The ability to manage our emotions and exert self-control is considered one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence and a key predictor of personal and professional success. Yet, it doesn’t take a marshmallow test to figure out that most of us are not that great at behavioral self-control.
Plans such as saving for retirement, losing weight or studying for exams often fail due to our inability to delay gratification when a new “toy,” a delicious cupcake or a night out with friends are also options on the table. We’re often quite aware that taking a long-term view would far better serve our interests and eventually provide the bigger rewards.
But what if we’re more likely to devour that marshmallow at first sight and react more impulsively in general? Are we doomed to a life of mediocrity and low achievement? Not necessarily, according to a report in TIME, citing researchers from Cornell and Duke University. People with low impulse-control don’t lack general intelligence, nor is delaying gratification always the right choice, particularly in situations of uncertainty, according to the write-up, noting further that impulsiveness gave us great explorers and entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs.
Nonetheless, knowing how to manage our impulses and developing greater self-control in the pursuit of better results will pay dividends whether we’re studying for grad school or preparing for an IPO Roadshow.
Here are some tips that can help impulsive individuals better manage themselves and their resources:
Surround yourself with people who have high self-control. Research from Duke University, published in Psychological Science, shows that low-impulse control individuals had a tendency to seek out and surround themselves with others who had markedly more self-control, ostensibly to make up for their lack of skill in resisting temptation. Teaming up with someone more disciplined can be an effective strategy when you’re working toward important goals, as the last thing you want in a partner is a fellow pushover who will fold right along with you when temptation winks at you.
Distance yourself -- from yourself. Temptation doesn’t just come in the form of a glazed donut. Hanging back at business meetings to avoid scrutiny is often more tempting than subjecting your ideas for everyone’s critical analysis. Similarly, walking up and introducing yourself to a potential investor at a networking conference can be the social equivalent of a root canal in progress. For those with low self-control, the impulse is often to avoid and retreat.
Research from the University of Michigan, however, shows that when study participants engaged in introspective self-talk prior to an event, referring to themselves in the second or third person, as in “you” or by their own name, rather than in the first person, they experienced less distress in social situations, were better able to regulate negative emotions and were subsequently perceived as more successful by others. Thus, gaining a little distance from ourselves can alleviate the temptation to keep quiet when a good idea or public statement is needed.
Harness the “Fresh Start Effect.” Researchers from The Wharton School and Harvard Business School found that conjuring the willpower to start a new project or new positive behaviors may be as simple as using a personally significant temporal landmark, -- such as the beginning of a week, month or year, a birthday, a vacation or semester -- to kick things off. And while we’ve all made New Year’s resolutions that didn’t survive the first Wednesday, the idea of a fresh start has merit.
Analyzing data from online searches, the researchers found that uptick in terms such as “diet” was regularly found at the beginning of the week rather than later in the week. Actual increases in gym attendance was measured in University undergraduates’ routines by analyzing their temporal landmarks on shared calendars, which included Mondays, birthdays and semester starts among other “fresh start” landmarks.
Of course, sticking with it is another story. To increase your chances for success in any endeavor that requires sustained effort and impulse control, make your goals as crystal-clear as possible to understand what’s at stake. Recruit colleagues, friends or a coach who will hold you accountable, offer perspective and provide honest feedback on your progress. It also helps to visualize a successful outcome to stay motivated when the going gets tough.
The good news is that the more we stretch beyond our comfort zone and make an effort to try something new and different, the more we actually strengthen our cognitive ability to control our impulses and make better choices. From seemingly insignificant behaviors such as brushing our teeth with the opposite hand to more substantial efforts such as learning an instrument, any activity that requires us to take control of our behavior rather than coast on “autopilot” will benefit us in the pursuit of bigger, life-changing goals.
Otherwise, there’s always New Year’s Eve.