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:
Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success… Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. "Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable," the researchers wrote. "Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent." [The Power of Habit]
Conscientiousness is the fundamental 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.
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. [Barking Up the Wrong Tree]
Long marriage? Check.
…our findings suggest that conscientiousness is the trait most broadly associated with marital satisfaction in this sample of long-wed couples.[Barking Up the Wrong Tree]
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 percent on Conscientiousness were approximately 40 percent less likely to have metabolic syndrome… [Barking Up the Wrong Tree]
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. [Barking Up the Wrong Tree]
And let's not forget good grades and staying out of jail.
…conscientiousness was the trait that best predicted workplace success. What intrigues Roberts about conscientiousness is that it predicts so many outcomes that go far beyond the workplace. People high in conscientiousness get better grades in school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer – and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer's disease. [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.
Those in the fitness program got fitter; those working on study discipline got more schoolwork done; the people in the money-management program saved more money. But — and here was a truly pleasant surprise — they also got better at other things. The students who did the study-discipline program reported doing physical workouts a bit more often and cutting down on impulsive spending. Those in the fitness and money-management programs said they studied more diligently. Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.[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.
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. Christian Jarret writes:
When your willpower levels have been drained by an earlier test, that's when you're most vulnerable to temptation. One way to protect yourself is to form so-called 'if-then' plans… willpower depletion had no such adverse effect on students who followed the additional, more detailed plan: '…And if I have solved one anagram, then I will immediately start work on the next!'. [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:
How can you use precommitment to keep yourself from giving in to unwanted desires? You're probably already doing so — for example, by asking your significant other, on the way to a restaurant, not to let you order dessert when you get there. Dan Ariely, that tireless student of human irrationality, has collected several interesting precommitment anecdotes from regular people, including one who placed her credit card in a container of water in the freezer, thereby requiring a cooling off — er, that is, warming up — period before use, and another who, before a date with a guy she knew she shouldn't sleep with, wore her "granniest" underwear — presumably to deter herself from disrobing… [We Have Met the Enemy]
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.
All the children in a class were told to skip breakfast one morning, and then, by random assignment, half of the children were given a good breakfast at school. The others got nothing. During the first part of the morning, the children who got breakfast learned more and misbehaved less (as judged by monitors who didn't know which children had eaten). Then, after all the students were given a healthy snack in the middle of the morning, the differences disappeared as if by magic. [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.
…the more total self-control, the better the relationship fared. Multiple benefits were found for having mutually high self-control, including relationship satisfaction, forgiveness, secure attachment, accommodation, healthy and committed styles of loving, smooth daily interactions, absence of conflict, and absence of feeling rejected. [Barking Up the Wrong Tree]
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.
…self-control is not selfish. Willpower enables us to get along with others and override impulses that are based on personal short-term interests. It's the same lesson that Navy SEAL commandos learn during a modern version of Stanley's ordeals: the famous Hell Week test of continual running, swimming, crawling, and shivering that they must endure on less than five hours' sleep. At least three-quarters of the men in each SEAL class typically fail to complete training, and the survivors aren't necessarily the ones with the most muscles, according to Eric Greitens, a SEAL officer. In recalling the fellow survivors of his Hell Week, he points out their one common quality: "They had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the 'fist' of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others." [Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength]
Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
More from Barking Up The Wrong Tree...
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Even critics of the euro didn't see this coming
- The real reason conservatives should be outraged that police killed a white youth
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
Paul Allen's 'bitter' Bill-Gates-bashing memoir
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Why the West should accept ISIS as a sovereign nation
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- The essential techniques that every home cook should know
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- 8 ways you're probably overspending without even realizing it
Subscribe to the Week