How to Build Self-Control

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: September 11, 2017
How to Build Self-Control

When I was in graduate school, I took a class called “Managerial Accounting and Control.” The professor explained leadership like this: The bigger gear turns just a little bit every so often. The smaller gears are rotating constantly to turn the bigger gear just an inch. It’s a beautiful, interdependent machine.

It takes time and effort for the bigger gear to make a full rotation. For that reason, the bigger gear needs to continue turning in the same direction. If it’s constantly changing directions, the little gears waste energy starting and stopping. Eventually the gear teeth wear down, and the machine doesn’t move as quickly or efficiently as it once did.

The same goes for leadership. It takes self-control to stay consistent in your direction and focus. If you’re shifting based on that day’s mood or an enticing short-term solution, your team will waste precious time and energy that could lead to long-term growth.

Related: What to Do If You Don’t Feel Motivated

I recently read an article about self-control in Harvard Business Review. It explained how many of us view self-control as a “gritting of the teeth” against temptation. Although self-control is a vital part of growth and development, the author wrote that we’re thinking about it the wrong way:


If you’re struggling with self-control, don’t spend your energy pretending you’re not struggling.


“Energy is the fuel for self-control. We each have one reservoir of energy to get things done. Each act that requires self-control progressively depletes this energy reservoir, whether it’s when you use it to resist a piece of cake, or focus single-mindedly on a difficult problem, or stay calm when you feel provoked.”

When my fleeting emotions are in control, I’m stealing energy from more meaningful tasks, such as strategizing the organization’s next move or making time for an employee struggling with a difficult task. We must be careful to expend our limited energy resources on things that matter.

If you’re struggling with self-control, don’t spend your energy pretending you’re not struggling. Instead take 20 minutes and read a book, write in a journal or take a walk outside. You’ll use less energy and distract yourself, all while building your self-control muscle. After a while, this will become habit.

People are looking up to you. The organization can’t be driven by whatever mood you’re in that day. Be the person who accepts the responsibility of being the rudder of the ship. Be aimed in the right direction, focus your energy on meaningful things and stay the course.

Related: Why Self-Control Is So Important


This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, a Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.