Control Your Impulses

Impulses are the antithesis of self-discipline. They are unpredictable urges that can take over at any point. Studies have shown that impulses are stronger during emotional reactions. Thus, battling impulses is about putting as much time as possible between an emotional reaction and the actual response you give. Delaying tactics, in other words. You can use the 10 second/minute rule, label your feelings, write down the facts of a situation without regard to your personal perspective, and ask “why” five times to understand the root of the impulse.

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One massive step toward improving your self-discipline is to learn to control your impulses. They are polar opposites; one is stable and reliable like a metronome, while the other is unpredictable like a volcano.

An impulse is the sudden need to do (or not do) something, an uncontrollable urge. Impulses are often acted upon without forethought or planning and can come out of nowhere to derail your entire day. This is where self-discipline dies, because you are at the mercy of a spur-of-the-moment whim. You can’t engage in both at the same time. Control over impulses is a key to consistent discipline.

For instance, imagine that you are playing piano during a big performance, but you get the sudden impulse to scratch an itch on your face. The itch is not urgent, nor is it important, but it’s something nagging in the back of your mind that will cause you discomfort unless you address it. Now, will you break your performance to scratch the itch, or will you ignore the temporary distraction? You would probably recognize that your impulse should take a back seat to maintaining self-discipline in this instance.

Only rarely, like the above example, is it clear that we should suppress these random impulses. But just like the piano performance, we don’t realize how much indulging in an impulse will throw us off. These things add up, and so does the time required for you to re-focus yourself and get back on the horse of self-discipline.

How can we defeat this type of enemy? First, we must understand it.

Impulses have been the subject of psychological research for many years. Recently, researchers from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory have found strong connections between two parts of the brain related to impulse control: the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for complex cognition, personality, decision-making, and social behavior, and the brainstem, the portion of the brain that regulates basic autonomic functions such as heart rate and breathing.

This means that we possess a significant number of connections that allow us to self-regulate and control – it takes a conscious thought in our prefrontal cortex, and it travels to our brainstem for calm and relaxation. When we have a strong link between the two, we can better exercise self-discipline.

However, in the study, scientists found that a condition known as social defeat (a negative emotional state) in mice weakened the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the part of the brainstem involved in defensive responses. With a weaker connection, they became more impulsive, wilder, and difficult to calm down. When the researchers used a drug to block the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the brainstem completely, the mice demonstrated even more impulsive behavior.

How does this translate to humans? This research sheds light on what is happening in your brain when you’re trying to control an impulse. If we’re in an emotional state, the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the brainstem is weakened. We become more impulsive and less self-aware.

We can’t very well take drugs to strengthen our neural connections and maintain self-discipline better, but we can try to ensure that our prefrontal cortex is engaged as much as possible. That roughly translates to making decisions based on analysis and rationality versus emotion. Self-discipline won’t win in the face of urgency, anxiety, and fear, so you have to let them pass and then keep on keeping on. When we’re thinking with our brainstem, which isn’t always something we can control, our self-discipline goes out the window.

There are techniques we can implement to help support our desire to better control our impulses. Generally, they involve some sort of delay between feeling the impulse and the reaction you give to it. In other words, the more distance between feeling the itch and scratching the itch, the better. You’ll usually find that the impulse simply disappears on its own, which further proves its status as something that is simply masquerading as important (when it’s really not).

The power of 10. If you can delay action on your impulses, often you can overcome them. There is something to be said for taking a breath, counting slowly to 10, and giving yourself a moment. Tell yourself to persevere for just 10 more seconds when you want to stop, and tell yourself to try something out for just 10 seconds when you are delaying starting. That’s the power of 10 – the mere act of holding yourself back requires self-discipline, and you practice feeling a reaction without acting on it.

The power of 10 takes the urgency out of your urge to act immediately. Remember, that’s where your brainstem loses its grip over your actions and your prefrontal cortex steps in.

For some impulses, counting to 10 won’t suffice. For example, if you see something you want to buy but don’t really need, instead of just taking it to the register to be rung up, you can take 10 minutes, the second power of 10. This is the same type of diversionary tactic that neuroscientists have found extremely effective to battle impulse-spending and shopping; just 10 minutes drastically reduces the brain’s thirsty response for a reward. Rather than rush to purchase the item, you could leave the store for 10 minutes, and you’ll be less likely to follow through with the purchase.

Usually, an itch will disappear within seconds. A strong emotional spike will mostly dissipate within 10 seconds. You might stop seeing red in that time span. Your initial reaction just might have given way to rational thought.

After all, anyone can withstand anything for 10 seconds, right? Keep this mantra in mind and bypass the danger zone where your brainstem is in control of your actions.

Label your feelings. A person who doesn’t understand his or her emotions is more likely to act on impulse. If you can’t identify when you’re feeling angry or stressed or embarrassed, you may act in a way that just makes it worse. In essence, if you don’t realize what you’re feeling, you will be unable to stop it.

For example, suppose you have an argument with someone and you impulsively stomp off and slam the door on your way out. Those behaviors scream anger, but they likely happened so quickly, so impulsively, that you didn’t consciously think – you just reacted.

If you took a moment to realize why you want to storm out the door and how angry you are, you would have a better chance of tempering your response. Instead of leaving in a huff, say, “I think I’m feeling angry right now. I should deal with the anger first and then respond after it passes.” That takes the acute impulse out of the situation and increases the chance that things will go better once the situation is de-escalated. It also gives you an exact symptom to deal with – anger, resentment, bitterness, frustration – and from that you can find a roadmap to deal with it. That wouldn’t be possible without a label.

It’s acceptable to feel angry, embarrassed, frustrated, and ashamed. But what isn’t acceptable is to substitute these initial reactions as your response and act impulsively. When you take a pause to identify what you’re feeling, often you will realize that things aren’t quite as urgent as you thought.

Write down the facts. Writing down the facts of a situation helps you to clarify what is real, what is not, and what your ideal outcome is. This is related to the power of 10 in that you are pausing to sort through the facts before you act impulsively with the brainstem. And of course, you write much more slowly than you think, so this slows your entire reactive process down. That bodes well for the prefrontal cortex and self-discipline.

Thus, when you want to quit something, when you want to delay starting something, or when you suddenly feel an urge to do something unproductive or distracting, write down the facts. Write out what the situation is, what you want to do, and what you should probably do instead. Write down your ideal outcome and how that differs from the path you would take if you gave in to your impulse.

Highlight only what is factual and leave out the rest. Don’t write down your feelings, emotions, fears, or anxieties. Keep it black and white. When you have a clear picture of “just the facts, ma’am,” you are able to look at the situation objectively and know what you should do. This not only allows you to respond in a more tempered fashion, but it helps you sort out what actually happened versus what you “thought” or “felt” happened.

For example, suppose you had a blow-up with your boss at work, and your impulse is to quit your job and look for a new one. Writing down the facts will help you clarify the situation and sort the emotion from the facts. Maybe the facts are your boss blamed you for a situation; you didn’t get to tell your side of the story; you’ve worked at your current job for eight years; you are the primary breadwinner of your family; in addition to salary, you have good benefits; and you haven’t talked to human resources to help resolve the situation. You want to punch his face and quit – that doesn’t get you to your ideal outcome. Your ideal outcome involves being heard, being more assertive, and keeping your job.

Suddenly, after taking the time to examine the facts, it’s clear what you need to do to maintain self-discipline. An impulse only exists because it is quick and fleeting; under greater scrutiny, they almost all crumble.

Ask “why” five times. A final strategy for helping to control your impulses is asking why. This tactic is all about getting to the root of your impulse and hopefully uncovering new information about yourself. You’re actually asking the same or similar question five times in a row, and you’ll be surprised to learn that each time, you just might pull out a different answer than before. You’re forcing yourself to justify why an impulse should win out over self-discipline. At the end of the process, you’ll either be able to answer why sufficiently, or you’ll come to the conclusion that it was simply an impulse not worth partaking in.

Impulses are never thought through or founded on deep analysis, so you wouldn’t expect to be able to answer why more than once or twice. Thus, only if you can answer why a few times does it pass the sniff test of importance or urgency. Practically speaking, what does this look like? Suppose you have an impulse to break your spending discipline and buy a new sweater.

Why do you want it?

I like it.

Why do you want it?

It’s a great price. (This is as far as an impulse will probably carry you.)

Why do you want it?

No real reason other than wanting itÂ…

Why do you want it?

Looks cool?

Why do you want it?

I guess I don’t, really.

Once you’ve asked yourself why five times, in five different ways, you have distilled the main pros and cons for why you should or shouldn’t buy the shirt. And really, you’ve come up with nothing to justify the impulse. If this was really a shirt that you needed in some way, you’d be able to come up with better answers, such as “Because my other shirt ripped” or “I have a wedding coming up” or “I want to look nice for a date!” In those instances, you are not dealing with an impulse masquerading as a need – it’s an actual need.

Even if it doesn’t bring you to the point where you realize you can’t answer why five times (which is a red flag), at least it will force you to stop and think about your decisions. Whatever the case, you’ve become more mindful and more likely to be disciplined in your daily life.

Looking at each of these strategies, the common themes involve reflection, self-awareness, and pausing before responding.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.

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