There are many personality traits contributing to success in life: general intelligence, emotional intelligence, ear for music, physical attractiveness, etc. Some matter more, some less, but one matters most: an ability to control yourself.
In the 1970s, Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen at Stanford University conducted a set of harsh but extremely important experiments. They left children, aged four to six, alone in a room with a marshmallow and said they could eat the marshmallow right away, but if they waited until the researcher returned, they could have two marshmallows. Some kids ate the marshmallow and some waited. Years later, in the followed-up on the experiment, tracking down hundreds of participants, it was found that those who resisted the enticing treat went on to achieve higher grades and better test scores. They were more popular, earned more money, and were less likely to use drugs or gain excessive weight. Researchers were astonished how accurately the marshmallow test predicted adult behavior and success in all critical aspects of life.
Another study tracked 1,000 people born in New Zealand in 1972 and 1973 from birth to age 32 and found that those with strong self-control were healthier, happier and more successful. The researchers defined self-control as a set of skills like conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance, as well as being able to consider the consequences of actions in making decisions.
Bases on these and other studies, social psychologist Roy Baumeister concluded that willpower is just another name for the one’s ability to exercise self-control), much like a muscle, tends to get tired if extensively used. He coined the term “ego depletion” to describe overstretched people’s reduced capacity to control their thoughts, emotions and behavior. The willpower is a depleted resource and can be utilized to resists one temptation or another. For example, staying patient with a bad-tempered child drains your reservoir of self-control, making it harder to abstain from ice cream. Hence, the advice he gives in his groundbreaking book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”: focus on one task or self-improvement goal at a time. Trying to reach several goals at once leaves you with less energy because you use “the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”
Willpower is also easily depleted by stress. During college exams, students’ self-control almost evaporates from everywhere, including diet, personal hygiene and social matters. Temptations they successfully resisted earlier, like drinking or staying up late, became much harder to deal with when exams were close. Conserving willpower, so it can be used to make a leap forward, might be a good strategy.
Another important finding made by psychologists in Baumeister’s lab was a link between glucose and willpower. The human body uses glucose as it exercises self-control. Lack of sugar may result in one’s impaired self-control skills. Since it does not make sense to cure one illness by making another one worse, Baumeister offered the following strategies to replenish the willpower:
- Feed the beast – Eat breakfast; do not take on demanding tasks when you are hungry;
- When you eat, go for the slow burn – Avoid foods with a high glycemic index, such as white bread, white rice, snacks or fast foods. Eat foods with a low glycemic index, such as vegetables, nuts, raw fruits, olive oil, fish and lean meats;
- When you are tired, sleep – Resting reduces your body’s glucose requirements and improves its ability to use glucose in the bloodstream, hence improving your ability to resist temptations.
The first steps in regulating self-control are setting realistic goals and honestly tracking your progress. Technology makes self-monitoring easy, allowing you to track your spending, financing, eating, drinking, sleeping, working out, etc. One of the best things you can do to make you move fast is to share information on your goals and progress. As Baumeister’s experiments showed, sharing information keeps people on track toward achieving their goals. “People care more about what other people know about them than about what they know about themselves.”
Baumeister found that you social environment may not only speed up but also slow down your progress. The people with whom you associate influence your behavior. For example, people drink more when they are surrounded by excessive drinkers, and eat more when their family or friends are obese.
Willpower wears out like a muscle, revives like a muscle, and can be trained like a muscle. Researchers found that changing one habit – such as sitting up straight instead of slouching – increases your willpower over time. Strengthening your willpower in one area leads to benefits in others, and the regular moderate willpower exercise (like constant maintaining tidy desk and good personal hygiene) is the best thing you can do to secure your success in self-control, and, ultimately in life.