The human brain has the impressive capacity to adapt how it processes information to high-level goals. While it is known that these cognitive control skills are malleable and can be improved through training, the underlying plasticity mechanisms are not well understood. Here, we develop and evaluate a model of how people learn when to exert cognitive control, which controlled process to use, and how much effort to exert. We derive this model from a general theory according to which the function of cognitive control is to select and configure neural pathways so as to make optimal use of finite time and limited computational resources. The central idea of our Learned Value of Control model is that people use reinforcement learning to predict the value of candidate control signals of different types and intensities based on stimulus features. This model correctly predicts the learning and transfer effects underlying the adaptive control-demanding behavior observed in an experiment on visual attention and four experiments on interference control in Stroop and Flanker paradigms. Moreover, our model explained these findings significantly better than an associative learning model and a Win-Stay Lose-Shift model. Our findings elucidate how learning and experience might shape people’s ability and propensity to adaptively control their minds and behavior. We conclude by predicting under which circumstances these learning mechanisms might lead to self-control failure.