SELF CONTROL, it’s like a muscle, but not how you think

 ‘Self control is like a muscle: the more you use it the stronger it gets.’ Anon.


self control

The post below is adapted from my book The Day-On Day-Off Diet (aka The DODO Diet)

Forget Self-Control and Discipline

When I was a young kid my family went on holiday to a pretty rural part of Spain. One day it was decided that we’d go on a horse riding trip and arrangements were made in broken Spanish over the phone. This is probably where the problems started. We arrived and were shown our horses, two things instantly struck me about my Mum’s horse, it was the biggest stallion I had ever seen, and it was not in a good mood.

Mum, with years of riding experience, was doing pretty well reigning in the horse, until finally the he’d had enough. He reared up then galloped off into the hot, dry countryside with my mother clinging on for dear life. And neither was seen again for hours.

The moral of the story is that despite all the brains, skills, effort and experience of the rider, the real control of the situation still rests in the hands (hooves?) of the horse. So what is my point?

Discipline: a finite resources

Terms like ‘control’ and ‘discipline’ are thrown around a lot in the world of diet and exercise because most people assume that you have to have a lot of both to drop body fat or improve performance, and this is true, if you go about things the hard way. You may have noticed nutritionists and coaches love analogies, and one that every gym member can understand is used to describe self-control, it’s the one at the top of the page. Self control is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets.  It’s a good one to, it’s simple and paints a picture. The only problem is that for most people it’s dead wrong. The problem is that self-control and discipline take mental effort and as such are finite resources, they run out. The harder you have to work the quicker they run out. I prefer to go with:

Self-control is like a muscle: the more you use it the more tired it gets’

So, if you’re 100% reliant on self-control and discipline to get you to your goals, then it will be very difficult, and probably pretty miserable as well. Even if you get there this is, as you can imagine, something of a Pyrrhic victory. Life is for living, you might as well enjoy it a little. So what is the other way?

Spare the rod, spoil the horse?

Think about your mid and what drives your actions. It’s an over simplification but consider it in terms of your conscious, more well behaved side, with all its worthy goals for the future. On the other side is the more primal unconscious, motivated by urges for reward, the ‘cause and effect’ type pleasure seeker. One sees the future, the other only the moment. The best analogy I know is of a rider (your worthy side) on a unruly horse (the more reward driven side). The rider is trying to reach some worthy goals in the distance, which means pointing both rider and horse in this direction and sticking to the path: going to the gym, avoiding cakes, whatever. The horse wants none of this, it is motivated by the here and now and it wants the easy life and the instant gratifications. So you have a clash.

The rider can use the crop and pull on the reigns, but this only works for so long, in the end the horse will do exactly what it wants. Once you understand this, it can be quite revealing, especially if you have ever tried a diet or exercise regimen and fallen off the wagon. This exhaustion of self-control and discipline fatigue is common, so what to do?

In order to improve your odds you reserve self-control of when you really need it. In the mean time you use a few tricks in terms of environment and psychology to get the job done. The good news is you’re already using some of them.


  • Self-control is a finite thing
  • It can be developed but it’s hard work, and might not be where the effort is best spent
  • By using planning you might not need so much of it – this will make life a lot easier
  • Using a template with certain factors can pre-program success


> Think about any health kicks you were on in the past, did they require too much self-control?

> Read on to the next chapter Health Habits for the alternative to self control.

Posted in Diet Success

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