Willpower vs Voluntary Strategic Self-Control

We often see willpower and self-control as the same thing, namely, suppressing impulses and resisting temptations and forcing yourself to do what is necessary. But research has uncovered ways of self-control that don't rely on self-compulsion.

Self-control: willpower versus strategy 

Chayce Baldwin et al. (2022) conducted two large-scale nationwide surveys (in the US) among high school students. In these studies, they compared the effectiveness of self-control based on willpower and strategic self-control. 
  • Willpower-based self-control comes down to saying no to temptations and impulses and forcing yourself to get on with it. 
  • Strategic self-control comes down to applying multiple voluntary situational and cognitive strategies that allow you to direct your thoughts, feelings and behaviors towards valuable long-term goals despite the presence of attractive alternatives (distractions, etc.). 

Strategic self-control: more practice time, higher scores 

In Study 1, high school students (N = 5,563) reported how they motivated themselves to study for the SAT and how much they practiced. The researchers then matched answers with official data on SAT scores, demographics and, as a basic indicator of academic performance, previous PSAT scores. 
The findings were: strategic self-control predicted more practice time and higher SAT performance. It was also found that the more self-control strategies students used, the higher their SAT scores were. There was, however, diminishing returns from adding more strategies. The higher SAT scores were fully explained by more practice time. 
Study 2 was a pre-registered conceptual replication of Study 1, conducted with a larger sample of high school students (N=14,259) who completed a improved set of questionnaires to assess strategic self-control and willpower. The study confirmed the results of Study 1. 

Examples of self-control strategies

The questionnaire used in study 2 contained the following items: