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5 Steps from chaos to self-control

Updated: Apr 10

What is chaos? Chaos is when things “just happen to you”. And even if sometimes it’s something positive that “happens” to you, not having a say in the whole process doesn’t feel too good. It feels like your ship is being thrown around by the storm and you have no access to the steering wheel.

We all go through periods in our lives when we can’t fully control our environment, our time and our life in general. When our will power is nowhere to be found, good habits don’t stick and our goals get pushed back yet another year or so. When there’s a lot of stuff going on all around, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

I’m writing this article for those who is either currently stuck in this state, or had been there before and wants to avoid dealing with it again. It will also be useful for those who are prone to procrastinate and could use a will power boost.

These 5 steps are not coming just from my personal opinion, they’re all based on our brain operation principles. And before diving into that, let’s quickly review what we know about self-control neurophysics so that you see the logics behind them.

What is self-control and what does it depend on?

To answer this question we first have to find out what part of the brain we use to control ourselves. And that we do with the prefrontal cortex, which is also responsible for our attention, behavior and judgement. In other words, it defines our behavior and desires whether we’re going to eat the first marshmallow or wait for the second one (I’m talking about the Stanford “marshmallow experiment”, google it if curious).

But how do we make the decision? It depends on the prefrontal cortex activity level at the moment when you decide. The higher the activity level, the higher is the chance that you’re going to make the “right” decision in terms of the outcome, instead of just giving in to temptation. If your prefrontal cortex is not being so active at the moment, the more “impulsive” brain zones take the wheel, the ones that always choose easy rewards and make reckless decisions.

Ok. And what does the activity level depend on?

First of all, it’s the overall energy level. The less energy you have, the less you’ll have available to “feed” to your prefrontal cortex. Its neurons are pretty “gluttonous”, just as neurons of other brain zones responsible for higher mental functions- thinking, speech, imagination, perception.

Conclusion 1. The less energy you have - the weaker is your self-control.

Secondly, it depends on how developed this brain zone is. It’s not a secret, that everyone’s brain is structurally different, and all its zones are not developed equally. Those of us, whose prefrontal cortex is highly developed (has a lot of strong neuro connections), find it much easier to control themselves in pretty much anything. Their neuro paths are well trained and strong, which means that they always come into play when a decision has to be made.

Conclusion 2. The more strong neuro connections does this brain zone have, the more able you are to control yourself.

That brings us to an important understanding, these 5 Steps are based on:

A will-power (aka self-control) - is not a metaphor, it’s a true power resource, that helps us choosing useful over pleasurable. And just like all the other resources, it’s finite. You can quickly use it all up due to 1) prefrontal cortex neurons being “gluttonous” and consuming so much of our energy; and 2) we use this particular resource in almost all the daily operations.

With that being said, I want to present to you the 5 Steps you can take right now to start using your energy effectively and strengthen your prefrontal cortex. Well, and as the result obtain the self-control level: God.

Photo by Miguel Bruna

1. Priorities only.

When you see people successfully doing 100 things at once, you only see one side of the story. You may think: “Wow, he has a family, his own business AND he has enough time left to spend on his hobbies! That means it’s possible to be good at everything at once!”. And you try to implement it. You start taking guitar lessons, get a gym membership, work, maintain social life, study French and read 10 books a month. And after a half a year (a year tops), you, exhausted by that roller coaster, will find yourself exactly where you began, thinking there’s just something wrong with you.

But you know, those people you were trying to keep up with, are not exactly what they may want to appear. Some of them are “slightly” exaggerating, and those who are not - are living a robot-like life. Every minute of their day is assigned to a line on their to-do list which has no room to many things that are oh so important for you. The only way to introduce this amount of task load is organically.

That urge to be a jack of all trades is based on the FOMO - fear of missing out on something that others have time for. But don’t worry - those “others” are missing out on something too. Sometimes even on those things they rave about to you. Because the “will power resource” being finite means that giving all those aspects of life your 100% is not real, it’s utopian.

Yes, you can juggle many of those at the same time, but that leads you to only be able to give it a speck of your true potential. Therefore, you’re going to move forward in those aspects with a speed of a snail.

The more priorities you have - the less resource you can invest in every single one of those.

In other words, the more life aspects you work on, the less energy you have to maintain your self-control and to focus on every single one of those.

So if you do want to have results, you do have to learn how to focus. And that requires setting strong boundaries. So:

  1. Prioritize those aspects of life that you want to improve and grow.

  2. Define what exactly and how much/long/often you need to do that to achieve the results you want.

  3. Dedicate yourself fully to those tasks and remove everything else from your schedule for the time being.

That will help you stop spreading yourself too thin doing all at once and nothing at all at the same time. And instead of foggy dreams you’ll get a clear picture in your head with your priorities and the amount of resources they are taking.

2. Automatize the unimportant

As we discussed earlier, making a lot of choices throughout the day weakens our self-control. Here’s how we can avoid it:

  1. Define the most important tasks that are contributing to your growth and require the most resource (Step 1);

  2. Define the tasks/choices/decisions of less importance, using the minimum amount of your resource. You can do it by either automatizing them, or eliminating from your life completely.

And that’s what Step 2 is about.

The worst thing you can do in this scenario is take the finite energy from the “important but hard” and give it to the “unimportant but easy”. It’s crucial to mindfully work on the important, and with unimportant- automatize and “ritualize”.

Here’s to to do that:

  • Capsule wardrobe

  • Eliminate the chit-chatting, surfing the internet shops and endless feed scrolling (unless you’re searching for something particular and limit your time spent on it)

  • Meal prepping and clear guidelines for “what-when-how much” you eat

  • Shopping lists (and sticking to them!) so that you don’t overload your brain with making so many decisions while at a store.

A lot of “weak-willed” people unknowingly waste their cognitive resource on things of next to none value: have endless chit-chats about politics with their coworkers, compare products on Amazon, aimlessly browse internet, daily take hours to pick their outfits, prepare their meals and so on. As a result they don’t have any energy left for important tasks after all that.

Considering that, the story about a Chinese businessman who pays 3000 euro to delegate his daily decisions doesn’t seem so insane anymore, does it?

It does not mean that you have to become a robot and neglects everything you love doing. If you love cooking-cook! You like being creative with your outfits-knock yourself out! Just separate what’s important from what wants to seem important and shut the pipe through which your energy is leaking.

3. Introduce habits using “One at a time” principle

“Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters” Nathaniel Emmons

Habits allow you to save your energy resource with the guaranteed result. That’s exactly why our brain is patterned back and forth. And this fact makes habits nearly the most valuable investment of your time and effort.

The problem with habits is a popular obsession with “waking up a new person”. It sits right next to the big pile of rejection and ignores the most important part: introducing new habits takes the cognitive resource we are talking about. So if you’re short on free (available) energy and you lack self-control and a strong will (low PFC activity level), then you have to be very very patient.

Attempting to reinstall the whole habit system, especially in multiple life aspects at once, you’re setting yourself up for a major and I repeat MAJOR relapse!

How do you introduce new habits successfully without setbacks? There are 2 options:

1. One significant change at a time. You set a goal to install 1 major and hard to get used to habit and until it’s fully integrated in your life and flows automatically, you don’t even attempt to change anything else in any other aspect of your life.

For instance: you want to start getting up early in the morning so that you can go for a run, read more, begin working earlier etc. Respectable goal if you ask me. But besides the fact that early rise alone is pretty stressful for you, you keep loading up more tasks on top of that. Trust me, unless you have a mega valid reason to push you, you’ll jump off that train wreck with a quickness.

All you have to do is just set a goal to get up early at first. Give yourself couple weeks and only when you get used to do that (along with going to bed early), slowly begin introducing new habits.

2. Several super easy new habits at once. Something like “getting up 20 mins early”, “learning 1 word a day”, “drink extra 16 oz of water”.. you get the picture right? It can even be different spheres of life.

Keeping the track of those helps a lot- it helps to stay on course, tie dopamine production to small wins and be able to monitor the results.

4. Eliminate the temptations

As much as you can that is.

“Temptation” is anything that can compromise your self-control. Drawer full of chocolates. Instagram notifications popping up every other minute on your phone. YouTube tab sitting there open and looking at you. TV playing on the background.

Your brain would grab any opportunity to do something easy and pleasurable instead of hard but useful. Lately I’ve been hearing more and more people saying that “you’ll stick to it if you really want it”. Bullshit. Yes, you can resist a temptation in one aspect, but fighting them coming at you one after another all day long is impossible due to the limited amount of self-control we’ve been talking about.

Trust me, our environment controls us way more that inner motivation. When those new habits or behaviors will become a part of your life, all the temptations will lose their power. But for now - out!

Photo by Emily Hopper

5. Meditate

The last step on our list, but definitely not the least important.

Meditation is not some esoteric game. It’s a scientifically proven way to train you to focus your attention and awareness. Our ability to focus our attention (especially on something complicated and boring) is tightly connected to our will power. Therefore, training the former, we’re training the later.

Even more - not only meditation improves our attention and awareness - it promotes the structural changes in our brain. There is a number of clinical studies proving that prefrontal cortex of patients practicing meditation gets more dense over the time, which is a sign of the increase of neuro connections number.

That, by the way, became one of the proofs of our brain plasticity, and that’s exactly what lets us increase our will power and self-control.

But that’s not all. In a long term, meditating helps you fight depression recurrence, makes you more calm while communicating and reacting, increases empathy and even strengthens your immune system. In other words, it’s a very cool thing.

Meditation simply put.

The goal of meditation is the following: you try to fixate your attention on some anchor that has your attention “here and now”. Anything can be that anchor: a sound ( a mantra or nature sounds), movement, breathing, some object. Your job is to only observe that anchor, nothing else.

Your goal is to return your attention to observing that anchor every time it wanders away. And it will do so constantly. It’s important not to start getting pissed at yourself when your mind will be getting flooded with thoughts of your problems, past, future etc. That’s normal and it goes like that for everybody.

Your goal is not to sit there mindlessly, it is to monitor that “wandering”, return your focus to the anchor and keep it there for as long as you can.

Experts advise starting with 5 minutes a day and gradually increase the time. It’s also a great tool for the moments when you’re losing it, stressed out or catch yourself procrastinating. Then it only takes couple minutes to get back your self-control and your wandering attention.


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