Most successful people are skilled in self-control. In psychology, a person is characterized as having either an internal locus of control or an external locus of control. A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes (high self-efficacy), while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything. When you have high self-efficacy and a strong belief that you can achieve your goals, you inspire others. Controlling your reactions to disappointment and insecurities is critical for a leader, given how contagious emotions are. Self-control is a skill we all have, and one that we can develop further.
The research regarding the benefits of self-control is clear. Those with high self-control report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, are better able to control anger, and generally get along better with people. It is associated with achieving goals and being successful in many endeavors including academic, athletic, and work performance. It is linked with better personal adjustment such as having fewer physical and psychological symptoms and having a greater sense of self-acceptance and self-esteem in relationships. It also helps to prevent addictions. Children who are most successful at delaying gratification early on are more successful academically and socially and that success is long lasting.
According to research conducted at Florida State University, there are six strategies to boost your willpower and keep you headed in the right direction.
- Eat. It’s ironic especially since many people measure their self-control (or lack of it) relative to dieting, but if your blood sugar is low you are much more likely to give into destructive impulses. Your brain uses large amounts of glucose when attempting to exert self-control. Eating foods that provide a slow burn (versus a sugar spike) such as a protein or whole grains gives you a longer window of self-control. You will be able to calmly address a combative peer or handle a tense negotiation much more easily if you have these reserves to draw upon.
- Exercise. We’re not talking marathons. You need to get your body moving for at least 10 minutes a day in order to release the neurotransmitter GABA, which makes your brain feel soothed and keeps you in control of your impulses. Taking a walk should do it.
- Sleep. When you’re tired, your brain cells have diminished ability to absorb glucose. As explained earlier, your ability to exert impulse control without glucose is nil—so prioritize sleep.
- Meditate. Meditation is the new “hot” thing and for good reason. It actually trains your brain to become a self-control machine—and it improves your emotional intelligence. Even taking 5 minutes a day and focusing on nothing more than your breathing (mindfulness practice) improves self-awareness and your ability to resist destructive impulses.
- Delay. Impulses come and go. When you really want to let loose on someone, wait at least 10 minutes before succumbing to temptation. You’ll often find that the desire has ebbed and you can choose not to act.
- Forgive yourself. The vicious cycle of failing to control yourself, experiencing intense self-hatred, then overindulging in the offending behavior is common. Instead, forgive yourself and move on. Don’t ignore how the mistake made you feel but don’t wallow in those feelings. Shift your attention to how you’ll do better next time.
The important thing to remember is that you have to give these strategies the opportunity to work. This means recognizing the moments where you are struggling with self-control and rather than giving in to impulse, taking a look at these six strategies and trying them. It takes time to increase your emotional intelligence, but the new habits you form with effort can last a lifetime.