I Have No Self-Control – What Should I Do?

Do you feel sluggish? Not exactly suffering, but lacking willpower to keep an exercise regime or a new dietary plan for more than a week? Are you unable to find the needed inner strength to do the activities that you know will boost your lifestyle? Welcome to the club!

“I have no self-control. What should I do?” is a common question/struggle in the era of materialism.

People often think of self-control as something you either have or you don’t. But the reality is that self-discipline is not a unique object you find somewhere in the arena of life and keep forever by your side.

It’s more of a decision – you either choose to exert self-discipline in the present moment, or you choose to give in to temptation.

Yes, that’s right.

Even if you consider yourself a disciplined person. You still have to make a conscious decision – on a daily basis – to exercise self-discipline.

There is never a moment where you are temptation-resistant or have a never-ending reserve of motivation.

No! That never happens.

You still have to talk yourself out of eating junk food and find the strength to get up early in the morning to exercise. Yes, you need to do that every single day.

Yet, this post is not what you have to do to stay disciplined. This post is about people who think they have no self-control. Zero. Nada.

Interested?

Great!

First off, let’s start with this:

Why Self-Control Is So Hard For Me?

I quit smoking and drinking a couple of years ago.

I failed the first time.

I failed the second time, too.

The third time? I failed again. And again… and again.

It took me over five years to transition from thinking about quitting to actually quitting.

Why did I fail so many times?

Looking back, I can list three main reasons:

  1. I didn’t really want to quit.
  2. I kept doing the same things and hanging around the same people.
  3. I had no alternative activity planned to replace drinking and smoking.

Let’s unpack these three:

1. I Didn’t Really Want To Quit

Sure, I was saying that I want to disengage from the intoxicating embrace of tobacco’s fumes and the allure of liquid merriment. However, deep down, I wanted to continue holding on to these wretched behaviors.

Why?

Two things…

First, fun and simple.

Life is a lot more fun and entertaining when you are drunk or preparing to get drunk. There is a dose of excitement when you plan to go out with your friends to get wasted.

The only problem is when you are sober and life demands you to be an adult. However, that’s an easy fix – you simply don’t sober up.

The second reason?

It’s hard to imagine yourself doing something different when you have spent years drinking and smoking.

In a really nasty way, these activities become part of your identity. The mere thought of disengaging from activities you’ve done for years feels disturbing on a personal level. You start to question your personality.

2. I Kept Doing The Same Things And Hanging Around The Same People

How do you think your friends will react if you tell them you’re quitting smoking and drinking? The people you spent years doing these things?

Do they support you?

Not really.

Well, they’ll tell you that they do. But deep down, they don’t want you to succeed. Why is that? Well, because if you do succeed, this means that they failed.

Not all people act like this. But in general, people resist change – even positive shifts in behavior.

If the main activities of the group you hang around are smoking and drinking. Your decision to opt out will be perceived as a threat to the familiar and comfortable aspects of the group’s dynamics.

So, I was trying to quit, but I still went out to clubs with a group of people whose main aim was to bathe in an intoxicating elixir. And while I resisted the symphony of clinking glasses on some occasions, the cues that prompted me to return to my old ways were just too much. I simply didn’t have enough willpower at the time to handle the temptations.

3. I Had No Alternative Activity Planned To Replace Smoking And Drinking

Like most people, I was trying to quit smoking and drinking without a plan.

I thought that my desire to abandon these vile activities would be enough.

Well, it wasn’t – it never is.

Smoking, drinking, doomscrolling on social media, and other activities that are corrupting our lives are habits.

We form these habits to resolve problems – e.g., we never sober up because we are too scared to face our problems.

This means that if you don’t have a replacement activity, the unlocked idle time when you stop doing the things that are harming your life will become a trigger for relapse.

That’s what happened to me.

When I was a couple of days without cigarettes and liqueur, it felt weird. Sure, I was able to take a breath without entering a cough craze, but I was constantly thinking about what I should do with my hands. About what I should do on Friday and Saturday nights – the days I was usually drinking.

Eventually, I was back on the party train. Raising glasses in dimly lit corridors.

What Does It Mean If You Have No Self-Control?

Lack of self-control means unwillingness to delay gratification.1

Every time you are facing a temptation, you have a choice.

Essentially, there are two options:

  1. Give in to the temptation.
  2. Resist the temptation.

Let me give you an example to make this less abstract.

Say that you are reading a book. The book is good, but you’ve only just started it. Meaning that there are still about 300 – or more – pages to complete the book.

Suddenly, a thought about checking your Instagram account appears. Probably you posted something this morning, and you want to see how your publication performs – likes, comments, new followers, all the common bullshit. Or, since the book requires a more prolonged investment before reaching a resolution or conclusion, you just want something that will unlock an immediate sense of satisfaction.

At this exact moment, you are facing a choice. You can a) let go of the thought of checking social media and continue with your book, or b) pull out your phone and enter a social media frenzy.

sudden-desire-for-more-immediately-gratifying-activity
How excited we are during less intensive activities like reading.

Here’s a bit more info about why the thought of doing something else appears in the first place:

While reading can bring satisfaction. The act of holding a book and looking at the words on a page is less sensational and requires a longer commitment compared to other easily available activities – e.g., watching short videos, listening to music, eating. If you look at your excitement barometer during reading, you will see a near flat line.

how-exciting-reading-feels

Since your mind wants to feel good all the time, it constantly thinks of ways to add a dose of excitement to your otherwise boring existence.

But there is something else… context.

Reading today can be a totally different experience than reading tomorrow.

If it’s a rainy Sunday right after lunch, you probably don’t want to scroll through all the posts of the people you follow.

However, if it’s Wednesday right after work, your mind is probably still trying to figure out what happened at your job while thinking about your next day’s tasks.

Trying to enter a calm reading session after a crazy workday is usually not so smooth. Your emotions are still booming. The moment you start holding a book you will realize that you want something more intensive – to check social media, to watch a video, to watch Netflix, to eat a bag of chips, etc.

reading-vs-checking-social-media
How checking social media feels compared to reading a book. While the moment you unlock your phone and click on your notification tab releases a huge dose of excitement, this is short-lived. Eventually, you get bored again.

We can give the same example in relation to eating a salad vs. eating a double-sized burger.

If you had a good, calm day, you probably won’t need to overeat.

However, if you had a stressful day. Your brain will crave food that can inflame your entire reward system – i.e., food that is calorie-rich.

Why Does My Level of Self-control Fluctuate?

My ability to exert self-control varies.

Some days I feel full of power. I feel I can do anything. I am focused, persistent, and I can easily deflect desires that try to sabotage my progress.

However, not all days are that great.

More often than I care to admit, my self-control is no better than a child in a candy store.

I jump from one task to the next without finishing either of them. I have to debate about working out. I find excuses to eat candy bars…

I bet you feel the same.

Actually, I know you feel the same.

This is due to our brain’s reward system.2

Yes, there is this inner complex mechanism that is constantly pulling us towards immediately rewarding experiences.

It sounds complicated, but the short version is the following:

We, humans, are driven by these two things:

  1. Actions: necessities – food, sleep, avoidance of pain.
  2. Rewards.3

In addition to this, our brain’s reward system is highly sensitive to environmental factors. Different moods, situations, and experiences heavily affect the way we behave.

Here’s an example…

During a stressful day, when I am working on a long-term project that I know will take me weeks to complete. Or, when I am not receiving any positive reinforcements from my environment – there is no one applauding me for my work, I said that I’m not going to eat sugar today. I start to feel blah, sad, drained, unexcited.

My brain quickly catches this decline in my emotional state and triggers a counter-movement. In other words, I start to crave activities or substances that would provide me with a quick way to fix my mood. Activities or substances that are dopamine-increasing, such that help me cope with stress.

This can include a variety of behaviors, but the most common ones nowadays are these:

  • Checking social media.
  • Shopping.
  • Eating without being hungry.
  • Sex.
  • Cigarettes.
  • Drugs.

In short, activities that can provide immediate rewards but are bad, dangerous even, for your long-term success if there are no boundaries.

You might think that giving in to temptation – e.g., smoking a cigarette – will fix my state and bring my emotions to equilibrium. However, this is not the case.

Usually, the following happens:

  1. You feel stressed, unexcited, or simply bored.
  2. A thought emerges about smoking.
  3. You begin to crave smoking.
  4. You go outside.
  5. You light up a cigarette and your mood gets elevated. You are at the peak of excitement.
  6. The excitement of smoking a cigarette is short-lived. Your mood begins to drop – quickly.
  7. Only a couple of minutes later, you are once again hungry for chemicals or actions that can make you feel good.
Effects-of-immediately-gratifying-experiences
The numbers in the picture represent the above-mentioned bullets. The baseline of excitement line refers to the normal or typical amount of dopamine present in the brain under usual conditions.4

The more you obey this system to better your mood, the more dependent you become to these bad habits.

I hope that this clarifies some things. However, we did not address the question in this section. Namely: “Why is my level of self-control inconsistent?”

There are various factors that influence our level of self-control. In general, the main reasons that contribute to fluctuations in self-control are these:

  1. Stress: When we are under stress, our brains prioritize immediate rewards over pursuing long-term goals. This is how we are wired. This is how we’ve evolved – i.e., when there is a threat, the brain’s primary concern is immediate survival rather than long-term planning. Naturally, this leads to impulsive behavior.
  2. Fatigue: Our self-control slowly but surely gets depleted throughout the day. Right after work or after a workout session, it’s extremely hard to resist temptations because you simply don’t have the capacity – it’s depleted. In these moments, it’s better to postpone important decisions and get some rest.
  3. Social influence: Social validation is one of the strongest forces for us humans. It can help us adopt outstanding habits and routines, but it can also do the opposite – lead us to a pit hole of misery. When you are in social situations where inferior behaviors are encouraged, it’s extremely hard to keep your self-control.
  4. Boredom: Not having anything meaningful to do can be disastrous for your prosperity. We say we want to rest and relax, but when we actually lie on our couch and stretch our tired bones, we start to feel bored. The lack of stimulation is not something the brain desires. Thus, you start to seek arousing activities.
  5. Reliance on motivation: Everyone can do a good job when he’s motivated. But how often do you feel super excited to get to work? Not that often, right? When we rely on motivation for our progress, we won’t make enough progress. The better alternative is to value habits, rules, and growing your self-discipline muscle. (I actually wrote more on the topic of self-discipline vs. motivation here.)
  6. Lack of purpose: Without a meaningful long-term vision, we don’t set our priorities right. We remain stuck to activities that are immediately gratifying but corrupt our overall well-being. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. After all, if you don’t know what you should be doing long-term, you’ll naturally focus on things that feel better now.

Are these all?

Not at all. There are other factors that can diminish our ability to exert willpower but I won’t share them.5 There is no need to make it feel that it’s impossible to improve your self-control.

And how do you improve self-control?

How Do You Fix Lack of Self-Control?

I have mixed feelings about sharing a bunch of steps, in a particular order, on how to do something – fix your ability to apply willpower in this case.

Especially when a person is declaring that he has no self-control in the first place.

The path of building resilience against temptations is not a straight one.

There is too much going on in our lives to think that you can move between two endpoints – lacking discipline to having discipline – in a linear fashion.

It doesn’t work like that.

And while my methodical side insists on creating a detailed list for you to follow. My emotional part realizes how difficult it will be for someone who lacks willpower to follow a set of rules.

So, we’re going to do the following: I am going to share a couple of things for you to consider in relation to fixing your lack of self-control. However, don’t feel that you need to follow the steps in the exact order. I will present them as steps only to make the writing more organized. Feel free to jump around the points and do the things that feel best for your current situation.

My end goal is to provide you with the “tools” you need to grow your willpower. Not make you feel intimidated by following a list of commands.

Let’s dive in:

1. Realizing That Change Will Be Hard

Longevity of habits implies a resistance to change.

It is foolish to think that long-term addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, or any other degenerating activity can be cured in a day or two.

The longer something has endured as a behavior, the harder it will be to be cleansed.

To explain this better, let’s return to my chronic drinking and smoking problems.

Seriously, I’ve spent years doing these things.

And when you do something for that long, you tailor your life a certain way. And even more importantly, you think a certain way.

For around 10 years, when Friday approached. My headspace quickly filled with thoughts about pubs, bars, drinking, hanging around people, and going home in the wee hours.

When my desire for change first appeared. While it sounded logical that I should stop, there was just too much baggage holding me prisoner to my life as a drinker.

Despite my best efforts to quit, I was powerless against my vile habits. The reason for my helplessness was the above-mentioned – the longevity of these wicked habits.

What can we do?

Trying to fix all of your crippling behaviors at the same time is usually a bad start.

Yes, it’s the best possible scenario. But as mentioned, if you’ve spent years living a certain way, it’s awfully difficult to change yourself in a couple of days.

So, a way to approach this situation is the following: Start with one bad habit and start small.

If you love smoking, start smoking only during certain hours. In time, make the duration even shorter until you finally remove this behavior from your life.

When this bad habit is now gone, then begin removing the next one.

2. Who You Hang Out With Matters

Who you hang out with is one of these things that matter – a lot. This is even more true when you are trying to stop a certain behavior, but the group you are in is still doing it.

Think about it, you just declared that you will no longer smoke. But every time you go out, all the people around you are enjoying this activity.

In this situation, you are in a constant state of resisting temptation. But as I said above, self-control is a finite resource. The more you apply it, the less you will have left.

I’ve been in quite a few willpower-draining situations. Here’s one…

A few days after not smoking, I visit a pub where everybody smokes. The people around me start to ask questions like, “Hey, why are you not smoking? Are you trying to quit?” I smile and I say, “Yes, again. For the fifth time this year!” Everybody laughs. Some are trying to support me. Others are trying to tempt me by offering me a cigarette and explaining that I am allowed to cheat when I go out. Eventually, I crack. The pressure is just too much.

How do you handle all of this?

The best approach is – yes, you’ve guessed it – to stop hanging around people who smoke.

I know, it’s hard. When you start to steer away from your circle of friends, you will not only experience loneliness but also depression.

You are not only not doing the things you’ve done for years. But you are also not going out with the people you’ve gone out with for years.

Life starts to feel unbearable.

However, there is no alternative.

After all, imagine a drug addict being invited to a rave party straight out of rehab. Do you think the person will handle the temptations? Sure, some people will. But 9 out of 10 will go crazy.

Not all is bad, though. By not exposing yourself to temptations, you realize who your real friends are.

If you explain that going to pubs is really difficult for you right now because you are trying to quit smoking, drinking, etc. The people who care about you will understand why you avoid going to certain places with them. They will support you. Those that don’t… well, you are better off without them.

3. Finding Your New Identity and New Set of Behaviors

We all have a self-image – a mental picture of how we view ourselves. Our self-image is a subjective representation of what we think we are like.

How do you think we form a self-image?

It’s a mixed bag. Our self-image is a combination of our experiences, behaviors, values, personality, social interactions, and much more.

During the years I was hooked to mostly degenerating activities. I perceived myself as a cool party dude who never said no to a night out.

To feel good about myself, I was naturally seeking social circles that would find my behavior normal and socially acceptable.

But what about when I wanted out? When I no longer wanted to wake up in my own vomit?

Theoretically, you can start changing from the outside in. Namely, change your behaviors first and wait till your new behaviors start to change your personality – values, self-image, and perception of yourself.

However, a much better alternative is to change your behaviors while also reinventing your identity.

This means the following:

Yes, stop doing the things that are slowly corrupting your life. But also, mold your perception about yourself.

Quite literally, you’ll need to have an honest conversation with yourself about yourself. About who you were and who you want to be from now on.

Plus, you need to be excited about the change.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years about habits and self-improvement it’s this: if I am not excited about something, it won’t last long.

You need to be excited about moving from a person who lacks self-discipline to a person who is able to resist temptations.

You need to change your self-image. To convince yourself that you have the power to change your actions and your personality.

You need to declare that you are capable of change. That you are a person who can resist temptations.

Yes, initially you won’t have a lot of supporting arguments that will reinforce this ideal self. However, this is not that important at first. The important part is to declare the type of person you want to be, while recognizing that you weren’t that person until now.

This inside-out approach will motivate you to align your behaviors with your newly formed self-image.

Some Closing Thoughts

The world is bursting with things that provide immediate pleasure. And for anyone who can’t resist the temptations, all of these nasty things – behaviors, goods, and ways of living – can lead to an agonizing downward spiral.

“Why I have no self-control?”

Answering this question is not so simple.

First, as said, there is the never-ending stream of temptations that are heavily advertised and a click away.

“Do you feel down? Stack your refrigerator with candy bars to have positive reinforcements throughout the day!”

That’s what marketers say, but what they don’t say, is how your body will loosen if you do run to the fridge every time you feel gloomy.

Second, we have the societal expectations and the values of the crowd. If everybody around you is eating healthy, not constantly talking about purchasing new stuff, and going to the gym, it won’t be that hard for you to do the same. But who leads that kind of military-like lifestyle – not a lot of people around you, right?

Society is the opposite. People are praised for their reckless behavior – bars, going out, getting the newest things, always traveling, etc.

You don’t have a retirement plan not because you don’t need one, but because it’s not trendy to talk about retirement. Who thinks about when you are in your 70s when cool things are happening right now?

Third, why are you so desperately attached to bad behaviors?

See, to solve the “I have no self-control” problem. You need to realize why you are constantly craving quick rewards in the first place. Sure, the surface “benefits” of acts like smoking are obvious – dopamine is released and you feel good at this exact moment. But there is something else… We use smoking, drinking, eating sugar, etc., as coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety, or other emotional challenges.

This means that, deep down, there are emotional issues that need your attention.

So, the initial question changes from:

“I have no self-control – What should I do?”

To:

“I have emotional issues – what are they?”

Figuring out what are these emotional problems is an essential step for:

  1. Addressing the root causes of your hazardous behaviors.
  2. Finally becoming a self-disciplined person.

I know, I know. That’s a lot to digest. Mostly because that’s a complicated subject.

There is no simple way to switch from being reckless to being disciplined. Run from people who try to sell you quick ways to fix your behavior.

If there is one simple thing – and I am using the word simple with a big caveat – you can do to gain more self-control it’s the following: Start to pay attention.

The reason you have a set of nasty habits it’s because you weren’t paying attention to how these things creped into your life.

If you turn your gaze at your actions – start to pay more attention to what you do at different times during the day. You will begin to notice how you are self-sabotaging. Thus, become more interested in making a positive change.

That’s, all for now.


Excited about all of the above? I have a course on self-discipline that you might find intriguing. While everyone looking to boost his discipline muscle can benefit from the course. It’s mainly for people who tried to become self-disciplined in the past but failed for some reason. Read more here.

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Footnotes:

  1. If you want to read more on the topic of what is delayed gratification, click here.
  2. Reward system. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reward_system
  3. Halber, D. Motivation: Why you do the things you do, BrainFacts.org. Available at: https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/learning-and-memory/2018/motivation-why-you-do-the-things-you-do-082818#
  4. Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. It’s a complicated subject that I’ll tackle at some point. However, if you want to understand more about the topic now, I suggest checking this video here, by Dr. Andrew Huberman.
  5. One extra trigger that can toy with your ability to resist temptations is the surrounding environment. Here’s an example: If your kitchen counter is full of snacks, it will be really hard to not think about eating them. Or, if you are constantly getting notifications on your phone, it’s going to be difficult not to check them.
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