Taken from Rohan’s blog. 🙂 Very interesting idea, to think of our self-control as a muscle..
It works like any other muscle, and it’s crucial to your professional well-being.
It has been a long morning. You started with an invigorating run at 5:30 and had a breakfast meeting at 7. Since then you’ve wrestled with your leadership team, sparred with analysts and delivered a tough message to your chief marketing officer. You’ve felt sharp and in control. But by your 11:30 review with a struggling product team, you’re beginning to feel tired, fuzzy and prickly–not to mention hungry.
The stage is set for a lapse in your self-control. Not just a little burst of anger or a poppy-seed muffin binge but the kind of momentary lapse that can undermine your leadership. You might, for instance, get stuck on a detail and find yourself unable to move on, or fail to see that certain assumptions are no longer supported by the facts, or drop into a pessimistic mood and overlook a sign of progress, or ask the product manager if she wouldn’t be happier working elsewhere–in front of her team.
As a senior executive, you are always being watched. One sarcastic comment or rash decision can set in motion a wave of unnecessary drama, confusion or conflict that can paralyze your whole organization. Your ability to control your thoughts, feelings and actions is critical to your effectiveness as a leader, whether at a 7 a.m. staff meeting or at a midnight curfew showdown with your 16-year-old.
Here’s a secret about self-control: It works like a muscle. With each use, that muscle temporarily loses some strength, leaving you with reduced capacity to handle yourself if the next self-control challenge pops up too soon.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that just like with any other muscle, you can be smarter about how you use it. And you can strengthen it with exercise. Here are four things to do to keep it in top shape.
1. Plan your time with depletion in mind. Whether you have a massive self-control muscle or a modest one, its strength declines each time you call it into action during your workday. Knowing this, take the ebb and flow of self-control into consideration as you build your calendar. If you know that an upcoming meeting will demand all your intellectual and emotional horsepower, be mindful of what you schedule before and after it. Think conservation before and caution after.
Try to avoid scheduling demanding meetings back-to-back. You’ll have less self-control strength for the second meeting, making you more susceptible to sloppy thinking and poor judgment. Also, watch out for the back-end booby trap. Just imagine: You’ve been razor sharp through a critical meeting in the late afternoon, managing yourself brilliantly. You’re depleted but feeling good and ready to relax. When you get home, your spouse surprises you with your child’s report card showing two D’s. It’s prime time for a meltdown, because your self-control muscle is out of gas from your big meeting.
2. Standardize recurring tasks. Albert Einstein in his later years wore a gray sweatsuit every day. Why? He wanted to save his thinking for the most important problems, like figuring out how the universe works. Bill Gates, my former boss at Microsoft, would get annoyed when, in our eagerness to be creative, we’d show up at a midyear review with a new way of calculating key metrics for recruiting or compensation. He’d have to burn precious time and bandwidth decoding our amazing new report rather than work on improving the company’s performance.
It’s a fine balance. No one appreciates a good new idea more than Bill Gates, but creativity puts a heavy load on your self-control muscle. Imagine changing your golf stroke every round just to be more creative. Policies, procedures and best practices can be as boring as a gray sweatsuit, but they also can free up your bandwidth for knotty new challenges.
Be as smart as Einstein and Gates: Standardize your approach to problems you know how to solve, and save your self-control for those you don’t.
3. Rest and refuel. A good night’s sleep or a nap will do wonders for your self-control muscle. But physical rest isn’t everything. The fastest way to rejuvenate a muscle is to avoid using it. And the way you avoid using your self-control muscle is by switching your brain over to automatic pilot.
Develop a relaxation routine that you can turn to when you sense that your self-control muscle is getting depleted. For example, take a 10-minute walk between tough meetings. Stretch. Read something fun. Anything that shifts your brain into neutral will help; what works will be different for each of us.
Your self-control muscle also needs fuel. Studies show that exercising self-control reduces your blood sugar level. One of my coaching clients discovered that meetings went bad more often when she was getting hungry. A quick, healthy snack will restore blood sugar and rejuvenate your self-control muscle. But watch out for chocolate bars and baked goods. They send your blood sugar level rocketing up, but the crash that follows may be even worse for your self-control and your health.
4. Work out your self-control muscle. You can strengthen your self-control muscle with regular exercise over time just as you can strengthen the muscles in your legs or back. Remember: Anytime you take conscious control of your thoughts, feelings or actions, you are practicing self-control.
If you’re willing to experiment, try this simple exercise for the next two weeks: Once an hour, take three deep conscious breaths from your belly. Follow the full length of your inhale and exhale. Sounds crazy, but it works. Why? Because most of the time, you don’t think about breathing. It’s an automatic process. So when you interrupt and take conscious control of your breath, you exercise your self-control muscle.
Since all self-control efforts work that same self-control muscle, exercising it in one activity (e.g., doing regular deep breathing) definitely helps in others (e.g., staying calm when a colleague blames your group for a customer problem).
Just knowing that the self-control muscle exists is a game-changer for the executives I work with. Recognizing when you are using the muscle and when it’s getting depleted is half the battle. You start to understand what it takes to be at your best when it counts the most.
Small changes to your self-control muscle can make a big difference in your effectiveness as a leader. Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.
Douglas McKenna is chief executive officer and co-founder of the Oceanside Institute. Formerly head of leadership development at Microsoft, he coaches senior executives around the world.