Exploding the Myth of Self-Control

self control

Self-Control Made Easy

February is the time of the year when it’s not only colder, you’re more likely to have sick days, but also you’re heading into the testing season, too. Oh, one more thing…we tend to put on a few pounds, too!

Any help out there?

This month, we’ll learn about how to get yourself and your kids to do much, much more. We’ll learn about the science behind “self-control”. This executive function skill turns out to have such an enormous impact on our lives that those that are higher in self-control tend to be sick less often, earn more money, have better quality relationships, get more schooling, earn higher degrees, are happier and even donate more money. In short, there’s a very, very strong correlation with quality of life.

But…is it teachable? For the surprising news, keep reading…


* * * * Advertisement * * * *

Last year every workshop sold out. This is you fair warning: your EARLY BIRD DISCOUNT ENDS SOON!

There are many reasons why students are not as fully engaged in school as we might wish, particularly at the middle, high school and collegiate level. One big reason is that teachers simply don’t know WHAT to do when things drag on, kids get listless and the topic is deadly boring. I have been collecting “knock your socks off” active engagement strategies for 30 years. If you have not yet done so, check out our amazing 2-day Go to: Tools for Engagement event this summer.

You get one chance this year, then that’s it! Join us for “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” in San Antonio, Texas. Airfares are low, hotel rates in San Antonio are great, but time is running out. CLICK HERE for more information. Practical strategies? You bet! Expect to get dozens of them. Fun? You bet! Learning? Off the charts good!

If you work at a high poverty school, drop everything and learn the insider secrets of “Teaching with Poverty in Mind.” It’s based on the best-selling ASCD book that’s catching on like wildfire. This course has been revised and improved over last year, and it’s even better!

Thanks to the staff developers and administrators who attended our SOLD OUT… 3-Day event called “Game-Changers.” The next one will be a sell-out too, so as soon as you hear about it, JUMP ON IT!


The Research

We know that self-control has a genetic component (as do many of the executive function skills). But that only speaks about a small likelihood of its strength, not certainty. As usual, DNA is not your destiny. The research on self-control is complex and messy.

Here is what we know (that is relevant to you) and what the research tells us.

First, the effects of low self-control tend to be persistent. Individuals who were less able to delay gratification in preschool and consistently showed low self-control abilities in their twenties and thirties performed more poorly than did high delayers.

Second, self-regulation can be taught. I’ll tell you how a bit later on.

Third, the sensitivity to environmental “hot” cues plays a significant role in the individuals’ ability to suppress actions toward such stimuli. For example, a crying baby (chocolate or sexy peer) may trigger to activate the brain’s “hot” cue in one, but not in another. Thus, resistance to temptation is partly predicted by environmental cue sensitivity.

We know that willpower is depleted by usage. For example, some kids have to work VERY hard to PAY attention, or to NOT touch another student. After a while, their brains have “run out of” willpower. The longer dieters are tempted, the harder it is to stay away from their sinful wishes.

We know that we use the same “stockpile” of willpower for all the tasks we do. If a husband and wife have to exert willpower ALL day at their jobs, when they get home, they may not have the raw energy left to be “nice” to their spouse. They’ve used up their willpower!

The scientific term is called, ‘Decision fatigue’. It can explain why competent people can do very stupid things if you catch them at the wrong time. We have learned that willpower can be for control of thoughts (ever heard a song that you can’t get out of your head?), emotions, work performance or just about anything. It can be taught and it can be learned, but the key is give the person a reason to do things. A huge component of willpower is that the fuel for it is glucose. Having enough glucose in our blood and brain means we can exert better self-control.

Practical Applications

Here is what the scientists have learned about willpower. While there are many strategies, we’ll focus on just three of the BIG ones.

First, we have a limited supply of it (willpower), so focus on just one task or challenge at a time.

Narrow your goals to the one or two things that matter most. Build confidence with small time amounts (“Can you do this for just 30 seconds, please?”). Then, over time, continue to build up the length of time for the classroom task (“We’ve already tried and succeeded at 30 seconds, so let’s try for one full minute this time.”) Avoid asking kids at school to resist something. Instead, just deflect or redirect their attention to something more interesting. Limit the brain and get small things accomplished. Keep the task short, compelling and over time, you can extend it.

Second, the relationship between willpower and glucose is well studied.

A single act of self-control causes glucose to drop below optimal levels, thereby impairing subsequent attempts at self-control. In short, when our blood sugar is low, we run out of willpower (we get to the “Oh, whatever” stage, where anything will do). Low levels of blood glucose after an initial self-control task predicted poor performance on a subsequent self-control task. When we consume a glucose drink, it reduces self-control impairments. To raise blood sugar, there are only 3 options: 1) food or drink, which is expensive, 2) movement which releases glucose stored as glycogen in the liver, or 3) strong emotions which trigger the release of glucose. No glucose means no willpower. By the way, this applies to dieters.

Third, to reduce the depletion risk, make things actionable for your brain.

Avoid putting anything down on your “to do” list that you cannot at least take some immediate action on. When you write out your goals and plans, write them so that each can be done ASAP.

In other words, “Send Valentine’s cards,” can’t be done unless you already have either located the website to use (and have the email addresses), or have the physical addresses (and bought the envelopes, cards and stamps). Only put on a “to do list” that which can or must be done next, not a vague project like, “Paint the bathroom.” For Valentines, your first item might be, locate awesome Valentine’s website (see below for a suggestion).

Special Websites FOR THE MONTH:

For Valentine’s Day, go to: http://gpage.hubpages.com/hub/GREAT-VALENTINES-DAY-E-CARD-SITES

Another great newsletter! The IAE Newsletter is free of charge and specifically oriented toward educators, parents, and others who are seriously interested in improving the world’s education systems. http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html


Looking for something fun and online for the younger brain? Go to Eric Chudler’s site. He’s a neuroscientist at UW. Go to: http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/flash/ua/home.html


February is here and I’m now in Asia. In January I was in Texas, Minnesota, Santa Barbara and Lafayette. I’ll be in Singapore, Hong Kong and Mainland China. Back home for a few days, then off to work with some key districts and individual schools. I love my work!


Have you visited our new lesson-planning site yet? Go to www.10minutelessonplans.com and start planning dynamite lesson plans immediately. It’s in the “new and improved” Beta testing stage, so be sure to send us some feedback and suggestions, too.

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education



Casey BJ, Somerville LH, Gotlib IH, Ayduk O, Franklin NT, Askren MK, Jonides, J, Berman MG, Wilson NL, Teslovich T, Glover G, Zayas V, Mischel W, Shoda Y. (2011) Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proc. Natl Acad Sci U S A. Sep 6;108(36):14998-5003

Eigsti, IM, et al. (2006) Predicting cognitive control from preschool to late adolescence and young adulthood. Psychol Sci 17:478e484.

Gailliot MT, Baumeister RF, DeWall CN, Maner JK, Plant EA, Tice DM, Brewer LE, Schmeichel BJ. (2007) Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. J Pers Soc Psychol. Feb;92(2):325-36

Hare TA, Tottenham N, Davidson MC, Glover GH, Casey BJ (2005) Contributions of amygdala and striatal activity in emotion regulation. Biol Psychiatry 57:624

Kubzansky LD, Martin LT, Buka SL (2009) Early manifestations of personality and adult health: A life course perspective. Health Psychol 28:125.

Metcalfe J, Mischel W (1999) A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower. Psychol Rev 106:3.

Mischel W, Shoda Y, Peake PK (1988) The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. J Pers Soc Psychol 54:687.

Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI (1989) Delay of gratification in children. Science 244:933.

Moffitt TE, et al. (2011) A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:2693.

Posne MI, Rothbart MK (2000) Developing mechanisms of self-regulation. Dev. Psychopathol 12:427.

Rothbart MK, Ahadi SA (1994) Temperament and the development of personality. J Abnorm Psychol 103:55e66.

Somerville LH, Casey BJ (2010) Developmental neurobiology of cognitive control and motivational systems. Curr Opin Neurobiol 20:236e241.

Creative Commons License photo credit: chotda

1 reply
  1. kathryn rowan
    kathryn rowan says:

    Hey Eric! I saw you at the Hong Kong mind expo and purchased the Baumeister book on Will Power– you were right! It has so many great techniques in it to help everyone!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply