The Secret To Building Amazing Self-Control And Getting Things Done

The right way to set yourself up for success

Jude King, PhD
Apr 24 · 6 min read
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, a respected warrior and his crew prepared to sail past the island of the Sirens. The Sirens were dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island with their enchanting music and singing voices.

Intensely curious to hear the bewitching singing of the Sirens but fully aware of the grave consequences, Odyssey made the decision to plug his men’s ears with beeswax and tie himself to the ship’s mast. As they approached, the Sirens began to sing and Odysseus, predictably, screamed to be untied, but the sailors couldn’t hear him and their ship made safe passage.

Odysseus and his men escaped shipwreck and what was a certain death that has claimed many a sailor because he refused to leave his fate to the strength of his will, or his men’s when temptation struck, but instead, took simple precautions that made capitulation impossible.

As a result, they didn’t have to use much willpower at all.

The question is:

If Odyssey were to give self-control advice today, what do you think he would say? My guess is something along the lines of:

“Don’t bend yourself out of shape attempting huge feats of willpower heroism when simple precautions will do. Set up yourself for success from the get go. There are no points awarded for willpower heroism.”

The Key Lesson of The Marshmallow Challenge

In the late 1960s, Stanford Professor and psychologist, Walter Mischel and his team studied impulse control and ability to delay gratification in a group of four to six year-olds.

The kids sat a table with marshmallows on a plate in front of them. Each kid could have one marshmallow immediately. Or, if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, while the tester stepped out, they could have two when he returned.

Some took the first marshmallow, immediately. Others waited.

Mischel and his team followed up the children for 30 years to see how impulse control correlated to future success in life. They found that children who had waited for the second marshmallow had higher SAT scores and a lower body mass index (BMI) and, on most metrics, fared better in life than their impulsive counterparts.

This study has been widely cited forming the basis of key teachings about delayed gratification and self-control in almost all areas of behavioural psychology.

And the popular takeaway from this research, has been that people with more willpower and ability to delay gratification are set up for more success in life than those who are impulsive and lacking the ability to delay gratification.

However, the more important observation from this study is often overlooked and ignored.

Here’s the kicker:

The kids who held out for the second marshmallow didn’t just sit there staring patiently while exercising superhuman level of willpower.

Have you met four-year olds before? They can’t do that.

They were able to wait for 15 minutes because they distracted themselves. They employed various distraction techniques (e.g., covering their eyes with their hands, singing, turning around in their chairs, playing with their shoe laces, exploring their nasal orifice, or even hiding under the desk) — all to avoid focusing on the tempting object.

If today, you should sit with those kids who held out, what do you think they will say to you?

Something similar to what Odysseus would say:

“Save your strength. There are no points awarded for willpower heroism. Set yourself up for success using strategies that requires you to use as little of your willpower as possible.”

These examples shows that to be better at self-control, attempting heroic feats of willpower is NOT the solution.

Photo by Alireza Etemadi on Unsplash

A Better Approach To Self Control

Dieters desiring to eliminate junks often overestimate their ability to come back to a house full of junk food and yet keep their commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

Students who want to study continually overestimate their ability to stay in a room full of distractions and yet concentrate on study.

Imagine the dieter having his refrigerator chock-full of chocolate cakes and greasy cheeseburgers, pacing the house while muttering under his breath, “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul?”

Or the student setting to study for her finals, saying to herself, “This Netflix series looks interesting, I’ll just quickly watch the first half hour and then i’ll get down to study?”

You see?

Its easy to see how many times we leave willpower with far too much to do.

But here’s the secret:

The best way to allow our strength of will to prevail, is to not need so much of it in the first place. As billionaire investor, Charlie Munger quipped, "Nobody survives open heart surgery better than the guy who didn’t need the procedure in the first place."

When dealing with self-control, a useful rule of thumb is: if you have to empty your reservoir or display heroic feats of willpower, you are doing it wrong.

A better strategy?

Build enough obstacles to things you don’t want to do. And on the other hand, build enough positive triggers to things you do want to do.

The key here is to use your willpower to set up your environment, to condition your environment in a way that stack the odds of success in your favour.

Add frictions to undesirable behaviour and positive triggers to desirable behaviours.

The wrong approach is to go gung-ho trying to use willpower to attack the problem directly. It’s better to use willpower to create a scaffold instead that makes the goal/action easier.

  • Want to start running? Leave your running shoes right by the door and have your running clothes right by the bedside, ready to go.
  • Want to eat better? Purge the fridge of all junk food and restock with healthier choices.
  • Want to stop lazying away on social media after waking up in the morning? Keep your phone in another room while you sleep.
  • Want to save some more money on lunch? Make extra food at dinner so you have enough for tomorrow’s lunch.
  • Want to avoid social media that suck you in each time? Turn off notifications. Use internet blockers.
  • Want to build some habit? Create a daily reminder for the habit; track your progress; join a group of like-minded people heading in the same direction; get an accountability partner.

Realize that you’ll be tempted and shipwrecked if you decide to confront the enchanting singing of the Sirens with willpower alone. Realize that if your eyes and attention are fixed on the marshmallow, you won’t be able to stop yourself from eating it. Set up your environment to be a friend rather than a foe — a prod rather than a drag. Set yourself up for success by taking simple precautions (creating frictions and eliminating options for undesirable behaviours, while using positive triggers and creating a supportive environment for desirable behaviours).

You’ll find it amazing when you discover that successful people are not superhumans with superhuman strength of will and ability to take action. They are also subject to the law of conservation of energy in the way that all of us are. What they’ve mastered so well, instead, is setting things up in a way that makes inaction more difficult than taking action.

For, many times, real strength is in identifying your weakness and working around it.

And remember that “Nobody survives open heart surgery better than the guy who didn’t need the procedure in the first place.”


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Jude King, PhD

Written by

Research Scientist | Entrepreneur | Teacher | Engineer driven by a deep curiosity about almost everything; using knowledge to empower others.

The Startup

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