Self-Control: The Discipline to Win

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.” This notion, presented by motivational speaker Jim Rohn at a business seminar, speaks volumes in terms of personal success. Throughout our lives, we set many goals for ourselves; some are more attainable than others, but all seem exciting and enticing when first conceived.

It is important, however, not to confuse activity with achievement, for they are most assuredly not one and the same.

When it comes to achieving goals, it is first and foremost our self-discipline or self-control that will be the strongest indicator of our ultimate failure or success. Dieting seems to rank high on most individuals’ lists of endeavors requiring a great deal of self-control. In the face of temptation, what makes some people able to resist while others succumb? The answers may lie in the source of the motivation itself. What exactly constitutes “motivation” is a very personal and individual matter. For some, the motivation to diet stems from an intrinsic desire for better health. Others may be striving for an improved body image, and the accolades that often will accompany a new physique.

Sometimes the motivation is entirely extrinsic, wherein a doctor or family member has pushed for a behavior change. While each of these factors may indeed produce the desired results in the short term, the process differs vastly, as does the long-term prognosis for maintenance. Regardless of the reason behind the dieting, the fight against temptation is always going to be present.

Research has indicated that those individuals who diet for personal or intrinsic reasons tend to enjoy greater success in holding temptation at bay than those who feel the diet has been imposed upon them. Of course, there is a continuum upon which most individuals will fall, but generally this has been found to hold true.

According to the research conducted by Muraven and Baumeister in 2000, all exertions of self-control deplete a limited resource, that which has been termed self-control strength. Since it appears as if a greater amount of this strength is required in order to be successful at self-control, those individuals whose strength is depleted are at a greater risk for loss of self-control, not only as it relates to their original goal but on subsequent tasks as well.

It has been first hypothesized, and later demonstrated, that resisting temptation while dieting may require less self-control strength if the motivation for the diet is intrinsically driven, as when a person avoids eating desserts because he or she feels the diet has personal value. This taps into the notion that there is less internal conflict being experienced by the individual, less energy being utilized, which reserves the self-control strength. In contrast, those individuals who are engaging in a diet for purely external reasons, having perhaps had the diet imposed upon them by a physician, will undoubtedly be more tempted by desserts, thereby experiencing greater amounts of internal conflict and using up considerably more of that precious limited commodity, self-control strength.

The presence of a tray of cupcakes, then, has stripped them of their motivation, causing them to want to “cheat”, since they have not yet established a firm internal desire to adhere to the diet.

The intrinsic/extrinsic debate has much to do with feelings of autonomy. If one embarks upon a quest for better health, and is functioning autonomously in terms of self-regulation, there is a higher probability of success. This has also been seen in other goal-setting arenas; when a child studies hard for an upcoming exam, only because a parent has promised financial rewards for earning an A, the internal conflict process is much different than if one studies to earn an A simply for the reward of personal satisfaction and increased knowledge. In the first scenario, the knowledge gained solely for the purpose of relaying it on an exam may be promptly forgotten once the A has been earned; and once the external stimulus has been removed, the student will not be motivated to continue performing optimally.

Conversely, the student who put forth the effort autonomously will undoubtedly retain most of the information absorbed while studying, and be able to draw upon that knowledge in the future. Since improvements in self-regulation appear to involve the altering of one’s responses, it would appear prudent to develop some cognitive methods of “exercising” this attribute much as one would exercise any other muscle. This leads to an improvement in the amount of self-control strength one might possess, a key factor in resisting temptation.

Positive affirmations throughout one’s day, improved posture, blood glucose stabilization, and even humor have all been linked to increases in one’s self-discipline. Concurrently, not only is one better able to resist temptations when dieting, but subsequent tasks requiring intrinsic motivation appear to improve as well. Is self-control truly a discipline? It would appear as if this is the case, and furthermore, that individuals possess the capacity to strengthen their convictions towards more disciplined ends if they so desire. Our brains are not “wired” in one direction or another; rather, the intrinsic or extrinsic level of motivation it a greater predictor of self-control strength. A positive attitude will always propel one in a good direction, regardless of the goal one seeks to achieve.


1. Muraven, Mark; Baumeister, Roy F.; Tice, Dianne M. “Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self-Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise”. Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 139, 1999.

2. Baumeister, Roy F.; Vohs, Kathleen D.; Tice, Dianne M. “The Strength Model of self-Control”. Association for Psychological Science, Volume 16, Number 6, 2007

3. Muraven, Mark; Baumeister, Roy F.; Tice, Dianne M. “Self-Control as Limited Resource; Regulatory Depletion patterns”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 74, Number 3, pg.774-789, 1998.

4. Webb, Thomas L.; Sheeran, Paschal. “Can Implementation Intentions Help To Overcome Ego- Depletion?”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 39, Issue 3, pg. 279-286, May 2003.

5. Muraven, Mark. “Autonomous Self-Control is Less Depleting”. J Res Pers. 2008; 42(3): 763-770.

About the Author

Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on

She welcomes your feedback and your comments!


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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