You’ve probably always thought of self-control and willpower as the same thing, but according to a study from researchers at Stanford and University of Pennsylvania, there’s a subtle distinction. Self-control includes all of the behaviors that allow us to pass up immediate temptations for bigger future rewards. Willpower is just one of those behaviors—and it’s characterized by what the study’s authors call “a deliberate suppression of desires,” making it much more taxing to accomplish.

In other words, when you don’t feel like you have to force yourself to make a choice that will pay off in the long run, you’re using self-control but saving your limited stores of willpower.

“Self-control is highly desirable and correlates with beneficial outcomes such as financial stability, academic achievement, social success, and healthy living,” the researchers explain. Willpower, on the other hand, is “taxing and thus of limited efficacy.”

So, if you could somehow increase your self-control without having to use more willpower, you would be way more successful at doing the things that will pay off down the road.

It turns out, doing this simply involves changing how you perceive the outcomes of your behavior—the tradeoffs of immediate gratification versus a decision that would be better in the long run. Specifically, researchers say that including future options in all of your choices makes choices with long-term benefits feel more appealing. Avoiding temptation comes more naturally—so you don’t require extra willpower!

For example, instead of thinking, “I should answer my emails right now—or I could put them off until Sunday,” tell yourself, “If I go through my inbox now, I’ll have Sunday for other projects—if I wait, I’ll be stuck at home on Sunday.”

If you’re dreading sitting down and updating your resume, think, “By fixing this now, I’ll be able to sit down and watch Netflix tonight—and be able to apply to that great job tomorrow.”

If you’re considering playing hooky and calling in sick, think, “I could play the sick card now—or I could save one of my PTO days to lengthen a fun vacation later.”

OK, I know making choices that are good for you in the long run will never be effortless. But with this trick, they’ll definitely be easier.


Photo of boy with cookies courtesy of Shutterstock.