Work is where most of us spend the majority our lives and it can be a frustrating place.
So how do you keep your cool? How can you avoid losing your temper with an impossible coworker? Or stop yourself from collapsing in tears in front of the team?
Self-control is vital to your success
A person with self-control is able to meet stressful challenges with calm resolution. When you lose your composure, you end up feeling weak and powerless.
Self-control requires over-riding or inhibiting the temptation to vent, lash out, or meltdown. The goal is to maintain control in the immediate situation in order to maximize your long-term interests (e.g., future promotions, safeguard relationships, etc.).
Self-control is vital to your success. The benefits of self-control extend well beyond the workplace. Terrie Moffitt, PhD, of Duke University, studied self-control in a group of 1,000 individuals who were tracked from birth to age 32. They found that individuals with higher self-control had better physical and mental health, fewer substance-abuse problems, and better financial security. These findings emphasize the importance of willpower in nearly all areas of life.1
Can people develop more self-control?
Self-control is not something that some people have and others don’t. And believing that it isn’t a learned skill will only hinder your motivation to practice harnessing it.
Self-control can be built up, like a muscle (Baumeister et al., 2006). Your willpower can be strengthened with practice. Research by Mark Muraven at the University of Albany demonstrates this with relevant studies here, here, and here. But you need to do the right types of mental exercises.
4 simple strategies to improve self-control
- Step out of the situation and take a minute to breathe.
First, when you feel the urge to lose your self-control, immediately think of something else. It may help to choose a topic in advance, such as a favorite vacation spot. This is not as trivial as it sounds. It’s switching your brain to an alternate pathway and diffusing the intensity of the emotion you are feeling in the moment.
Next, try to separate yourself from the immediate situation. Step out of the room and go for a walk if possible. This severs the emotional connection with the scenario and depersonalizes it. Solutions from the logical part of your brain will then be clearer to see. Do not respond until you are in control of your emotions.
Finally, take a few deep breaths. This is something you can do wherever you are. Inhale slowly, counting up to four. Hold the breath, counting up to seven. Then release the breath very slowly, counting up to eight.
- Plan ahead and partner with a trusted colleague.
Identify people and situations that trigger your anger and loss of control. When you know you are entering a challenging situation, decide in advance how you want to react. Pre-commit to a pattern of behavior and rehearse it in your mind. Visualize yourself responding in the desired way.
Have a coworker – preferably someone whose control you admire– observe you and quietly say some agreed upon code word or signal when they sense you are about to lose control. Have them remind you of the bigger picture whenever you fall back into bad patterns of behavior.
- Practice relaxation techniques.
Research different methods of relaxing your body and mind and decide which best suits you. Consider practicing mindfulness or prayer meditation. These techniques are about personal discipline. The goal is to train your mind to relax to a point where it remains clear. Prayer can give you a sense of renewed focus, concentration, and happiness.
- Keep your body fueled
Research has found that self-control is a limited resource (Vohs et al., 2000). Think of exercising self-control as the equivalent of lifting weights at the gym. When you start off, your muscles are fresh and there’s no struggle at all. But as you start to become fatigued, your arms feel weak and eventually you can’t do any more. Self-control is the same way.
New findings suggest that self-control is tied to glucose levels (Gailliot et al., 2007). So eating regularly to replenish blood sugar levels in your brain can help you maintain your store of willpower. At any one time we only have so much self-control in the tank. When your tank is low, you become more likely to give in to temptation. Recognize when your levels of self-control are low and make sure you find a way to avoid challenging situations during those times. The first step to greater self-control is acknowledging when you’re at your weakest.
Developing greater self-control will be a process. You won’t develop these “muscles” overnight, so don’t beat yourself up for failures. Failure will be a part of the process and we all make mistakes. If you lose self-control, use it as a learning experience and think about how you want to act differently the next time.