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How to Master Willpower & Self-Control

How to Master Willpower & Self-Control

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Out of all the skills in life, I believe willpower and self-control are the most important. Without these two, any other skill becomes nearly impossible to master.

Three of the best researchers on this subject are Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, Charles Duhigg who wrote The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, and Roy F. Baumeister who wrote Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Each of these books provides useful insights into the nature of willpower and self-control, how and where it originates, and ways we can strengthen our ability to exert these invaluable skills.

Here are the 6 most important lessons I discovered reading them:

Lesson 1: Self-control requires attention and effort.

There are two major areas of your brain. Here is how they work. Imagine you’re just about to leave the office on a Friday before a 4-day vacation. Your boss sends you an email asking for your help on a last-minute project that will require you to work through the evening and most of the weekend. One part of your brain, called System 1, is the part telling you to reply to the boss’s email with a letter of resignation. But it’s the other part, referred to as System 2, that reminds you of your bills, the baby on the way, and the fact that this project could place you in great favor with your employer.

System 1 is the part of the brain that works automatically to create intuitions, feelings, impressions, and inclinations. System 1 acts independently of our conscious choice; it is beyond our control. Luckily, System 2, responsible for rational and analytical thinking and judgment, can save us. When put into action, it can rein in the excesses and errors of System 1. System 1 is thinking “fast”, while System 2 is thinking “slow”. System 1 is an automatic system, whereas System 2 is an effortful one (Kahneman, 29).

System 1 can only be considered reliable in remarkably stable and predictable situations and environments. But that’s the problem, nearly everything in life today, especially in business and the workplace is unpredictable. This is reason System 2 and the self-control it makes possible is so critical. Remember that without an active System 2, your success is entirely a matter of chance or luck.

Acting on your rational thoughts opposed to simply your intuition means you’re using System 2 and that skill alone will boost every area of your professional life, from small, everyday matters to monumental decisions.

Lesson 2: Managing self-control requires an understanding of how habits are formed.

Have you seen any of the Febreze “nose blind” commercials? It was this “nose blindness” that caused a crisis within a Proctor & Gamble marketing team. They eventually discovered that many of the people who most needed Febreze (such as a woman with nine cats who is given as an example in Duhigg’s book) could no longer smell the unpleasant odors that constantly surrounded them. As a result, they changed the craving that would trigger the habit of using Febreze from wanting to cover up specific bad smells to simply wanting to finish off a newly made bed or recently cleaned room with a generally fresh scent. The team changed the product’s tagline from “’Get bad smells out of fabrics’” to “Clean life’s smells”. The cue became something like cleaning a room or making a bed, and spraying Febreze became the routine. The reward was an especially fresh smelling space (Duhigg, 54). This change in tactic transformed Febreze from a failing product into an incredibly successful item.

The Febreze story shows us that understanding habits and how they are established and engrained can be used to change our own habits (and consequently our lives). We can eliminate engrained habits by understanding habits and their components.

A habit has three fundamental parts: a cue, routine, and reward. If you have a habit you want to eliminate, figure out what reward you are seeking and find another, non-destructive routine that will give it to you. This will allow you to form a new good habit to replace the old one. This is critical. Long-term success is much more likely with this approach than with a simple attempt at elimination of the entire bad habit only.

An example of this method in practice is that Duhigg gives of breaking his habit of eating a large cookie in his workplace cafeteria every afternoon. He figured out that what he was really craving and therefore the reward, was the social interaction with the cafeteria staff that buying and eating a cookie afforded him. As a result, he changed his routine to simply chatting with a co-worker or having a tea in the cafeteria and chatting with staff and co-workers there. After a while, he forgot all about his cookie habit.

If you can diagnose the habit, you can control your behavior.

Lesson 3: Self-control without self-awareness and ego are useless.

“Willpower without self-awareness is as useless as a cannon commanded by a blind man” (Baumeister, 114). Without self-awareness, we don’t know what it is that we need our willpower to achieve. And self-awareness is essential to good self-regulation (112).

In combination with self-awareness, having an ego is key, believe it or not. A “good” ego means it’s not depleted. Baumeister acknowledges past studies showing that low and unstable levels of glucose make it harder for willpower to function, as there is less of a store of mental energy. The depletion of this energy is called “ego-depletion”. When you suffer ego-depletion, you have “diminished capacity to regulate [your] thoughts, feelings, and actions” (28). Other factors that can cause ego-depletion include fatigue (from using willpower or making decisions very recently), as well as general stress.

The reason ego-depletion can have such a negative effect is because it “results in slower brain activity” (29). If you have been in high stress meetings all morning, you might have difficulty performing well while making a sales call soon after. How can we overcome the effects of ego-depletion? The answer is by a) strengthening our willpower “muscle” (which we’ll talk about in detail in lesson 6) and b) by simply planning the specific times of the day you’ll make your most important decisions.

The best example of this is Steve Jobs, who was notorious for wearing a daily uniform of blue 501 Levis jeans, a black mock turtle neck, and gray New Balance 991 sneakers. Why did he wear a uniform? Because he didn’t want to deplete his mental energy in the morning on deciding what to wear, something he considered to be a trivial decision. Instead, he saved up his mental energy for more pressing decisions once he got to work.

Lesson 4: It’s essential to continually increase attention and effort.

Imagine you need to make a high-stakes decision like whether to stay or leave your job, both options having serious implications. While contemplating, you have difficulty focusing and turning on the System 2 part of your brain, remember this is that part that helps you rationally think about a situation. Instead, because you’re not focusing, System 1, the part that thinks fast, and merely creates impressions, chooses to generate an array of illusions and fallacies of thinking that are easy to fall prey to. Without focus, your decision is less likely to be the best one.

Concentration and focus are essential to engage System 2 and overcome the impulses that System 1 creates (Kahneman, 26), consciously improving your critical thinking skills and cultivating an active and engaged mind. You might find that calling in your System 2 more frequently and consistently depletes your mental energy at first (ego-depletion), but as you become more practiced you will find “its demand for energy diminished” (35).

Kahneman points out that “the way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2” (447). I apply this rule by talking to myself whenever I’m in a situation when I’m not logically thinking out a problem. I say “Come on Paul, if you were to take your feelings out of the equation, what would you decide.” Just that little bit of conscious thinking could mean all the difference in the world.

Also, Kahneman and Baumeister both point out that keeping your glucose levels stable will also help keep your System 2 alert and agile. Studies have shown that people who have recently eaten and are not feeling hungry are more likely to make rational decisions. Keep this in mind the next time you’re tempted to make do with just a coffee for lunch when you’re swamped with work.

Lesson 5: Good keystone habits are critical in mastering self-control.

I grew up with a father who was a retired army soldier. That meant I had to make my bed every morning, no questions asked. I never could understand why it was so important. I was just going to mess it up at night anyway. What was the point? Well, it turns out that there was a point, one that extends beyond just having a neat bed.

Making your bed is just one example of what Duhigg calls a good “keystone habit”. Having such a habit can have a positive effect on your self-discipline in many other areas of your life. Just as good keystone habits can improve general self-control, it has also been found that bad keystone habits have corresponding effects across the board. The good news here is that you can use your knowledge of keystone habits to improve your willpower. People often have one bad keystone habit that if they extinguish, will make it much easier to eradicate other negative habits. One example of a common negative keystone habit is smoking.

Duhigg concedes that distinguishing keystone habits can be difficult. Here’s a helpful hint you can use: keystone habits tend to provide “’small wins’” (109). This means they create structures that support other habits. Negative keystone habits tend to support bad habits and routines, while positive ones tend to support good ones.

Maybe you have the bad keystone habit of checking your email too many times during the work day. Perhaps this habit leads to clicking on links and checking your social media accounts, making you less productive. To extinguish this habit, carefully think about what cravings and cues are driving your habit, and look for an alternative routine.

For example, if you check email when you feel anxious about work, change your routine to meditating for five minutes instead.

Lesson 6: Self-control is like a muscle and must be constantly trained or tricked.

Willpower and self-control are like muscle: becoming progressively stronger through continued use. This simile helped guide my thinking and comprehension throughout the three books. The authors show that you cannot truly have any control over how your life unfolds without having a strong willpower and self-control “muscle”.

An important part of training that muscle is understanding the power of routine. Negative habits “are strengthened by routine” (252). To help yourself become more self-disciplined, create positive, productive routines that benefit your life. Always keep your surroundings organized and tidy. This might seem like a superficial consideration, but Baumeister argues that factors such as the orderliness of our environment can also help train our willpower muscle. Many businesspeople seriously underestimate how much their messy offices might be affecting their productivity. Set aside a bit of time from your day to keep your workplace organized.

There are also tricks that you can play on yourself to make using willpower easier, especially at the beginning. Baumeister explains, “emotional control typically relies on various subtle tricks, such as changing how one thinks about the problem at hand, or distracting oneself” (130). A powerful trick is to tell yourself “later” rather than “never” when you want to give into some sort of temptation that you want to avoid (an example would be a delicious slice of cake when you’re trying to lose weight). It has been found that it’s much easier for people to exert self-control if they think they’ll be rewarded with what they really want later. Have some healthy snacks so that by the time “later” comes, you won’t want the cake as much as you do now.

“Bright lines” will also help to boost your self-control. These are clear boundaries and rules that you set for yourself (185). Bright lines are rules that you simply never break. Having this sense of boundary and limitation will make it easier for you to create positive habits even when you are experiencing ego-depletion. An example of a bright line might be the rule of never responding to a negative business email without thinking through all the implications of your response (writing them down, if you think that will help).

Baumeister also points out how believing in a higher power or at least an entity or cause greater than oneself has been shown to help people improve their willpower and self-discipline. You don’t need to be or become religious to do this. Simply dedicating yourself to a cause can do the trick. For instance, the environmental movement’s “exhortations to reduce consumption and waste are teaching children some of the same self-control lessons offered in religious sermons and Victorian primers” (183). It is also critical to try to have a long-term focus rather than one that is only focused on the here and now (165). Spend more time considering the long-term goals of your business, as well as the strategies you will use to achieve them

So there you have it, the 6 lessons I discovered by reading these 3 amazing books to help you master will-power and self-control. Be sure to watch the lecture to better understand how to apply these lessons to your life.

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