Enhancing Self-Control: Knowing How to Reach Our Goals and When to Let Them Go

Enhancing Self-Control: Knowing How to Reach Our Goals and When to Let Them Go

Sarah Grace Helton, Doctoral Clinical Psychology student at Rutgers University

She works with Dr. Marsha Bates in the Center of Alcohol Studies.

Countless articles, self-help books, and podcasts have been devoted to unlocking the secrets behind strategies that will enhance our self-control. Fast food restaurants, new technologies, and product advertisements constantly bombard us with reasons why we should indulge ourselves. As the number of temptations in our society increases, bolstering our self-control is certainly advantageous. Every domain in our lives relies on self-control, or the ability to regulate our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors for the purpose of attaining our goals. We go to work instead of staying in bed [mostly], eat broccoli instead of ice cream [occasionally], and make eye-contact with our friends instead of refreshing our social media pages [sometimes]. The more we behave in ways that bring us closer to attaining our various goals, the more likely we are to continue behaving that way. It follows, then, that the more practice we have in resisting temptation, the easier it will become. It’s simply behavioral learning.

However, as we can all attest, it’s not simple. Resisting a warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie in service of “being healthy” is quite difficult. Part of this difficulty derives from setting vague goals. What does it mean to “be healthy” or “feel good?” How do we know when we have attained those goals? How do we even start on the path of reaching them?

Extensive research has been conducted on goal attainment. Unsurprisingly, multiple findings have converged on the fact that before we can achieve our goals, we must set them. However, the probability of achieving a certain goal is associated with the way in which it is defined. To begin, a goal must represent an endpoint of change from a current, less-desirable way of being to a future, more-desirable state (Inzlicht, Legault, & Teper, 2014). Furthermore, we must be committed to achieving this set goal; ambivalence does not lend itself to successful goal attainment. Aligning goals with our values results in higher intrinsic motivation to pursue the goal, as well as increased likelihood of successful achievement (Deci & Ryan, 2000). For example, we are more likely to complete a work or school task if we conceptualize how completing this goal is in line with our value of hard work, rather than focusing on the fact that we must complete this task because it was assigned to us by an employer or professor.

Additionally, goals must be specific, concrete, and achievable but challenging (Locke & Latham, 2006). For example, we can decide that a future of “being healthier” is more desirable than a present state of “being unhealthy.” We can commit to this goal because it is in line with our health-related values. However, if we do not take the steps to define “health” and map out how we can best reach this future “healthy” state, we are lost. We must operationalize our goals and break them down into concrete behaviors. For example, a health-related goal could include going to the gym three times a week. While a great start, this goal is still vague. We must be more specific and elaborate on details relating to when, where, and how. We are more likely to act on the goal, “I will run on the treadmill for 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday” than we are on “I will work out three times a week.” Deconstructing goals into discrete behaviors increases our success of achieving them.

Although setting well-defined goals that we are committed to is necessary, these components alone do not ensure goal attainment. We can be uncertain of how to begin, fail at resisting temptation, or even forget to perform our goal-directed behaviors. Relying on implementation intentions, or behavioral plans for how to respond in anticipated situations, is a reliable strategy that bolsters our chances of goal attainment. Implementation intentions are especially powerful because if used correctly, they can elicit automatic behavior that is in line with our goals (Gollwitzer, 1999). In general, these intentions take the form of “When I encounter this situation, I will perform this goal-directed behavior.” Occupational goals might state, “When I feel the urge to procrastinate, I will complete the easiest item on my to-do list.” Similarly, interpersonal goals might state, “When I am tempted to check my phone while talking to someone, I will ask them a question.” Thus, these strategies can be useful for initiating our goals, resisting temptations, and remembering to act in accordance with our goals. The more often we rely on using specific implementation intentions for situations we are likely to encounter, the more automatic our preferred behavioral response will become.

Like implementation intentions, a reminders-through-association strategy can increase the likelihood of goal-congruent behaviors. This approach relies on using external cues to remind us to perform a certain behavior. According to Rogers and Milkman (2016), for a cue to successfully elicit the reminder thought, it should be distinctive from other environmental stimuli. For example, to achieve a finance-related goal, we may decide to bring our lunch from home instead of buying it. However, successfully completing this goal relies on remembering to leave the house with our lunch. In order to ensure that we packed our food in our bags, we could place a novel object, such as a stuffed animal, by the front door. We would then make a mental association between that stuffed animal and our lunch. Thus, when we were leaving for the day, we would be more likely to remember to pack our food because we would notice the stuffed animal; because it’s unusual to have a toy in that location, it would attract our attention and then trigger the thought to pack our lunch. Additionally, reminders through association can take the form of written or electronic reminders, such as notes or phone reminders/alarms. Using this strategy can help us remember to enact fundamental behaviors that are necessary to reach our goals.

Once we have set our goals and begun the arduous process of working towards them, it is beneficial to consistently monitor our progress. We should ask ourselves how much progress we have made towards reaching our goals, what have left to do before we attain our goals, and how invested we still are in meeting our goals. If we are still committed to goal pursuit, then focusing on whichever aspects of our progress is “smaller” can increase our motivation to attain our goals (Koo & Fishbach, 2012). For example, let’s say we have self-growth goal to read an interesting book, consisting of 12 chapters. If we have read two chapters, then focusing on what we have attained (two chapters), is more motivating than attending to what we have left (10 chapters). However, if we have read nine chapters, then we will be more motivated to achieve our goal if we focus on the remaining three chapters. Through careful monitoring of our goal progress, we are able to identify how much of our goals we have attained versus how much we have remaining. Orienting our attention to whichever aspect is smaller can increase our motivation to attain our goals.

Although we would all like to imagine that we will be 100% successful in achieving 100% of our goals, unfortunately that is not always the case. Sometimes, we are unable or unwilling to meet the goals we have set for ourselves. In these situations, it can difficult to know how to act: do we power through to attaining a goal despite our reservations, or do we give up that goal? Research into goal disengagement has shown that abandoning unrealistic or unattainable goals can be beneficial to our subjective well-being (Wrosch, Scheier, Miller, Schulz, & Carver, 2003). However, there is an important caveat here: it is not enough to simply abandon our goals. Instead, we must set new ones and actively re-engage in these goals. For example, an enthusiastic student might set the goal of eliminating all TV-watching so she can focus on her studies. Although some highly motivated individuals may be able to achieve this goal, it may be rather strict for others. If this individual is unable to forgo all TV, should she abandon this goal? Yes, and no. This person would increase her feelings of well-being and motivation if she were to disengage from the goal to eliminate all TV, and re-engage in a new, more realistic goal, such as watching only 30 minutes of TV per day. Knowing when to let go of one goal and move on to a better-suited one is ultimately more adaptive than pushing through to attain a goal we cannot reach or giving up on our goals completely.

Taken together, self-control research has demonstrated that there are specific ways we can increase the likelihood that we will achieve our goals. First and foremost, we need to be committed and motivated to reaching our goals. Once we have established these factors, we must set specific, concrete goals that are challenging but attainable. Breaking down our goals into discernible steps that coincide with specific goal-directed behaviors will not only increase our chance of successfully reaching them, but also allow us to accurately monitor our goal progress. As we examine our goal pursuit, we can increase our motivation by focusing on whichever area is smaller: what we have attained or what we have remaining. Lastly, we can increase our subjective well-being by disengaging from unattainable goals and re-engaging in more realistic ones.

Factors related to self-control underlie a significant proportion of our behaviors and decision-making. In order to enhance our self-control, we first have to decide where we want to go and how we want to get there. The strategies illustrated in this post can extend to any domain, such as occupational, lifestyle, interpersonal, financial, etc. Reaching our goals can sometimes seem impossible when we are in the trenches, but knowing how to approach goal pursuit can be our best ally.


Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuit: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493-503.

Inzlicht, M., Legault, L., & Teper, R. (2014). Exploring the mechanisms of self-control improvement. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(4), 302-307.

Koo, M. & Fishbach, A. (2012). The small-area hypothesis: Effects of progress monitoring on goal adherence. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(3), 493-509.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goalsetting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 265–268.

Rogers, T. & Milkman, K.L. (2016). Reminders through association. Psychological Science, 27(7), 973-986.

Wrosch, C., Scheier, M.F., Miller, G.E., Schulz, R., & Carver, C.S. (2003). Adaptive self-regulation of unattainable goals: Goal disengagement, goal reengagement, and subjective well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(12), 1494-1508.

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