At the 2009 U.S. Open, Serena Williams lashed out at a lineswoman in a profanity laced tirade that not only cost her the match, but also $82,500 in fines. Serena, a former No.1 ranked tennis player in the world and holder of 27 grand slam titles, had a lapse in self-control. Our ability to self-regulate has tremendous impact on our lives. The lack of self-control by many politicians and celebrities has led to public displays of the disastrous results (e.g. Rep. Anthony Wiener, Gov. Mark Sanford, Charlie Sheen, etc.). A study published in 2010, tracked one thousand children from birth to age thirty two and found that the greatest predictor of “success” in life was the trait of self-control. Interestingly, in a study with over one million survey responses, participants were asked to list their personal strengths, and self-control was dead last. We seem to know our own limitations when it comes to our willpower. Unfortunately, the challenge of self-control has led to alarming rates for crime, divorce and sexually transmitted diseases in our modern times. In fact, social psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister in his 1994 book “Losing Control” argued that, “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.”
For entrepreneurs and business leaders, the ability to exercise self-control is extremely important.
In today’s business environment, we have constant distractions competing for our focus and energy. We have the vast array of information of the internet readily available – just tempting us to explore. We can watch our favorite movies and television shows any time on portable devices we carry around with us. Even going to the grocery store presents us with a dizzying array of choices as local groceries have now grown into megastores. Author and performance coach Tony Schwartz noted, “Self-control is the ability to say no, in the face of temptation, and to take sustained action, despite the difficulty of a given challenge.” I have the good fortune to interview leaders on a regular basis. One of the common themes I hear is that it is critical for leaders to separate “the great from the good” by learning to say no. By saying “no” to very good things, we are able to “yes” to the truly great opportunities. Leaders have to make difficult decisions and lead by example. Nobody wants to follow people who routinely exhibit poor self-control.
Schwartz also emphasized, “Over the years, we’ve learned that nearly everything people tend to believe about self-control is wrong. Most of us assume the only way to resist our impulses, or persevere under pressure, is to grit our teeth, furrow our brows, steel our nerves, and tough it out. Precisely the opposite is true.” In his recently published book entitled “Willpower,” Baumeister shares the results of over two decades of rigorous scientific study on this topic which I believe will reframe how think about self-control. Baumeister and his co-author John Tierney share that “willpower is a form of energy in the brain. It’s like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, but that it also gets fatigued.”
What the authors found was that our energy is the key to our self-control. We all have a pool of energy to complete our physical and mental tasks each day. Each time we exercise self-control in an important or even trivial matter, we draw down on this available energy. The energy source in our bodies is glucose, the simple sugar produced in our body from the foods we eat. Researchers found that there was a direct correlation between glucose levels and self-control. In fact, they found that, “As the body uses glucose during self-control, it starts to crave sweet things to eat . . .” I know when I skip a meal that I become ravenous and my own willpower to eat healthy tends to go out the door – just give me a piece of pizza!
As we learn more about how our brains and bodies work, we can put this information to use in our daily lives. By learning to improve our willpower, we can create a huge competitive advantage in work and life. To have more self-regulated lives, we have to learn how to manage our energy. Below are some of the core concepts from this emerging of field of research that we can start to apply today.
Maximize Your Energy
Based on the research, we could draw the wrong conclusion that we need to have Snickers® bars with us all the time to fuel our glucose so we can exhibit better self-control. This is obviously not the way to go. However, the key is to maintain healthy glucose levels throughout the day. Nutritionists would tell us to accomplish that by eating more frequently throughout the day (5-6 times a day). My own research on this topic has convinced me to be a “grazer” throughout the day and avoid large meals. This research also validates the advice your mother gave you to “eat a healthy breakfast!” Starting your work day without having a good breakfast puts you at a competitive disadvantage from the beginning of the day. We also know that we should eat low-glycemic foods which provide sustainable sources of energy throughout the day. When our bodies crave the afternoon snack, we need to refuel with good sources of glucose and not the cookie or Coke. In addition, the research is clear that regular exercise and sleep all help us maintain the right levels of energy. The average American only gets six hours of sleep, but performance expert Dr. Anders Ericcson has shown peak performers sleep eight or more hours a night on average. The bottom line is that we can be intentional about improving our willpower by better managing our energy levels.
Make Your To Do List
Baumeister and Tierney also found that one the keys to improving our willpower is have a good “to do” list. However, this does not mean creating pages of things that we need to get done. Instead, they noted, “an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.” We tend to have too many goals and to-do’s which diffuses our focus and energy. Baumeister and Tierney shared a best practice for team members to weekly share up to three goals that they plan to focus on for the following week and to create a weekly accountability loop on those goals. It is also important to pre-plan your reward for achieving your goal. I enjoy the great feeling of scratching an item off my to-do list. It is a simple act but brings me joy!
Clean Your Room
Research has also found that having a messy workspace leads to less self-control. Unfortunately, those stacks of paper piled up on our desks actually are hurting our ability to exhibit willpower and achieve our goals. By ordering our workspace, we create positive momentum and don’t deplete our willpower resources. In fact, a clean workspace is an integral part of the Japanese 5S system of workplace organization used by many companies.
One of the interesting findings from research on willpower is that people with more self-control are more altruistic. They give more to charity, volunteer more, and are more likely to be concerned about others in society. It is also encouraging to me to learn that I am not a slave to my weaknesses, but that I can actually learn to have better willpower to accomplish positive things in my life. Through implementing some of the findings described in this article and others from this emerging field of research, we have the ability to improve not only our own lives, but also those around us. For entrepreneurs and business leaders, reclaiming this character trait of willpower and learning how to grow it could be the most important element of future success.