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July 24, 2015 12:01 AM EDT
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Increase self control to increase success

Self control predicts success even better than IQ.

From Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

Conscientiousness is the fundmental personality trait most closely tied to self control and it tracks with nearly every type of success across your lifespan.

It’s pretty crazy really:

Money and job satisfaction? – Check.

“Measured concurrently, emotionally stable and conscientious participants reported higher incomes and job satisfaction.

Finding a job? – Check.

“…the personality traits Conscientiousness and Neuroticism have a strong impact on the instantaneous probability of finding a job, where the former has a positive effect and the latter has a negative effect.”

Long marriage? – Check.

“…our findings suggest that conscientiousness is the trait most broadly associated with marital satisfaction in this sample of long-wed couples.”

Healthier life? – Check.

“Among adults over age 45 (n = 2,419), Neuroticism and low Agreeableness were associated with metabolic syndrome, whereas high Conscientiousness was protective. Individuals who scored in the top 10% on Conscientiousness were approximately 40% less likely to have metabolic syndrome…

Long life? – Check.

“Conscientiousness, which was the best predictor of longevity when measured in childhood, also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood.

And let’s not forget good grades and staying out of jail.

Via How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character:

So maybe you’re not the most conscientious person. Maybe you can be impulsive and often lack self-control. Me too.

This does not mean either of us should be shopping for a cardboard box on skid row.

Unlike IQ, self-control can easily be increased. Here’s how.


How to increase self-control

“…the very true beginning of wisdom is the desire of discipline…” — Wisdom of Solomon 6:17

I interviewed Roy Baumeister, the leading expert on self-control and author of Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength to learn about how it works.

Willpower is like energy — using it burns it up, and you have to replenish it. Anything that involves self-control draws on that one willpower fuel source: so dieting takes energy away from your ability to hold your tongue in a conversation — and vice versa.

(SNEAKY TIP: Want to persuade someone? Offer them something tempting they’ll say no to. Resisting urges uses up willpower, leaving less for them to fight persuasion with.)

Like a muscle, exerting willpower makes your self-control ability stronger over time.

I’ve posted many scientifically supported willpower tips over the years but I’m just going to focus on my favorite ones here.

1) Use willpower to build willpower.

Just a little bit of practice every day can increase self-control and improving self-control in one area of life tends to improve all areas of life.

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

2) Automate your behavior.

When something is a habit and you don’t have to make decisions or even think about it, it doesn’t use much willpower.

The more you can make something habitual, the less self-control you burn.

And you can further improve your self-control by planning.

Decide ahead of time how you will respond when willpower is taxed and you’ll be much more likely to default to that. Without a clear plan in your head you’re more likely to succumb.

Via Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest:

3) Pre-commit to good behavior.

Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, explains how we can use “precommitment devices” to rein in desire:

So give a friend $500 and tell them to keep it if you don’t follow through with your goals.

Need more willpower for the day? Simply making decisions burns willpower so reducing the number and difficulty of decisions you make is an easy way to conserve it. That’s what President Obama does.

Need to quickly replenish willpower? Eat something. Yes, it’s that simple.

In fact, kids who skip breakfast misbehave more than kids who eat their Wheaties. Give them a snack and they’re little angels again.

Via Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:


A Final Note

You’re not a machine. And the goal here isn’t to turn you into one.

There is a powerful human element underlying self-control that should not be ignored.

Willpower improves relationships:

And relationships improve willpower:

Which recruits pass Hell Week and go on to become Navy SEALS? They’re not necessarily the ones with the biggest muscles but they’re often the ones with the biggest hearts.

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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