Dr. Roy Baumeister: “People with Good Self-Control are more Successful”

Author : Consulting Café
Published: May 22, 2013

Dr. Roy Baumeister is a professor of Psychology at Florida State University. He is internationally known for his research in Social Psychology, and for his latest book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which he co-authored with New York Times science writer John Tierney. In the book, willpower is explained as a muscle – it can be trained to improve, but can also be fatigued from over-use.

In this Q&A with Dr. Baumeister, he discusses how consultants should capture, increase, and leverage willpower for success:

1. You mention in your book a strong correlation between willpower and professional success. How can that be explained?

Yes, people with good self-control are more successful in many ways. They get better grades in school, more money and more promotions at work. Bosses with higher self-control are rated as better and fairer by their subordinates.

Good self-control helps you do your own work better: more discipline, perseverance, good decision-making, resisting bias and impulse. It also helps you work better with others: avoiding saying the wrong thing and understanding others better. There is very good evidence that people with high self-control are liked better and seen as more trustworthy by other people. Trust is often crucial in business relationships. Economists point out that every business transaction requires some degree of trust.

2. As you explain in your book, willpower is making a come back. For the past decade, self-esteem has been widely regarded as the key quality for success, while willpower was considered as an old-fashioned value. What is the reason for the come back?

People are realizing that boosting self-esteem has not led to more success, achievement, or good citizenship -- just more narcissism. Self-control is old fashioned but it still works. The evidence from research has been overwhelming. Thinking well of yourself (high self-esteem) does not really cause much in the way of improvement in anything. But controlling yourself well leads to better performance in work and school, better relationships with others, better mental and physical health, and better behavior.

3. Many consultants work alone on the Internet all day. What pieces of advice could you give to workers in this atmosphere to maintain a high level of willpower?

The internet offers many distractions and temptations. Technology is working against self-control here. So let technology work for you. Use one of those programs that keeps track of how much time you're actually working vs. checking last night's sports scores or updating Facebook, or even just getting sucked into unproductive email exchanges. Try to get an objective diary of how much productive output you've made each day, or at least how much of your most important work got done. If that's enough to do your job well, then work on sustaining that level each day. If it's not enough, then use your willpower to discipline yourself to bring it up little by little to reach a good level. Then work out how to sustain that.

Also be mindful of your body's total energy. Get enough sleep. Don't just drug yourself awake with coffee all day. Save the caffeine to give you a boost of energy for the most important work. Also there will be a boost of energy about half an hour after a healthy lunch (and even some boost after an unhealthy one, though less reliable).

4. Some tasks for consultants are exceptionally difficult, such as cold-calling potential clients. What steps should we take to avoid procrastinating these tasks?

The first scientist to use the term "self-regulation" for behavior control (Bandura) used it with a different meaning from what we have, but it is also valid and it is relevant here. He meant setting up incentives for yourself and then rewarding or punishing yourself. Get your energy up and do a bunch of these calls right away, and then reward yourself a couple times along the way.

5. Many times our client and the employees on a project lack willpower. How can we inspire willpower in others?

There has not been much research on this. Setting a good example does seem to make a significant difference.

Probably it's more important to avoid wasting willpower in unproductive activities, like disputes and arguments, turf battles, doomed or unproductive projects. And the leader must be fair and be seen to be fair.

For more information on Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength click here.

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