All of us suffer from self-control failures at times—we procrastinate, give in to temptations, and fail to do the things we know we should. In this book, Menno Henselmans explains how to overcome that. In our free version of The Science of Self-Control summary, you’ll learn how the human mind works, and get an overview of 53 tips and strategies to take control of your mind and body, improve your productivity, motivation, health and fitness.
What is The Science of Self-Control about?
Self-control is essential for success for all aspects of life, from managing our diet/exercise to how we direct our focus. In a famous Stanford experiment, children were given an option to have 1 marshmallow now, or to wait 15 minutes for 2 marshmallows. Those who held out for 2 marshmallows were found to be more successful later in life.
Yet, all of us suffer from self-control failures. Menno Henselmans is a fitness educator and scientific researcher who spent more than 10 years studying and applying the science of self-control to his life and business. In this book, he provides a comprehensive review of research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology to explain how the human brain works, and presents 53 practical tips and strategies to improve your productivity, diet, exercise habits, and motivation.
How The Brain and Willpower Works
Do you believe that you lose self-control and give in to temptations because you run out of willpower? Well, that’s untrue according to Menno Henselmans. And, in the book, he shares loads of empirical research to explain why that’s so.
In a nutshell, our willpower fails because we exhaust the logical part of our brain with boring or effortful tasks. Once it shuts down, the impulsive side of the brain takes over, leading to poor choices and self-control failures.
Here’s a visual summary of the science of self-control:
The Brain’s 2 Systems
Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes the human brain as having 2 systems:
• System 1 is the sub-conscious part of the brain where your impulses and “gut feelings” come from. It can process large amounts of information rapidly, intuitively and effortlessly. However, this is done using shortcuts and associations, making it prone to errors.
• System 2 is the conscious part of the brain that handles logical thinking. It can deliberately and rationally process data, but such processes are slow and effortful. So, System 1 automatically filters the information around you and passes only a fraction of it to System 2 for processing. For instance, System 1 notices food options when you’re hungry, then System 2 decides what to eat.
Do read more about the 2 systems in our summary of Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Our brain is also wired to prioritize things that offer the highest rewards for the least effort. System 1 automatically goes for instant gratification, while System 2 can consciously plan for long-term goals and rewards. It is possible for System 2 to override System 1, e.g. you can choose to go to the gym instead of eating potato chips in front of the TV. However, this requires self-control.
What is Willpower and Why it Fails
With advances in neurosciences, we can now study what happens in our brain when self-control fails. And, this is what scientists have discovered:
• System 2 gets progressively more tired and less active (i) when you do something unpleasant/effortful, or (ii) when there’s conflict between the two systems.
• When System 2 gets too exhausted, System 1 takes over to seek more immediate rewards (often at the expense of your long-term goals).
In short, self-control failures don’t occur because you run out of willpower. They occur because you get mentally exhausted from effortful, unpleasant activities, and your attention shifts to more immediate gratifications.
In our complete 17-page version of The Science of Self-Control summary, you can get more details of related research findings, to help you understand how exactly your brain and willpower works.
Improving Self-Control in Real Life
Building on this knowledge of science behind self-control fails, Menno Henselmans then goes on to share 53 tips/strategies to cultivate indomitable willpower in real life, each backed by further scientific research/background. These include:
• 16 tips for improving productivity;
• 23 tips for sticking to a sound diet;
• 10 tips for exercising more effortlessly; and
• 4 tips for improving your self-motivation.
We’ll now cover 1 example from each category. Feel free to check out our full version of The Science of Self-Control summary for all 53 tips!
Sample Productivity Tip: Update your Belief
Realize that you already have unlimited willpower. Any limits you experience are psychological, not physiological.
The placebo effect occurs when you experience a physical effect just because you expect it to happen. For example, athletes given fake steroids gained real weight and strength as if they had consumed real steroids, and participants who underwent an hour of fake brain-training showed real IQ improvement.
The nocebo effect acts in an opposite, harmful way. People who believed they overdosed on drugs showed physical signs of an overdose (even though they only took placebos). A man actually died because he thought he was being decapitated (when some pranksters merely hit his neck with a wet cloth).
Realize that feelings of fatigue are just feelings. Your mind and body can still continue if you choose to. Here’s a quick overview of the remaining productivity tips/strategies:
Sample Dieting Tip: Manage Your Energy
You don’t need food to be mentally energized. Food provides physical energy, not mental energy. A physical energy deficit will not hurt your cognitive functions, mood, or sleep quality. Numerous research studies have shown that dietary energy-deficit does not affect mental or physical well-being, so long as there’s no nutritional deficiency. For example:
• In a 2-day study, subjects consumed either a maintenance diet of 2294 calories a day, or a starvation diet of 313 calories a day. There were no noticeable differences between the 2 groups, except the 2nd group felt hungrier.
• Other studies involving soldiers and non-obese participants found no differences in mood, psychological or physical performance, despite a 40% energy deficit for up to 1 month.
In various experiments, participants didn’t feel a difference when they were unaware of their energy deficits or dietary restrictions. However, nocebo effects kicked in once they perceived real or imagined differences in their diet. In a study, 2 groups were given the same milkshake. The 1st group thought it was a high-calorie milkshake while the 2nd group thought it was a low-calorie milkshake. The 1st group not only reported higher levels of satisfaction, but their bodies actually generated lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin.
An energy deficit doesn’t hurt us, and can even benefit us since we feel and operate better when we’re lean. Research has consistently found weight-loss to positively affect all aspects of health. There’s also a strong correlation between longer lifespans and being consistently lean. A large meal makes us sleepy, whereas food deprivation tends to improve alertness and memory.
Here’s a quick overview of the remaining dieting tips/strategies:
Sample Exercise Tip: Change Your Energetic State
If you’re feeling too lethargic or mentally tired to exercise, don’t force yourself. Instead, change your energetic state to change your motivation. You can:
• Take a cold shower; or
• Use caffeine strategically. Pre-schedule your workouts, then take a dose of caffeine 30 minutes before each workout. Limit your weekly caffeine consumption to 700mg to avoid caffeine tolerance/withdrawal. Anhydrous caffeine powder or capsules are typically more effective than coffee.
Do check out the remaining exercise tips/strategies in our full 17-page summary of The Science of Self-Control!
Sample Motivation Tip: Improve Your Competence
The better you are at something, the more confident and motivated you feel. To motivate yourself to do something, get good at it.
To improve your training and diet, research your workouts and recipes, or talk to others who’re better at them.
Track your progress, including (i) your weight, (ii) body composition, and (iii) workout performance (e.g. weight x rep, distances, running times, heart rates)
Getting More from “The Science of Self-Control”
Obviously, mastering your self-control takes time and practice. The good news is, the book comes with loads of insights and practical tips to help you understand the fundamentals of self-control and apply them in real life. Ready to start taking control of your willpower and life? If so, do check out our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 17-page text summary, and a 36-minute audio summary.
This is a clearly-structured book written in a casual and humorous style. Besides the insights and examples in this summary, the book includes hundreds of scientific references and research studies/experiments to explain the science self-control, how each tip works and why you should apply it. You can purchase the book here or visit mennohenselmans.com for more details, resources, recipes and tips.
Or, get more insights from Dr Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct summary.
About the Author of The Science of Self-Control
The Science of Self-Control: 53 Tips to Stick to Your Diet, Be More Productive and Excel in Life was written by Menno Henselmans–a German physique coach, scientific researcher, educator, and speaker. He owns a top fitness website, and is a board member of several nutrition and fitness organizations, and was senior advisor for the University of Cambridge’s ReachSci project. His works have been featured in numerous publications such as Men’s Health, The Sunday Times, and HuffPost. Henselmans was formerly a business consultant. He holds a BSc from the international honor’s college UCU, and MSc from the University of Warwick.
The Science of Self-Control Quotes
“Unlimited self-control is already achievable by your brain: we just need to learn how to unleash it.”
“If you don’t believe you can persevere or control yourself any further, you have already lost the battle.”
“A happy brain is a productive brain.”
“Learning how to be lean year-round is a self-discovery journey. Others can provide you with a map, but you’ll have to find your own path.”
“The road to success is easy to follow when it’s the path of least resistance.”
“Feeding a craving makes it stronger.”
“Instead of trying to fight your feelings, change your feelings.”
“If something is not actionable, it doesn’t change your behavior.”
“Devote yourself to the journey, not the destination.”
Learn how to cultivate indomitable willpower and regain control of your life!