I recently listened to one of the Great Courses on Audible – the Science of Self-Control by Dr. C. Nathan DeWall and wanted to share some of the research he presented because it has serious implications for you if you’d like to step up your achievement efforts. First, research findings indicate that a bigger predictor of success – bigger than your IQ, is your ability to delay gratification. This makes sense – the more self-control one has, the few problems they have – personal problems, relationship problems, and problems functioning within society. Although the absence of problems does not a superachiever make, so let’s look at this in more detail. Once you set your sights on what you want to achieve, you will have to delay gratification A LOT to go after your goals. When a superachiever is going after a goal, they can’t give in to that desire to binge watch Netflix instead of putting in the hard work associated with accomplishing what they desire.
Dr. DeWall also shared both good and bad news in his lectures – our ability to control our impulses is based on a limited energy source. This means that our finances, diets, relationships, and goal going after selves suffer when our mental energy is depleted. That is the bad news; that we only have so much energy to help control our impulses and, therefore, delay our gratification. The good news, however, is that the self-control system is a like a muscle that can be developed further by us working hard to build it up over time. In addition, the mental energy required to maintain our self-control can be recharged when it gets depleted. This requires a high-level of self-awareness, which as we know is the first step in being successful in anything in life.
Here are some suggestions Dr. DeWall provided to recharge the mental energy required to have sufficient self-control to maintain your superachieverness. First, when you start feeling your energy dropping and you find yourself wanting to grab the nearest sugary or caffeinated treat to get your energy up – use some sort of metabolic booster instead – this could be eating some protein, ensuring you’re hydrated, going for a brisk walk, or taking a nap. This will help recharge the mental energy required to maintain your self-control. Another quick way to maintain that self-control is affirmations; in this sense, thinking about those values and beliefs that are important to you. Such as: Having good health is important to me or I am debt-free and saving for my future – when you feel that desire to just give in.
There are also several ways to prevent or minimize the mental fatigue that leads to poor self-control. Dr. DeWall calls this mental conservation strategies. He states that monitoring is a huge mental conservation strategy. Monitoring what you think, feel, and how you behave is important and the more you do it, the more you control what you’re tracking. For example, people who track their weight every day weigh less on average than people who do not.
Another mental conservation strategy is to control your environment. Remove items that tempt you so you don’t have to use up your mental energy avoiding that temptation. For example, remove unhealthy snacks from your home – make it much more difficult to access them. Another example: although I do love working from home, sometimes I go to the local library when I want to focus on my writing so I will not be tempted by all of the other projects I could get into when working from home.
A final strategy Dr. DeWall mentioned was to reduce the number of decisions you have to make throughout the day. One way to do this is creating what he calls Implementation Intentions. Essentially these are “If, Then” statements that you’ve already made a decision about, so there is no mental energy expended on them. An example of a couple I’ve created for myself – If it is 7:30am, then I go to the gym. Or If I want something that is not in my weekly budget, then I will wait 7 days before purchasing it.
In summary, you need to become a better mental energy accountant to increase your self-control muscle. I have a really cool energy management system coming out in Spring of 2018 that will help you do just that. Essentially, you will need to list out your activities for the day, week, and even month, and identify the mental energy you’ll need for each of them. You then plan your activities around your expected energy levels.
Dr. DeWall stated that when people anticipate activities that will require self-control, they conserve their mental energy better. Pretty cool, huh? So until my ME² system comes out, please think about ways you can conserve your mental energy and maybe even come up with some IF THEN statements of your own today.