Author: Paulo Coelho
It’s true that you can’t change other people, but you can change yourself – by taking control.
Better still, self-control is a proven and significant key to success. Let’s see how you can develop your own self-control even further, through understanding and using two key ingredients: willpower and habit – providing an incredible way to free yourself, and be more successful at the same time.
Many of us are constrained by our habits and a certain degree of lack of self control. Whether it’s in the realms of actively exercising regularly, resisting another chocolate bar, the way we deal with emails, or high level decision-making, better self-control can boost our productivity, improve our health, make us more money, and even lengthen our lives! Utilising self-control means realizing and displaying your inner power – whereas lack of self-control is a weakness.
If you want to succeed – take control of your self control!
There is a direct connection between self-control and success, as extensive long-term research proves, and using this knowledge to your advantage can turbocharge your own success.
In the ’60s, Mischel, a sociologist, conducted an experiment to see if young children could resist instant gratification. He offered them the choice of having one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows if they could wait 15 minutes. Many chose instant gratification rather than exerting the willpower to wait. Years later, he tracked down some of the children, and discovered something startling. Those with high self-control – those who had held out for two marshmallows – grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults. Those with low willpower did less well academically (despite having similar IQs). They were more likely to be in low-paying jobs, have fewer savings, were more overweight, more likely to have drug or alcohol problems, and had difficulty maintaining relationships. They were also almost 400% more likely to have a criminal conviction.
These results were confirmed by a similar experiment in New Zealand reported by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, who concluded that “Willpower is one of the most important predictors of success in life.”
Where are you good at exerting self-control?
Where – or when – does your willpower fail you?
Here are 4 ideas to help boost your understanding and practice of self-control, willpower and habit – and therefore take your success to another level:
1. Treat Willpower Like a Muscle
Willpower – the ability to resist temptation and restrain our impulses – is the most important factor in achieving a successful and happy life. It is more significant than money, intelligence, looks, or background. It helps to consider that willpower is like a muscle that can be trained and strengthened with practice and improved over time. Even exercising small acts of willpower, like sitting up straight, can pay off by reinforcing longer-term self-control in other activities.
Also like a muscle, willpower can get tired if you overuse it. Exercising willpower, making choices or decisions and taking the initiative, all use up the same sort of energy. The more decisions we make, the weaker our willpower can become.
Willpower is also similar to a muscle, in that when its strength depletes, it can be revived with glucose – as has been evidenced in research. As we all know, a sugar rush is not a good option, so it’s best to eat healthy food regularly to maintain blood sugar levels. Sleeping and eating well – planning for the slow-release burning of healthy calories – are most important.
The impact of this phenomenon can have extreme consequences. A famous Israeli study in 2011, discovered that judges making decisions whether or not to grant parole did so early in the morning, in roughly 65% of cases after lunch, and hardly ever just before.
Research shows that self-control has a physical basis and is affected by eating and sleeping – and that significant decisions you make can vary depending on whether they’re made in the morning or evening, and before or after a snack.
What changes will you make to develop your willpower muscle?
What changes do you need to make, to prevent your willpower muscle from tiring?
2. Be Aware of Decision fatigue
Making decisions can actually exhaust your ‘stores’ of willpower. Psychologist Roy F Baumeister’s practical experiments asked people to make small decisions, followed by tests of willpower (which proved to be weakened). This demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. In essence, making choices saps willpower – a condition termed ‘decision fatigue’. Use this knowledge to help you conserve your own self-control and use it most effectively.
Resistance to making decisions arises from a fear of reducing options. To those decision-weary judges in the Israeli research, denying parole is easier – it maintains the status quo and prevents a potentially risky parolee committing crime again – but it also leaves more options open: the judge can still release the prisoner at a future date. This is not necessarily the best option – just the easiest and safest. Better to make good decisions with a fresh mind, now that we know the effects.
Where there are fewer decisions to be made, there is less decision fatigue. These days, there are so many choices to make, especially in the working day. It’s easy to underestimate just how tiring it is to make any kind of decision – whether big or small, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, which task to do first, how much to spend – all deplete willpower. The cumulative effect can pay its toll. When willpower weakens (or is used up) our impulses to drink, eat, spend, and say silly things are stronger. And like the depleted parole judges, we become inclined to take the easiest option, even though that may not be the best choice.
“The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
Baumeister’s studies show that people with the best self-control are those who structure their lives in order to conserve their willpower. They don’t fill their days with back-to-back meetings. They maintain habits that eliminate too many choices. Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook, wears the same outfit every day. President Obama wears either a blue or grey suit. Instead of making a decision each morning whether or not to exercise, successful people make ongoing arrangements to exercise with somebody else. Instead of using up their willpower on trivial choices, they conserve it for important decisions and emergencies.
Planning for all decisions in advance – or eliminating the need to make any – is a great way to keep things – and yourself – under control. So think and plan ahead, and set up systems that will make things easy for you.
What changes will you make to reduce decision fatigue?
How far can you go in creating a personal system to eliminate decision making and to automate all aspects of your life?
3. Understand The Power of Habit
Willpower alone is not enough. It’s hard to maintain, because it can become exhausted, especially when the pressure is on. Habits, however, are automatic and come as naturally as breathing.
We need to make changes that are long-lasting – and establish good habits that become a way of life. Most choices we make might feel like the result of thoughtful decision-making, but they’re not: they’re habits. In time, each of our decisions – about the food we eat, what we say to our children each evening, and how frequently we exercise – all have a huge impact on our health, productivity, wealth, and happiness in the longer term.
Establishing good habits in these areas will help you to operate well in all conditions – dispensing with the need to resort to willpower, while still succeeding in maintaining self-control.
If we can lower the barriers to taking action on positive things, we can begin to form good habits. If we put up barriers to negative activities, we can break any bad habits.
At the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Let’s use the example of developing a habit to go running each morning. Choose a simple cue (eg – getting out of bed), establish a routine that is triggered by that cue (lacing up your trainers or always going for a 3 mile run at 5am) and think of the reward (endorphin rush).
Apply this principle to other behaviours and habits in your life, and use them to create better ones. Once you’re aware of how your habit works, and can recognize the cues and rewards, you’re on the way to changing it – for the better.
What good habits will you establish?
How will you put them into action?
4. Use The 20 second rule
Because our willpower is limited, lasting change might seem impossible to achieve. And when it fails, we fall back into old habits and take the path of least resistance. Achor lists a very powerful tool in his book The Happiness Advantage called the 20-second rule. This principle shows how we can re-route the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones. It is very easy to use: identify the habits that you want to lose and make it 20 seconds more difficult to do them.
Addicted to cigarettes? Leave them upstairs or in the car, where they’re not so easily accessed. Lock up the alcohol and add an additional 20 seconds to the task by keeping the keys at the other side of the house (or don’t buy any, turning it into the 20-minute rule, by the time you’ve nipped to the off-licence). Want to escape work in the evening? Leave the smartphone and laptop in the furthest room (or at the office!).
The 20-second rule also works in developing new, good habits. If you want to exercise, make it 20 seconds easier: lay out your clothes the night before. Even better – go to sleep in your gym clothes! If you want to make a habit of prioritising your to-do list each day, keep it clearly visible on your desktop, rather than having to pull it up or look for it. Making things easier reduces the amount of willpower it takes to do it, thereby increasing your success.
When you make your bad habit harder to do while making the good habit easier, you are much more likely to take the easy route. It’s been proven by research that we will even do things that are less satisfying if it’s easier. Just because we know the right thing to do, we don’t automatically do it. Plan ahead, anticipating your needs, and aim to make things accessible and easy to do.
Always make your vice at least 20 seconds away, while making your virtue immediately available.
So use the 20-Second Rule. Create barriers to habits you want to resist, and make it easy for the desired ones.
Where will you use the 20 second rule
To address bad habits?
To develop good habits?
With all this knowledge, you can use your own self-control to supercharge your ability to succeed.
In brief, some top self control tips are:
Develop your self-control system – and systematise your life.
Develop and maintain good habits and routines to take the strain off your willpower.
Plan in advance, to make things easier.
Exercise your self-control regularly in small ways.
Learn to recognise signs that your willpower may be getting depleted.
Sleep well and eat good food regularly.
Don’t do too much at once.
Since self-control is essential to your success, it’s too important for it to be out of control. Mastery is much easier when you understand how you work – and take action to make yourself even better!
Take control – now.
Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret of Success by Roy F. Baumeister (Amazon LinkUK,US)
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Amazon LinkUK,US)
The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor(Amazon LinkUK,US)
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