Strengths of Heart, Strengths of Mind

Self-control is controlling one's own responses so they align with short- and long-term goals.

Self-control is about harnessing your energy toward a particular end goal—it is not the same as obedience or following rules.

Two important types of self-control for students are work self-control and interpersonal self-control. Having work self-control allows you to stick with your long-term goals and stay focused on a task that may be difficult or even boring. (This is the sort of self-control that also helps you stick to an exercise plan or make healthy eating choices in the face of temptation.) Interpersonal self-control allows you to maintain your temper, hold back from interrupting, and respond to others in ways that are socially appropriate.

Someone displaying self-control can delay a short-term temptation to play games on her phone if it interferes with her long-term aspiration to do her homework each night. Someone with high self-control who aims to run a marathon will not press the alarm clock’s snooze button on the morning he scheduled a training run. In this way, self-control is linked to grit, growth mindset, and optimism.

Observing Self-Control

At work or school, demonstrating self-control could involve:

  • Coming to the office or class with everything needed to get to work rather than being unprepared
  • Remembering and following directions rather than needing to be reminded

  • Getting to work right away rather than procrastinating
  • Paying attention rather than getting distracted

Interpersonally, demonstrating self-control could involve:

  • Remaining calm, even when criticized or otherwise provoked, rather than losing your temper
  • Allowing others to speak rather than interrupting
  • Being polite to all, even when stressed or angry

Try This Evidence-based Tool for Self-Control
Evidence-based tools are tools that have been evaluated in classrooms with students and have demonstrated positive results so far.

WOOP Goal-Setting

WOOP is an evidence-based process to help students initiate and sustain effort to achieve their goals. Developed by Dr. Gabriele Oettingen and Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. We have confidence in this evidence-based intervention, so check out our resources for using WOOP in your classroom.

What the Research Says

Dr. Walter Mischel of Columbia University talks about self-control.

Dr. Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan talks about self-control.

Self-control predicts academic, personal, health, and economic outcomes. The famous “marshmallow experiment” showed that preschool students who demonstrated more self-control had better academic and social outcomes decades later—including less drug use and higher SAT scores—than did those who demonstrated less self-control as young children.

There are some strategies to help people exercise self-control, at least situationally. But we also know that there are environmental, contextual, and cultural factors that influence the effectiveness of these strategies.

Keep Exploring Self-Control