Paul C. Brunson, Special to USA TODAY
Published 2:00 a.m. ET July 5, 2018
Out of all the skills in life, I believe willpower and self-control are the most important. Without these two, skill mastery becomes nearly impossible. With these two, you have the foundation to become an expert at anything.
Although self-control and willpower are often used synonymously, there is a slight difference. Self-control is the deliberate act of suppressing your urges and desires. Willpower is literally the power of your own will. There is no need for self-control because you’re simply willing yourself to do something.
Self-control and willpower require attention and effort by a specific part of your brain. To help drive home this lesson, imagine the following scenario: You’re about to leave the office on a Friday afternoon before a four-day vacation. Your boss sends you an email asking for your help on a last-minute project that will require you to work through the evening and weekend, forcing you to miss your vacation. One part of your brain, called System 1, is the part telling you to reply to your boss’s email with a message beginning with “LISTEN HERE, YOU CRAZY SON-OF-A….” But it’s the other part, referred to as System 2, that reminds you of your bills, how your job supports your family, and the fact that this weekend project could place you in great favor with your employer.
System 1 is the part of the brain that works automatically to create intuition and feelings. System 1 acts independently of your conscious choice; it is beyond control. Luckily, System 2 is responsible for rational and analytical thinking and judgment. System 2 is what keeps you from cursing out your boss and losing your job.
System 1 can only be considered reliable in remarkably stable and predictable situations and environments. But that’s the problem — nearly everything in life today, especially in business and the workplace, is unpredictable. This is the reason System 2 and the self-control it makes possible is so critical. Always remember that without using rational thought, your success is entirely a matter of chance or luck.
Positive habits are the foundation of self-control and willpower in your life. It’s important to understand how habits are formed so that you can break the bad and increase the good ones.
A habit has three parts: a cue, routine and reward. If you have a habit you want to eliminate, figure out what reward you are seeking and find another, non-destructive routine that will give it to you. This will allow you to form a new, good habit to replace the old, bad one. This is critical. You’ll have greater long-term success with this approach than if you tried only to eliminate the bad habit only.
An example of this method in practice is one the author Duhigg gives of breaking his habit of eating a large cookie in his workplace cafeteria every afternoon. He figured out that what he was really craving — therefore the reward— was the social interaction with the cafeteria staff that buying and eating a cookie afforded him. As a result, he changed his routine to simply chatting with a co-worker or having a tea in the cafeteria and chatting with staff and co-workers there. After a while, he forgot all about the cookie.
If you can diagnose what’s behind the habit, you can control your behavior.
3. Never make a big decision on an empty stomach.
Imagine you need to make a high-stakes decision, like whether to stay or leave your job. Both options have serious implications. While contemplating, you have difficulty focusing and using the System 2 part of your brain that helps you rationally think about a situation. Instead, because you’re not focusing, System 1, the part that creates impressions, creates an array of illusions about the grass being greener on the other side. Without focus, your decision is less likely to be the best one.
Concentration and focus are essential to engage System 2 and overcome the impulses that System 1 creates.
The key to keeping your System 2 alert is to keep your glucose levels stable. To do that is pretty simple: Eat regularly throughout the day. Government health studies show that people who have recently eaten and are not feeling hungry are more likely to make rational decisions.
4. Willpower is like a muscle and must be trained (or tricked).
The strongest analogy for me from the books was when Baumeister wrote that self-control and willpower are like muscles, becoming progressively stronger through continued use.
He explained that an important part of training those muscles is understanding the power of routine. Negative and positive habits are strengthened by routine. To help yourself become more self-disciplined, create positive, productive routines that benefit your life, like making up your bed every morning.
There are also tricks that you can play on yourself to make using willpower easier. A powerful trick is to tell yourself “later” rather than “never” when you want to give into some sort of temptation, like eating a slice of cake when you’re trying to lose weight. It’s much easier to exert self-control if you think you’ll be rewarded with what you really want later.
If you’re interested in learning more about habits, willpower and self-control, I’ve posted a lecture here to help you better understand how to develop and apply these lessons to your life and business.
Paul C. Brunson the host of USA TODAY’s video series Uncommon Drive, is a serial entrepreneur with three exits and a pioneering matchmaker (yes, he is the real-life “Hitch”). He also is building a school in Jamaica. Follow him on LinkedIn or Instagram for behind the scenes footage and insights from his interviews and travels.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.