I’ve just finished reading Walter Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success. In the 1960s Mischel ran a series of experiments in which small children at Stanford’s Bing preschool were given a choice: there was a single marshmallow on a plate, and the researcher told each child that she had to leave the room for a little while; if the child wanted, they could eat the marshmallow at any time, but if they waited until the researcher returned, they could have two. The main purpose of the experiment was to measure differences in self-control, and to study what the successful kids did to keep themselves from gobbling the marshmallow immediately.
The experiment might never have become known outside the specialized world of psychology, except for one thing. The kids tested were classmates of Mischel’s daughters, and several years later he decided to see whether there was a correlation between self-control exhibited on the test and life results. He found a clear and strong correlation that was beyond what he expected; for example, those in the top third of self-control averaged 210 SAT points higher than those in the bottom third. These differences, and others, such as obesity rates and income, persisted over time as he continued to monitor results through the years.
By themselves, these results can be very disturbing. Does this mean that our success in life is so dependent on a single trait—self-control—that you’re born with and is easily measurable by the time you’re four years old? If you fail the marshmallow test at age four, are you doomed to a life of failure? Or is there something you can do about it?
Actually, there is a lot you can do about it, and low self-control does not have to be destiny.
Mischel’s key point is that self-control is not a fixed, unitary trait. It’s not fixed in the sense of being totally determined by our genes; it’s a product of our genes, our environment, and our learning. Most importantly, it’s a skill that can be learned, practiced, and strengthened. It’s also not unitary, which means that we don’t apply the same amount of self-control in every situation. We all have our own unique combination of hot and cool buttons. Bill Clinton is the poster child example for this. He obviously had enormous self-control that got him from a small town in Arkansas to the presidency, but not enough to prevent a sexual scandal once he got there.
The most surprising and potentially useful finding to me was about the relation between mindset and self-control. Researchers such as Roy Baumeister have told us that willpower and self-control are a finite resource, which means that exercising self-control in one task depletes your ability to exercise it as strongly in a subsequent task. This “strength model of self-control” has become an enormously influential and insidious idea. It’s insidious because it tells you that you can only do so much, and even that it’s OK to limit your aspirations for self-improvement. It tells you that it’s not your fault when you fail—it’s biology.
I’ve had my doubts about the strength theory for two reasons. Looking at the big picture, history contains so many examples of people who have accomplished great things without seeming to be affected by willpower limits, who have persevered in many situations despite hunger, fatigue and deep discouragement. Closer to home, I have been working for the past month on a deep work project, which has made me spend much longer blocks of time and attention working on tasks that require a lot of self-control. So far I’ve found that I can work much longer and get much more done than I previously thought possible, and the best part is that I now finish the day with more energy than before.
Yet despite those doubts about the theory, the idea that self-control is finite has lingered in the back of my mind and imposed limits on my work habits. For example, writing can take a lot of willpower, so after about a half hour of writing I start telling myself that it’s time to take a break; sometimes I give in and sometimes I make a conscious effort to try to power through my “limits”.
But Mischel tells us that those limits may be self-imposed. If we think our willpower is limited, we’ll be right. Fortunately, if we think it’s not limited, we’ll also be right. According to Mischel, our mindset about self-control also influences whether we suffer depletion. If we believe in the strength model, we do get depleted from difficult tasks; if we don’t believe in it, we can escape the effects and even gain more stamina and strength from tasks that require self-control. Even more promising, we can learn the new mindset and gain the same benefits.
Carol Dweck and fellow researchers ran studies that found that the amount of willpower fatigue that participants exhibited was affected by their prior beliefs about whether willpower was a limited resource. They also found that just teaching college students the new mindset carried over beyond the lab and led to less procrastination and reducing excess spending.
I learned first-hand about the power of mindset many years ago. When I was still in my 20s, I began having a lot of stomach issues, and went to several doctors to try to discover the cause. I remember one final test, after which the doctor told me they could find nothing physically wrong, so they assumed it was stress related. Literally from that moment on, my symptoms disappeared and have never returned. I figured since it was only in my mind, that I could change my mind.
I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising that our self-control can be affected by our mindset. Dweck has already shown us that our beliefs about whether intelligence is fixed or malleable can have a significant impact on what we attempt and achieve, and in effect can become self-fulfilling prophecies. I learned that even our mindset about stress can affect whether it helps or harms us.
Now it’s gratifying and enormously empowering to find that the same idea applies to self-control. If you know you can self-control your self-control, the sky is the limit!
What’s One Second Worth to You?
Kipling said that if you could fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run, you could rule the world. That’s a bold claim, but I’m going to go even further. Just one second can make a huge difference in your life.
This may turn out to be the most efficient how-to article you’ve ever read, because I’m not going to ask you to take long stretches of your time to work on a skill; I’m simply going to ask you to take one second at a time, one second that can mean all the difference between success or failure, or the difference between winning or losing a sale, maybe even the difference between getting your ass kicked or making someone’s day.
We have 86,400 of them every day, so why worry about just a single one? That’s because some seconds in your day are hugely more important than others. It’s amazing how much can happen in just one second:
One second is enough time to respond instead of reacting, to suppress your amygdala and engage your frontal cortex. When someone cuts me off in traffic, my immediate default reaction is to express my displeasure, but I have to admit that I take a quick glance to see how big the other guy is before deploying my single digit salute!
One second is enough time to grasp the bottom line of your message and choose to lead with it. As I’ve written before, BLUF is a key to lean communication, especially since one second is enough time to lose someone’s attention.
One second is enough time to organize your answer before it begins spilling out of your mouth, so that you make it easier for the listener to grasp your meaning.
One second is enough time to boost your perceived IQ. My friend Andy Blackstone used to say you could boost your perceived IQ by ten points just by taking a second before answering a question. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it makes a lot of sense.
One second is enough time to undo all the good you’ve accomplished to that point, because bad is stronger than good. Do you think George H.W. Bush would like to take back the one second of his life when he checked his watch during a Presidential debate, and sent a signal to the whole country that he did not want to be there?
One second is enough time to kick in your training. For example, when someone says “That’s complicated”, you may immediately react by saying “no it’s not”. Instead, if you take just one second to recall your training on objection management, you will remember to cushion your response: “I can see how it might seem that way at first…”
One second is enough time to shift your perspective from inside-out to outside-in, from I don’t see it that way, to let me understand why they see it that way.
One second is enough time to reframe the situation. Sometimes someone says something that rubs you the wrong way, and you immediately react negatively. Our brains are hard-wired to spot threats before opportunities, because that’s usually what keeps us alive. But every situation contains some good and some bad, and one second is often enough time to focus on the good.
One second is enough time to take control of a situation by getting inside a competitor’s OODA loop. In that brief instant, you can observe, orient, decide and act.
One second is enough time to add impact to what you just said by pausing after an important point.
One second is enough time to choose your perception. Perception is the gateway to attitude, and the attitude you choose to a situation can make all the difference in the world.
If I could sum up the value of one second, it’s that it’s the crucial instant during which choices are made, and that’s what makes the difference between making things happen and letting things happen.
In my last post, I told of a speech I gave to a room full of competitors in a StartUp pitch contest. I gave them three ideas to improve the quality of their thinking and of their pitches. At the end, a woman asked me how her team could win if everyone followed my advice. I answered in three words:
“Do it better.”
I didn’t mean to be flip with that answer. There really is nothing more that really needs to be said. Assuming my advice was on target—and of course I believe it was—it was like handing a treasure map to three teams and then getting out of the way. The team that did the best job of following the directions would get the treasure.
The limitation of most blog posts (including this one), most training programs, and even most university degree programs is that they can only point the way; they can’t do the work for you. Every time I deliver a training class, I know that there will be a bell curve distribution describing how well participants will apply the ideas they learned. Out of the 90 people who heard me last week, some didn’t listen fully; some didn’t totally understand what I was saying; some didn’t fully believe me, so they are automatically headed to the left side of the curve. Of those who heard, understood and believed, they will sort themselves out along the right side of the bell curve according to how hard they work and how intelligently they apply the ideas.
The pint, though, is that winning or losing comes down to executing better than everyone else, and that’s something that is almost totally within their control.
To give a real-life example, my friend John Spence, who is an enormously influential and successful management thinker, actually failed out of college his freshman year, mainly because he loved to party a little too much. It was a wake-up slap in the face to him, so he was determined to make a fresh start at community college, and he decided to figure out what he did wrong and what he could change. The most mind-bogglingly obvious, simple and yet powerful insight he got was: the answers are in the books.
If he wanted to succeed, he need to find, remember and apply those answers better than everyone else—which is exactly what he did, and he graduated number one in his program.
We’re always looking for a new angle that will help us get ahead, or a fresh answer to our existing problems, which is why so many thousands of self-help books are published every year and so many billions of words of well-meaning advice are avidly consumed every day. But most of what it takes to win is already in the books or in our heads. Maybe what we all need to do is stop trying to learn the next new thing and work on applying the time-tested old thing better—better than everyone else, or maybe just slightly better than we did yesterday.
This blog post could change your life—maybe even prolong it.
If you get stage fright before a presentation (and who doesn’t?), if you are under stress (and who isn’t?), if you think stress is bad for you (and who doesn’t?), then I strongly recommend that you read and take to heart the central message of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Kelly McGonigal.
Whether you think stress is bad for you or good for you, you’re right.
To put that last statement in a less cryptic way: stress can improve your performance, make you stronger, and even make you a more caring person—as long as you believe it can. In fact, the best way to succeed in stressful situations is not to try to reduce your stress, but to embrace it as a resource to propel enhanced performance.
I realize that sounds like superficial motivational hooey, brought to you by the same people who tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to, but McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford, backs up her assertions with extensive research and a few eye-opening studies.
In some ways, The Upside of Stress does not tell us anything new. We’ve all heard the meme that what does not kill you makes you stronger, and I have long been telling students in my presentations classes that anxiety before a speech means that you care and that you are gearing up for superior performance. So, yes, we have heard some of this before, but this is the first book I’ve come across that backs that up with research and explains the biology behind these ideas.
What is also new is that we learn that there is more than one possible response to stress. We’ve been taught that stress is caused by the activation of the fight or flight response in our minds and bodies. That response is a natural reaction to threat, which prepares our minds and bodies for superior performance, but it evolved many millennia ago in a far different environment than our modern world. So, according to the mismatch theory, our stone-age brains respond to modern circumstances in ways that can hamper performance and over time can severely damage our health.
That makes sense if fight or flight is our only option, but McGonigal explains that there are actually three different possible responses to stressful situations. Besides the familiar threat response, we can have a challenge response or a tend-and-befriend response. Although both possible responses are equally important to well-being, my focus in this blog is on the challenge response.
The difference between the threat response and the challenge response lies in our estimation of our ability to meet the situation that faces us. When we’re fearing for our life, our body does the sensible thing: it goes into defensive mode and sends out hormones that cause a lot of changes; one of the most important is that it constricts blood vessels around our heart, because it might reduce blood loss in the event of severe injury. When we’re not in fear, different hormones cause the blood vessels to relax, which allows for greater blood flow and more energy to rise to the challenge and drives better performance, not to mention being better for us in the long run.
Evoking the challenge response does not reduce stress, but it does make the stress work in our favor. In studies, it has been shown that simply informing people that stress can help them perform better, can lead to improved performance on standardized tests, for example. One reason may be that the threat response narrows our attention and places greater focus on signs that things are going badly, but the challenge response opens our attention to more positive possibilities and opportunities. In numerous studies, those primed to generating a challenge response through prior education led to better performance. Even better, the benefits tend to last far beyond the initial priming.
So, how do you generate the challenge response? The most obvious first step is to avoid the threat response by creating the conditions so that you are not actually in danger. If you are well prepared for a presentation, you should take comfort in the fact that you are equipped to handle any difficult questions that might come up. (Or as I tell my students, if you’re nervous because you haven’t prepared well, you deserve to be!)
You can also activate the challenge response by viewing the stressful situation as an opportunity for learning and growth. As I’ve written before, this mastery mindset has been shown to improve performance in several different areas, including sales.
Actually, you’ve already completed one of the most important things you can do to generate the challenge response and benefit from stress: simply by reading this article, you are more likely to bring a different mindset to your next stressful situation!