Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Improving Self-Control: Short-Term Actions Improve Long-Term Outcomes

  • March 3, 2019
  •    BY Tara Laughlin, Ed.D. (Contributor)

by Tara Laughlin, Ed.D., Director of Curriculum & Education Training at PAIRIN

Imagine this: You’re sitting in a room, and a hot, delicious-looking slice of your favorite pizza is placed right in front of you. You’re told that you can eat it now, or if you’re able to resist for fifteen minutes, you’ll be given a second slice. Would you be able to resist the temptation in order to earn twice the reward?

What if it was money? You could have $1,000 now, or $2,000 a year from now? What would you do in that scenario?

This was the premise of the famous Marshmallow Experiment conducted at Stanford University by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. The experiment essentially tested the self-control of children ages 4-6, and found that those children able to resist one marshmallow, earning a second, generally ended up more successful later in life.


Research has shown there are many benefits to possessing higher self-control, such as:
● Sleeping better
● Getting sick less often
● Helping others more often
● Having less anxiety and depression
● Earning more money
● Remaining happier
● Living longer


Here’s some good news: Having lower self-control is not a life sentence. Self-control, defined as the ability to recognize and regulate your own emotions and behaviors, is a skill that can be improved with intentional practice.

Strategies for improving self-control generally fall into three categories:

1) Situational
2) Mental
3) Emotional

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these three categories.


The first set of strategies you can use to improve your self-control fall into the category of ‘situational strategies’. These are strategies used in specific situations.

Situational Self-Control Strategy 01: Identify Problem Situations
First, identify one or more situations where your self-control is consistently weak. For example, you might say, “My self-control is weak when I look at my phone while driving.”

Situational Self-Control Strategy 02: Choose Positive Situations
Once you’ve identified your problem situations, be proactive and make decisions to “stay away” from those situations. For example, if your self-control is weak when it comes to your phone, keep it in your bag while driving.

Situational Self-Control Strategy 03: Modify Problem Situations
If you can’t avoid the problem situations you identified, work to change your environment so you’re more likely to manage yourself well in those situations. For example, if you need your phone while driving, you might say, “Since I need to use my GPS, I’ll set my phone so incoming texts won’t come through while I’m driving.”


Another set of self-control strategies are in the category of ‘mental strategies’. These are self-control strategies used in your mind.

Mental Self-Control Strategy 01: Visualization
Visualize yourself making a good choice, in detail, and picture the positive outcomes that could result from this good choice. For example, to resist giving up on a complex project, you might visualize yourself completing it, presenting it to your boss, and getting positive feedback.

Mental Self-Control Strategy 02: Self-Talk
This strategy involves mentally giving yourself a little pep talk towards making a good choice. This might sound something like, “You can get through this,” or “It’s not that big of a deal – I can let this go.”

Mental Self-Control Strategy 03: Focus Elsewhere
To use this strategy, shift your attention to something less distracting or tempting. To avoid eating unhealthy foods, for example, you might shift your focus to watching a movie or cleaning your room.

Mental Self-Control Strategy 04: Change the Reality
This strategy involves thinking about a situation oppositely. For instance, if you’re tempted to quit your job to have more free time, you might instead think about how your job gives you spending money which makes your free time more enjoyable.


The third set of strategies you can use to improve your self-control fall under the category of ‘emotional strategies’, which as the name implies, are strategies used with your emotions.

Emotional Self-Control Strategy 01: Flip the Reaction
To flip your reaction, consider the negative emotions you’ll feel if you make a poor decision, and consider the positive emotions you’ll feel when you make a good one. Then, flip your reaction to get those positive emotions.

Emotional Self-Control Strategy 02: Pause
Pause a situation by leaving the room, asking to be excused or saying you need a few minutes. Once you’ve done this, think the situation through and, if possible, talk it out with someone you trust.


So, there you are, staring down that mouth-wateringly delicious slice of pizza. Or stretching out your hand to take that $1,000. What will you do? Which of these strategies will you employ to hold yourself back, delay gratification, and come out with a greater reward on the other side?

(For more information on strategies to improve social and emotional skills, visit to learn about our SEL curriculum.)

    • March 3, 2019
  •    BY Tara Laughlin, Ed.D. (Contributor)
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