5 secrets of self control
Executive Coaching | Leadership | Well-being

5 Secrets of Self-Control

The Marshmallow Test – willpower or strategy?

Self-control has long been of interest. Back in the 1970s, Stanford psychologist, Walter Mischel, conducted a famous experiment on delayed gratification. Children were offered a choice between eating one marshmallow immediately or two later. He decided that the ability to resist temptation by exercising self-control predicted all kinds of positive life outcomes for the children who performed the best during the experiment.

But when we take a closer look at the strategies the successful children employed, it wasn’t about gritting their teeth in the face of temptation and resisting through the power of their superior self-control. Actually, the children who avoided eating the marshmallow used a range of quite imaginative strategies, such as distracting themselves, not looking at the marshmallow at all or even imagining that it was something else altogether. It was strategy more than willpower that delivered success.

Self-control is fragile and unreliable

This fragility should not surprise us. Willpower turns out to be a finite resource that you need to budget carefully. It’s like a muscle that gets fatigued when demands are made of it. Even quite straightforward new behaviours can require considerable focus and effort until they become automatic. For instance, UGM Consulting research shows that even when everyone on a team has agreed to show each other respect by listening fully to what colleagues say, they often slip back to their old ways of ‘loudest wins the airtime’ because sticking to the new behaviour needed too much effort.

So, what can we learn from recent research that might help us in our personal and work lives? It seems that effortful restraint is not always the best way to secure the outcomes we want. Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You might be able to triumph over old habits and well-worn behaviours a couple of times. But it’s unlikely you’ll succeed every time. It’s difficult to sustain the effort needed.

The Radish Experiment and what it demonstrates

In a famous study simply known as the Radish Experiment, psychologist Roy Baumeister brought a group of subjects into his lab. They’d all been instructed to fast ahead of coming. His assistants had baked fresh chocolate chip cookies and the irresistible aroma wafted through the room. The subjects were invited to sit down at a table where there were plates of the delicious cookies and also a bowl of radishes. Some people were told to eat whatever they wanted. But others were told they could eat only the radishes.

The research team watched the subjects through a small, hidden window. They observed those in the radish condition gazing longingly at the cookies but, with great reluctance, they took a radish and bit into it. In one way or another, the subjects clearly demonstrated that they were tempted to eat the cookies but, exerting considerable self-control, they did not. They summoned up their willpower and stuck to their agreed plan. They resisted.

But just when the subjects thought that was it, they were led into another room and given a puzzle to solve. They didn’t know that the puzzles were all impossible but Baumeister wanted to see how long people would persevere before giving up. He was using perseverance as a fairly reliable indicator of self-control.

The subjects who had been able to eat just what they liked (i.e., no self-control demanded) typically worked on these impossible puzzles for around 20 minutes before giving up. But the people who’d been tempted by the cookies and resisted that temptation lasted just eight minutes before they gave up. While they’d resisted the cookies, they’d now run out of the willpower to persevere. Self-control is limited, fragile and unreliable.

People who excel at self-control often hardly use it at all!

Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist at Ohio State University who studies self-control and self-regulation, has an ‘angel versus devil’ analogy to convey a finding of his. He comments that our prototypical model of self-control is as if there was an angel on one side and a devil on the other. The angel and the devil battle it out. We tend to think of people with strong willpower as people who are able to fight this battle effectively. Their angel wins. But in fact, Fujita’s research shows that people who seem to have really good self-control, avoid such battles in the first place. They arrange their lives with useful routines, habits and nudges, so that they need minimal self-control to achieve the outcomes important to them.

A study at McGill University in Canada by Marina Milyavskaya explored this idea further. Her team monitored 160 students for a week. They found that the students who exerted more self-control to stick to their study plans were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in with them at the end of the semester. What’s more the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling much more exhausted and depleted. Not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.

A conclusion was that while there is a strong assumption that exerting self-control is beneficial, in the long term often it is not. People who seem to be good at self-control also tend to have good habits generally. They spend less time in tempting situations and they ensure their environment is supportive. They set positive useful routines and structure their environment to cue the behaviours they most want. In other words, they put some effort into designing their context so that they can live the life they want with less effort! In this sense, self-control turns out to be a type of decision-making. To improve the decisions you regularly take, you need to think about context and cues, so that you don’t need to exercise so much of your (often limited) willpower day to day.

Boosting motivation helps get a new behaviour over the line

If you can increase your motivation to engage in a positive new behaviour, then you’ll need a little less willpower to action it. Neuroscientist, Elliot Berkman, is testing this idea of ‘motivational boosts’ with promising results. Clarity about values and purpose helps to motivate by providing a meaningful direction. When you focus on who you wish to become, you are able to shift the beliefs that drive the actions you take. Behind every behaviour is a system of beliefs. In other words, the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a new behaviour becomes part of your identity. You’re saying, in effect, “I’m the type of person who wants this. I’m the type of person who does this.”

Reflecting on identity and values is helpful too for organisations who want to see behaviour change, for example, as part of implementing an inclusion strategy. When a team decides what they want to stand for, what their principles and values are, then motivation is boosted and it’s easier to engage in the behaviours and actions that align with that image of themselves. This becomes part of a team charter and, in itself, this is a powerful way of engaging members of a ‘working from anywhere’ team in today’s hybrid workplace by promoting a sense of belonging to something meaningful.

Getting clear and getting specific

When the new behaviours you want are simple, small and specific steps, then you’ll need to expend less effort to establish them as habits. So too at the team level: committing to inclusive behaviours and sticking to them is easier when team members have written a personal account of exactly what they are going to do, when and why. This is often called ‘implementation intentions.’ It’s about getting very specific about what exactly you’re going to do. The behaviour is linked to context and reflects shared principles and because the agreed behaviours are specific, they can also be monitored for progress. Are you moving, even a little, towards where you’d like to be? What do you need to do more and less of to support progress? In these ways, you can boost motivation, such that less self-control is needed to take the valued actions

Self-control an additional but not a sole resource

That’s not to say there is no place for willpower or self-control or that these are pointless. But rather it’s about acknowledging that individuals and organisations should see approaches to behaviour change based on effort alone as being limited. Self-control is an extra card in your back pocket, if you like, something you can use but not something to rely on. Recent research has revealed that the real secret of self-control is doing all you can to minimise your need for it, given most of us are, essentially, fragile, distractible beings.

But a final point worth noting is that, if you find yourself having to draw on effort and self-control much of the time at work, check back into your values and your sense of purpose. If these are not aligned with your current role, then pushing yourself to get through every day might not be your best course of action. If the fit isn’t right for you, it’s going to be hard to experience that motivation boost that comes when you’re doing things that resonate for you. A current lack of willpower might be a message you should listen to!

PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS

Applying these insights on self-control to your team

  1. Asking for input into your team’s principles and purpose helps to encourage a shared sense of meaning and belonging. These boost motivation.
  2. Create a team charter that outlines the behaviours team members believe would be consistent with their principles.
  3. Get specific and clear about these behaviours. Invite everyone to write their own ‘implementation intentions’. Share these to enable a supportive team context.
  4. Include small steps to get started. What can you all agree to do ‘more of’ and ‘less of’ to bring your team charter to life?
  5. Identify a few small, relevant metrics you could track that would help to monitor progress in the right direction. This could be something quite simple, such as a quick review once every week or so about what team members think of the quality of your meeting conversations.
  6. Make sure you celebrate behaviour change successes. Recognition and gratitude are also known motivation boosts!
  7. Each of these relatively small steps, taken together, will support behaviour change in your team so that you need less effort and less willpower to reach the outcomes you want.

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