and how it works on Positive Psychology News Daily

We have reported on ego-depletion after decision-making in our post “Tired of making decisions” and on the importance of self-control in our posts “What marshmallows have in common with health and wealth” and “Self-discipline outdoes IQ”

Time pressure – the best condition for successful multi-tasking?

For many of our readers their working day is likely to be characterised by a variety of tasks, ranging from various projects they are running at the same time to meetings, phone calls, travel planning, and so on. We hardly ever have the time to finish one task before switching to the next one, and this makes staying focused on the task at hand very difficult. Time pressure is another factor many of us face. How can we maintain optimal focus and thus be as efficient as possible under these circumstances?

A study by Sophie Leroy from the University of Minnesota sheds light onto this question. In her first experiment, she had students perform two subsequent tasks, first a riddle with words and then a CV evaluation task. In the first task, she manipulated closure of the task by making it either possible or impossible to complete it within the time given and time pressure by either telling participants it would be possible or it would not be possible to finish the task within the time given. Before starting the second task, participants completed a short lexical decision task that made it possible to detect to what extent their thoughts were still lingering with the first task. Afterwards, they completed the second task. Sophie Leroy found that those who had completed the first task under time pressure were better able to disengage from the first task and focus their attention on the second one than those who had completed the task without time pressure or not completed it.

In a second experiment, she used the same research design, but then looked at participants’ performance on the second task. She found that those who had completed the first task under time pressure performed best on the second task, compared to those who had not finished the task or who had finished it without time pressure.

The original article was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

There is an outline of the study on the BPS Research Digest.

What does this mean for our work? It is a fact that we usually have many projects and tasks running at the same time, and it is almost impossible to change this. Moreover, time pressure is often there. However, many of our projects require our full attention and we have to make sure that our thoughts stop lingering with previous tasks, otherwise we are not as efficient and thorough as we might have to be. From the experiments described it seems to be important to finish one task before starting the next one, but another factor that is key to being able to focus on the subsequent task seems to be time pressure.

What we also need to keep in mind is that interrupting a task before it is finished, switching to another one and then switching back to the initial task comes at a cost. We need to remember where we stopped and get back into the initial task. We reported on this in an earlier post.
Thus, a good way of working efficiently on several tasks might be to set ourselves a challenging, but realistic timeframe for a task (or a subtask) so that we are able to finish it, but need to speed up, and then switch our full attention to the subsequent task.

Ten easy ways to keep your brain in shape

What can we do in order to keep our brain in shape and to keep it in a condition in which it can perform optimally? We have already reported on this question a few times. Now we have come across an article on ABC News that briefly outlines ten ways to sharpen our brains.


Here are the ten tips:


  • Maintain a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in sugar.
  • Challenge yourself mentally.
  • Read instead of watching TV.
  • Go and see a psychologist if you start losing interest in things you used to love – this is a sign of depression and needs to be treated.
  • Make sure your memory loss is normal for your age by comparing yourself to others.
  • Do aerobic exercise. (We reported on this in an earlier post.)
  • Do strength training. (We reported on this in an earlier post.)
  • Drink coffee to boost your memory and improve your focus, but limit coffee consumption to not more than four to five cups per day. (We reported on this in an earlier post.)
  • Listen to music in order to stay alert and focused, but stick to light tunes because complex ones might distract you.
  • Chew gum before an exam or presentation.


In the article, there is also a link to the “13 best foods for your brain”:


  • Walnuts: improve working memory.
  • Caffeine: boosts memory and improves focus.
  • Fish: contains omega-3 fatty acids that are good for our brain cells.
  • Spinach: contains magnesium, which is good for blood flow.
  • Olive oil: is anti-inflammatory due to fatty acids and polyphenols.
  • Flaxseed: are rich in protein and fiber.
  • Mussels: contain high levels of vitamin B12, which is good for brain cells.
  • Dark chocolate: improves blood flow in the brain.
  • Yoghurt: is rich in calcium, which is important for our brain.
  • Asparagus: contains a lot of folate, which helps prevent from a depression.
  • Peppermint: increases alertness and memory.
  • Oranges: rich in vitamin C that prevents cells from burning out.
  • Berries: are anti-inflammatory.


The ABC News article once more points out that physical fitness is crucial for brain fitness, so what can we do in order to become physically fit? In the article, there is also a link to 100 fitness tips. Many of them are pretty easy to follow. For example, if you tend to find excuses why you are not able to exercise (“too busy”), schedule a time to work out, follow your schedule, and then ask yourself whether the excuse was really valid (most likely you will find that it wasn’t). Don’t exercise for too long (more than 60 minutes of strength training in a row is too long) and don’t exercise when you are sick. There are many more tips.

In summary, it does not seem to be very difficult to keep our brain in good shape. Have a healthy diet, exercise, and observe yourself and your mental state.