Effective Self-Control Strategies Involve Much More Than Willpower, Research Shows

It’s mid-February, around the time that most people waver in their commitment to the resolutions they’ve made for the new year. Many of these resolutions – whether it’s to spend less time looking at screens, eat more vegetables, or save money for retirement – require us to forego a behavior we want to engage in for the one we think we should engage in. In a new report, leading researchers in behavioral science propose a new framework that outlines different types of self-control strategies and emphasizes that self-control entails more than sheer willpower to be effective.

The report comes at a time when environmental pressures and societal problems are making strategies for boosting self-control more important than ever, says Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and one of report’s authors.

“Temptations are arguably more readily available, more creatively engineered, and cheaper than any time in history,” Duckworth says. “Junk food gets tastier and cheaper every year. And then there’s video games, social media, the list goes on. In parallel, there are public policy issues such as obesity, educational underachievement, and undersaving that result, in part, from failures of self-control.”

Duckworth’s coauthors on the report– published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science–are Katherine L. Milkman (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) and David Laibson (Harvard University). George Loewenstein (Carnegie Mellon University), a leading researcher in the science of decision making, is an author of an accompanying commentary.

Based on their comprehensive review of available research, Duckworth, Milkman, and Laibson propose a framework that organizes evidence-based self-control strategies along two dimensions based on how the strategies are implemented and who is initiating them.

They observe that in some cases the best self-control strategy involves us changing the situation to create incentives or obstacles that help us exercise self-control, such as using apps that restrict our phone usage or keeping junk food out of the house. In other cases, it’s more effective to change how we think about the situation — for example, by making an if­-then plan to anticipate how we’ll deal with treats in the office — so that exercising self-control becomes more appealing or easier to accomplish.

Other strategies work better when someone else implements them for us. For example, our electricity company might use social norms to prompt a change in our thinking, showing us how our energy usage compares with that of our neighbors. And policymakers often use situational constraints to prompt behavior focused on the long-term. Examples range from incentives (e.g., tax rebates for eco-friendly building materials) to penalties (e.g., raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol). Employers are increasingly using another type of situational constraint, defaults, to encourage employees to save for retirement; many are requiring people to opt out of an employer-provided retirement plan if they don’t want to participate.

The strategies, drawing from insights in psychological science and economics, can inform the efforts of policymakers, employers, healthcare professionals, educators, and other practitioners to address pressing issues that stem, at least in part, from failures in self-control, the authors write.

Identifying four types of self-control strategies that go beyond willpower sends an important message, Loewenstein writes in his commentary, given that people often believe willpower is sufficient despite its high failure rate. One of the reasons people tend to fail in their New Year’s resolutions is “naivety about the limitations of the brute-force approach and ignorance of the far more effective strategies enumerated in the review,” he writes.

But Loewenstein notes some important caveats to keep in mind when interpreting the research, which the researchers also acknowledge in the report. Many studies have examined self-control strategies in small groups of participants over brief periods of time, which raises questions about whether they will remain effective if implemented at a broader scale and how long the effects will last.

Duckworth, Milkman, and Laibson hope that their review helps to integrate existing research on self-control from several disciplines into a comprehensive whole.

“There is an urgent need for a cumulative and applied science of self-control–one that incorporates insights from theoretical traditions in both psychological science and economics,” the researchers write. “We hope this review is a step in that direction.

The full report and commentary are available online.

Report: Beyond Willpower: Strategies for Reducing Failures of Self-Control https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1529100618821893

New Year’s Resolutions for Students

It’s that time of year again — the new year when many of us set impossible goals or make empty promises to ourselves about “bettering” something in our lives. Do you know there’s a better way to set achievable goals?

When I instruct my students about reflecting and goal setting, I use the popular SMART goals method, an acronym which helps direct us to make goals that are, well, smart. The same directives we use in the classroom to set SMART goals can be easily applied to students’ papers about New Year’s resolutions, a short writing task I give my students on the first day back from winter break. I, too, will use the SMART goals method to set and reach my own personal New Year’s resolutions this year. But how, exactly, can we weave SMART goals into resolutions for students?

Let’s take a look!


The acronym varies slightly among teachers and educational resources, but the basic expectations of SMART goals are seen below:

Specific (simple, straightforward)

Measurable (meaningful, monitored)

Achievable (attainable, agreed upon)

Relevant (reasonable/realistic, results-oriented)

Timely (trackable, tangible)

Specific, Simple, Straightforward

Much like setting SMART goals, students’ New Year’s resolutions should be specific or straightforward, meaning “Do better in school” would not make the cut. We must prompt students to specify exactly what they hope to change or achieve. Ask questions like, “In which class or classes do you want to see improvement?” “What grade do you consider to be ‘better’?”

Measurable, Meaningful, Monitored

A measurable or monitored resolution should be quantifiable; it must involve progress which can be tracked. Ask students how they plan to track or measure the progress, and how often they should check-in, evaluate, or adjust based on the measured progress. For instance, if a resolution is to improve their timed mile run by dropping 30 seconds, encourage them to keep time logs, workout schedules, and other exact measures of their progress.

Achievable, Attainable, Agreed Upon

An achievable resolution is one within the realm of reality — and students need to be aware of this fact. Resolutions must be attainable and realistic. While we teachers should not dash dreams or cut anyone short of their highest potential, we also need to help students realize what is and is not achievable in the manner or timeline they have allotted. If a student’s resolution or goal is to win the state’s 1st place mile, but they have never run any sort of distance race, their aim is set much too high. This is not to say they cannot one day reach that level, but this resolution should detail smaller steps in an effort to reach that point in the future.

Depending on a student’s age, the achievable factor should be agreed upon, meaning a parent or other adult figure is “in” on the accountability of the resolution. Relevant resolutions should be goals that matter on a larger scale. If a student wants to focus on family time, a resolution might be to keep the cell phone off and away during meals, gatherings, and other family activities. This goal is certainly achievable; there are no outside factors which could disrupt the goal. The student simply has to be mindful of his or her presence during family time. It is relevant because the cell phone is a likely distractor during conversations and meals.

Timely, Trackable, Tangible

Finally, a timely resolution is one that has a definitive starting point and incremental check-ins. When writing a New Year’s resolution, students should ask themselves, “What can I do today to work towards this? What can I do two weeks from now? Two months from now? What would this resolution look like in 6 months?” Working towards the resolution or goal should start right away — as we all know, procrastination is a surefire way to derail our progress.

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