These Scientific Insights on Self-Control Will Help You Build A Successful and Sustainable Small Business

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The difference between people who talk about starting a business and those who actually do is self-control.

At its most basic, starting and running a business is simply… doing the right things.

So, people who have the self-control to do the right things successfully start businesses.

It’s that simple – right?

Well… yes. And, no.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into self-control and the role it can play in your life as you start your business.

And, that ability to control one’s behavior is what leads to getting things done… and starting a business.

At one time, it was assumed that those who were simply born with self-control had cornered the market on success – leaving everyone else behind. But, that theory has been disproven.

Let’s look at the research and ways you can improve your self-control.

The marshmallow experiment

The seminal study on self-control is Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow experiment.” The study gave a group of young children a choice: eat this yummy marshmallow in front of you right now… or wait a while and then eat two!

Clearly, two marshmallows are better than one.

But in order to earn the better prize, the kiddos had to delay their gratification – which requires one to “subdue one’s impulses, emotions, and behaviors.”

The children who were able to display the self-control necessary to wait for the bonus marshmallow were then found to perform more successfully later in life.

According to Psychology Today’s analysis:

The study’s results seemed to indicate that self-control is an innate ability with wide-reaching implications for people’s lives.

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The marshmallow experiment didn’t tell the whole story

For many years, it was assumed that self-control was a trait that you either had… or you didn’t.

And, if you had it, you were destined for great things.

But, the reality isn’t as simple as one vs two marshmallows.

In 2018 Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan, and Hoanan Quan revisited Mischel’s famous marshmallow study – with far more nuanced results.

The big difference between the two studies was that Watts, Duncan, and Quan took the larger picture (who their participants actually were and where they came from) into account. Their study included children from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and parsed the data accordingly.

This new research revealed that the participants’ social and economic background showed a correlation to their level of self-control. Participants from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to delay gratification.

This makes sense. If you’re used to living in scarcity, you take what you can get when you can get it.

And, this fuller understanding of the factors at play shows that self-control is not only an innate trait you can be born with. It is also informed by the environment in which you live, the resources you have, and the actions you take to navigate that environment.

Self-control can help you build a stronger business

When you start a business, you need self-control.

Before you start your business, you need to brainstorm and evaluate business ideas.

Once you find and qualify an idea you love, you need to do the necessary things – from legal to tax to creating a brand identity and building a brand to accounting, to hiring, to building your product or service, etc.

But. If you’re not inherently good at doing “all the things” (or, exhibiting self-control in non-meme-speak) there is still hope.

As Roy F. Baumeister, author of Will Power: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, points out:

Quite a few studies in multiple labs have now shown that people can improve their self-control even as adults. As with a muscle, it gets stronger from regular exercise.

The binary idea that you either have self-control or you’re screwed has been debunked.

So, let’s talk about how you can get better at doing the right things so you can start and grow a successful business.


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What you eat impacts your self-control

Baumeister’s research revealed that self-control is a limited resource subject to depletion. The more self-control you use early in your day, the less self-control will have later in the day.

And, the good doctor uncovered a physical factor that correlates with that willpower depletion. He explains,

Glucose is the chemical in the bloodstream that carries energy to the brain, muscles and other organs and systems. In simple terms, glucose is fuel for the brain. Acts of self-control reduce blood glucose levels. Low levels of glucose predict poor performance on self-control tasks and tests.

He goes on to advise that replenishing your glucose levels will improve your ability to exhibit self-control.

Pay attention to your fuel gauge. If you find your mind consistently wandering or your self-control in decline, grab a healthy snack to replenish your glucose.

Instead of skipping lunch to be more productive, you’ll actually be better served by taking a break, eating a healthy meal and then heading back to work.

And, as you start your business, make sure to build a reliable habit of eating regular, healthy meals. Your body needs fuel to function – and so does your self-control.


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Practice your self-control to improve it

Even though self-control is a resource that can be depleted, you can increase your overall capacity for self-control.

So, how can you increase your self-control?

Baumeister suggests that practicing any type of self-control strengthens your ability to exert self-control in other areas of your life. He says:

…engaging in some extra self-control activities for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control, even on tasks that have no relation to the exercise activities. The exercises can be arbitrary, such as using your left hand instead of your right hand to open doors and brush your teeth. Or they can be meaningful, such as working to manage money better and save more. The important thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control.

So, if you want to strengthen your self-control, make a plan to practice.

Plan a series of self-control exercises over the course of a few weeks. Make sure they’re challenging enough to take you out of your comfort zone, but not so challenging that you’ll undermine your chances for success.

Start small and build up – early victories will give you the motivation to keep going. As you prove that you can succeed, do tasks that require more and more self-control.

Then start applying your newly-strengthened self-control to the tasks that will have the greatest impact on your business.

Organize your life to minimize unnecessary decisions

Baumeister discovered that decision-making and self-control both rely on the same glucose for optimal performance.

In other words, self-control has to share resources with other brain functions. This means that any number of small decisions made over the course of the day can quietly bleed your self-control well dry.

Psychologist Brian Galla explains in an interview with Vox,

People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place…

Think of Steve Jobs wearing the same outfit every day. Or successful entrepreneurs who swear by following the same morning routine every day.

Creating routines that you don’t have to think about removes friction from your life and reduces your overall mental load – preserving your blood glucose for supporting your self-control.

You too can create a more supportive structure for your life. The goal is to remove as many unnecessary decisions, obstacles, and challenges as possible. This will preserve your precious self-control resources for doing the tasks that will move your new business forward.

So, think about the areas of your life that cause the most friction. Figure out ways to restructure those tasks or experiences more effectively.

This may mean prepping ahead, adjusting timing, or even acquiring new tools or resources. Then execute and streamline your new structure until you can perform at your best with the least effort.

Reframe your perspective to improve your self-control

The mindset with which you approach a task has a big impact on how (or even if) you experience that task.


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Making conscious choices to reframe how you think about a task can be a powerful tool for motivation.

For instance, Walter Mischel (of the marshmallow experiment) struggled to quit smoking for years. It wasn’t until he reframed his view of cigarettes that he was able to succeed. He shares in an interview with The New Yorker:

I changed the objective value of the cigarette. It went from something I craved to something disgusting.

Mischel reframed his view of cigarettes after seeing a specter of his possible future – an advanced lung cancer patient. The powerful image changed his perception, overrode his cravings, and served as a way to resist the urge to smoke.

You can use this same strategy to strengthen your own self-control.

If you’re avoiding certain tasks in your business start-up process, it’s time to reframe them. Whatever your reason for avoidance, there are more compelling reasons for completing those tasks – namely starting your business and creating your ideal future.

It’s time to think of those tasks from a different perspective. What powerful positive images or ideas can you associate with these tasks to motivate you to move forward?

As you take the exciting journey of starting your own business, your self-control will be tested. But, you are not defenseless. The powerful strategies we shared above can help you build a strong, sustainable business.

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