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A Stitch in Time: Strategic Self-Control in High School and College Students

As ADHD coaches, we recognize the importance of self-control in successfully realizing one’s goals. But what self-control strategies are most effective in helping move toward goals without succumbing to immediately rewarding temptations? In other words, what can we – and our clients – do to increase the likelihood of:

•    Writing that needed paper instead of checking Facebook?
•    Or choosing to eat a healthy snack vs. a sugary treat?
•    Or going for an early morning jog rather than turning over in bed and going back to sleep?


Duckworth, A. L., White, R. E., Matteucci, A. J., Shearer, A., & Gross, J. J. (2016). A stitch in time: Strategic self-control in high school and college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 329-341.

Using the process model of self-control developed by Duckworth, Gendler, and Gross (2014), the authors of this research study investigated the self-control strategies used by high school and college students while also examining how well the various strategies worked.

According to the process model of self-control, strategies for self-control can be categorized into five types, depending upon the stage of the impulse generation:

1.    Situation selection, in which we plan to be with people or in places that will assist self-control (e.g., going to the library to study)
2.    Situation modification, in which we change the situation to strengthen the desired impulses or weaken the undesirable impulses (e.g., turning the phone off when doing homework)
3.    Attentional deployment, in which we focus on cues that facilitate our self-control (e.g., looking at the professor who is lecturing)
4.    Cognitive change, in which we reframe the situation to lessen temptation (e.g., seeing homework as an opportunity to develop skills)
5.    Response modulation, in which we suppress distracting impulses in the moment (e.g., forcing ourselves to “just do it”)

Duckworth and colleagues (2016) note that “the most important prediction of the process model is that intervening earlier in the cycle of impulse generation, when impulses are still developing, is more effective than intervening later” (p. 330).

There were three parts to this study:

1) High school students described self-control dilemmas and how they had dealt with them. They were also asked how they might respond to hypothetical situations where temptations might get in the way of academic work, and how effective different strategies might be.

2) High school students were asked to set specific study goals and were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: situation modification, response modulation or no-treatment control. After one week, they reported on progress toward their goals.

3) Study situation 2 (above) was repeated with college students, who were also asked to report on how tempted they felt with distractions over the course of the week.


In hypothetical academic situations, high school students recommended situation modification 58% of the time over other self-control strategies, but reported using situation modification half as often (29%) in similar circumstances. Both high school and college students were more likely to attain their goals when they used situation modification strategies than when they relied on sheer willpower. The authors found that college students who changed their physical surroundings to help them achieve their goals also reported less temptation. Further studies may examine how, and to what extent, situation self-control is made easier through the use of situation modification strategies.


The title of the research study, “A stitch in time,” points to the effectiveness of taking time to plan ahead for self-control rather than having to control one’s impulses later when they have grown in strength. If we are trying to reduce sugar intake, for example, it takes less self-control to resist buying cookies at the store so there are none at home than to use sheer willpower to resist eating one (or more) cookies when the box is open on our kitchen counter.

Using the framework and results of this study, as ADHD coaches we might assist our clients in recognizing and using situational self-control strategies that are more likely to be effective than later-employed cognitive strategies. For example, we might assist both student and adult clients in brainstorming temptations and obstacles they might face in the process of goal attainment, and ways to be proactive in reducing their impact. We might encourage clients to review what has worked in similar situations in the past and consider ways to remind themselves of success strategies for future endeavors.

By taking the time to anticipate challenges, and plan how they might set themselves up for success, our clients can increase self-awareness, reduce temptation, develop a larger repertoire of proactive strategies, and more easily realize their goals.

Duckworth, A., Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Self-control in school-age children. Educational Psychologist, 49, 199–217.

Duckworth, A. L., White, R. E., Matteucci, A. J., Shearer, A., & Gross, J. J. (2016). A stitch in time: Strategic self-control in high school and college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 329-341.

Note: A copy of this 2016 study can be found at https://angeladuckworth.com/publications/


Fouche-RoxanneRoxanne Fouche
ACO Research Chair