The art of self-control: 9 daily practices to master your impulses and make wise choices in life

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As I write this, I’m feeling the urge to get a bag of chips from my pantry, open it, and stuff my face. Potato chips are my Achilles’ heel, and I’ve been known to use it as a way to cope with stress. 

The thing is, there are no more chips in my pantry. I haven’t been buying them ever since I resolved to conquer this weakness of mine. 

That’s just an example of how one can master their impulses. Truth is, self-control does not happen naturally. 

You’ve got to be intentional about it and set up your life in a way that empowers you. 

If, like me, you struggle with saying “no” to your impulses, here are 9 daily practices that might help you. They are quite effective in setting you up for success and leading you to better choices in life. 

Let’s dive in! 

1) Get the basics right

Let’s get a few things straight first – no amount of planning or good intentions can help you curb your impulses if you don’t sleep and eat well. 

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation reduces our ability for cognitive inhibition. 

In less scientific terms, I’ll put it this way: a bad night of sleep means you won’t have the mental strength to say no. 

Similarly, not eating well sets you up for failure. I know that when I let myself go hungry or my diet isn’t balanced, I have less control over my moods. I snap or lash out at people more easily.

So yeah, the first step is to do a lifestyle check – are you getting the basics right? 

2) Set clear goals

Next up, are you clear on your goals? 

It’s harder to maintain self-control when you don’t even know what exactly it is you want to achieve. 

When your goals are vague or undefined, it’s easy to become swayed by immediate gratifications that ultimately steer you away from your true desires.

Think about it: how often have you found yourself succumbing to impulses only to later regret them? I know I’ve beaten myself up over binge-watching one too many times. 

But if you’ve got a clear list of your goals, then you’ll find it easier to stay away from unhealthy impulses like procrastinating or spending hours scrolling on social media. 

You see them for what they are – distractions from your overall goals in life. 

3) Plan ahead

So, you’ve got clear goals – that’s great! The next question is, how do you plan to cope when an impulse strikes?

Lots of situations in the world revolve around getting you to lower your guard. 

Groceries, for example, are set up in a way that tempts you into making impulse purchases with strategic product placements and displays.  

Netflix just goes ahead and plays the next episode, whether you like it or not. 

Social media and online shopping platforms are expertly designed with algorithms that keep us scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling. 

And let’s not even start on the minutiae of life that can test our patience and bring out our worst side. 

The point is, if you want to master self-control, always step out with a plan. 

Your plan might involve setting limits for yourself, such as a specific number of episodes to watch on Netflix before automatically shutting it off, or using apps that limit your time on social media. 

For shopping, sticking to a list and not shopping when you’re hungry can prevent those impulse buys. 

As for dealing with daily stressors that test your patience, this next practice might help…

4) Practice mindfulness meditation

Let’s face it – impulses aren’t logical. They are emotional. So, the bottom line is, impulse control is all about emotion regulation. 

That’s where mindfulness meditation comes in. It’s a very simple practice that just requires you to be present in the moment.

It trains you to notice and observe emotions simply as they are and to accept them without judgment. 

For me, this works really well in curbing my impulses. Awareness, after all, is the first step to conquering any problem. 

When an emotion comes along (e.g. I’d love to yell at this person and give them a piece of my mind!), I can simply observe it pass through my mind and let it go. 

Impulsive behavior averted. Wise decision made. 

5) Do the “Stop and Think” method

Another practice that works really well and is closely connected to mindfulness is the “Stop and Think” method. 

According to Project Achieve, this is “a self-control, impulse-control, and/or self-management step designed to classically condition students (a la Pavlov) to stop and take the time necessary to remain calm (or calm down) and control their emotions, so that they can think about how they want to handle a situation.” 

It’s pretty simple. As the name indicates, you simply stop and think before caving in to an impulse. 

The process goes like this: 

STOP: Ask yourself a question like, “Why am I looking for snacks when I’m not hungry?” 

THINK: “What could I try instead?”

DO: Do the better alternative. 

The goal here is to get to the root of the matter so you can address it and think of better choices. 

6) Visualize yourself succeeding

Visualization is another practice that has been really helpful for me. 

This works for me because it creates a picture where I win over my impulses. It frames my success in more concrete terms so that it doesn’t sound like some farfetched, impossible dream. 

For instance, when I was first trying to quit potato chips, I would visualize myself munching on nuts or carrot sticks (boring, I know, but I’ve come to love them!). 

When I don’t feel like working, I visualize myself checking off my to-do list and closing my laptop with a smug, self-satisfied smile. 

When I know I’ll be dealing with a difficult person, I visualize myself being patient and calm and ending the interaction with my sanity intact. 

Trust me, visualization works. In fact, research shows that visualization is more powerful than verbal processing when it comes to processing emotions. 

7) Find something else to focus on

All right, so we’ve got all those strategies above.

But let’s get real – when you’re in the heat of the moment and the impulse strikes, the urge can be so intense it’s hard to focus on anything else. 

Ask anyone who’s had an addictive habit and they’ll tell you how powerful impulses can be in the moment.

But focus on anything else you must, if you want to emerge as the winner here. 

This is where you’ll need to call on the powers of distraction. You’re not going to pretend the impulse doesn’t exist (ignoring it can make it even more intense), you’re just going to take your mind on a little detour. 

Remember when I said to plan ahead? That goes hand in hand with this. The key is to have a go-to list of activities or tasks that can instantly take your mind off the temptation. 

The point of this is to buy you time. Time for the intensity to fade until you feel stronger and more composed.

Impulses do pass, so you’ve got to have the patience to get past the moment of weakness. And don’t worry, you absolutely will. You’re perfectly capable of making wise choices! 

8) Focus on the process, not the results 

“Atomic Habits” author James Clear has a wonderful tip for putting the whole matter of impulse control in perspective – it’s all about the process, not the results. 

He calls it “The Seinfeld Strategy”. Apparently, it’s based on comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s practice of writing daily, regardless of whether it’s good or bad writing. 

(Note: Seinfeld has clarified that he didn’t come up with this idea, but Clear stands by the soundness of this principle nevertheless.) 

Anyway, the point is to take the focus off of how you perform each day and just focus on the fact that, hey, you showed up and performed! 

Does that make sense to you? Judging ourselves based on results is kind of tricky because we really won’t be on our A-game every day. We’ll be weak and perform poorly sometimes. 

But as long as we’re hanging on and showing up day after day, we’ll develop self-control as a natural consequence. 

9) Reflect and adjust with daily reviews

Lastly, a final reminder on the importance of self-awareness. When you know yourself well, you can identify the behaviors that set you back, avoid them, and go on to make wise choices. 

So, daily reflection is a must. Sit down and do a self-check: 

Are you meeting your goals? Are the strategies you’re employing to control impulses effective, or do they need tweaking? 

What worked today? What didn’t? How can you do better tomorrow?

This kind of introspection is incredibly empowering because it makes you see the truth we want to get at here: YOU have the power to change your behavior. 

You don’t have to be at the mercy of every impulse that crosses your mind. You’re stronger than you think; you just need to get your game face on. 

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