Effective approaches for building self-control combine fun with progressively increasing challenges. Rather than force activities onto an unwilling child, take advantage of his or her individual tendencies. When children develop self-control through their own pursuit of happiness, no parental hovering is required. Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort. Whether it’s compiling baseball statistics or making (but not passively watching) YouTube videos, passionate hobbies build mental staying power that can also be used for math homework.
Play allows children to practice skills that are useful in adult life. Young children build self-control through elaborate, imaginative games like pretending to be a doctor or a fireman. Preschool teachers can promote self-control with simple techniques — for example, handing a child a drawing of an ear to remind him that it’s his turn to listen. Frequent practice is crucial. Montessori preschool instruction, which has been shown to lead to strong academic achievement, incorporates self-control into daily activities.
Learning a second language strengthens mental flexibility, an aspect of self-control, because the languages interfere with each other and because children must determine which language the listener will understand. Bilingual children do well on tasks that require them to ignore conflicting cues, for example reporting that a word is printed in green ink even though it says “red.” Bilingual children are better at learning abstract rules and reversing previously learned rules, even before their first birthday. People who continue to speak both languages as adults show these benefits for a lifetime.
Aerobic exercise, which increases prefrontal cortex activity, is another way to build cognitive flexibility. Further benefits may come from Asian practices that require sustained attention and disciplined action, like martial arts, yoga and meditation. Though parents often worry that physical education takes time away from the classroom, an analysis of multiple studies instead found strong evidence that physical activity improved academic performance.
It was interesting reading that learning a second language (at least for children) can improve self-control. I often credit my study of music for building my own self-control. It helps my mind remain focused, allowing me to think linearly and remain on task rather than be distracted by every whim or impulse. I also couldn't cheat or charm my way to musical proficiency -- I could only do it the hard way.
I think studying mathematics has also improved my self-control. I agree that training your mind to learn different mechanisms of abstraction helps with directing one's concentration, which helps with self-control.
I swim regularly to keep my mind and body limber. I also like the white noise. It's calming, like I'm back in the womb.
Finally, I make everything I do into a game. I really can't force myself to do anything. If it weren't entertaining to me, I just would never do it. But I can make things entertaining by incentivizing myself or trying to "win" at certain things.
With sociopaths (more than most people), what we actually end up doing is somewhat of a dice roll, but it's not something that is completely beyond our ability to influence.