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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Feb 21, 2020


Self-control is a core part of being an effective leader. And when it comes to self-control, planning beats will power.



Hello and welcome to episode 67 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at planning for self-control versus using will power in the moment. 

We are all faced with situations that require self-control. It might be that new diet, avoiding distractions while focusing on some detailed work, or that colleague that drives you crazy. We often find ourselves needing to fight those impulses that take us away from our goals. This management of our emotions and responses is a crucial part of emotional intelligence, allowing us to be individually productive, and also to form effective working relationships with others.

When it comes to self-control we often leave it up to our will power in the moment. With this “in the moment” approach we’re hoping that we will demonstrate restraint and control our impulses, but don’t really have a strategy to achieve this.

Williamson and Wilkowski from the University of Wyoming recently undertook some research to see if there was a better way. They found that planning ahead for self-control is markedly better than techniques focused on self-control in the moment. We can effectively plan ahead to reduce the will power we need to exert in the moment, leaving our responses less to chance.

Their research looked at five self-control strategies in total - four that involved planning in advance, and one that involved self-control in the moment. They were able to measure the effectiveness of each strategy.

Here are the four techniques that worked well:

  1. Situation selection: This is effectively an avoidance strategy. For example, if you’re wanting to focus on some work but know you’ll be constantly tempted towards distraction working at your desk, then avoid trying to do that focused work at your desk.

  2. Situation modification: This involves changing the situation slightly to reduce the amount of will power needed for self-control. If you find yourself checking your phone constantly while carrying it around, leave it in your desk drawer instead. On the technology side there are also settings and apps that can help to reduce the constant pinging for our attention that is built into most applications we use.

  3. Distraction: As the name suggests, this involves taking our attention away from the thing that requires self-control. For example, if someone’s behaviour in a meeting drives you to distraction, you might instead focus on taking really good notes and asking questions.

  4. Reappraisal: This involves thinking about the temptation in a different way. I recall really struggling with a work colleague who had quite different values to me. I found myself really caught up on this difference and found it hard to work constructively with them. I made the mental shift to acknowledge the difference in values and their right to have those values, and this made the working relationship far more positive.

Each of these four techniques reduces our reliance on demonstrating will-power in the moment. As the researchers noted, "People can, indeed, proactively initiate self-control. And those who do so are better able to make progress toward their long-term goals." 

This week I encourage you to not just think about planning for your own self-control, but also to share these approaches with others. Why not use an individual or team meeting to discuss how to apply this research. And, while you’re at it, suggest they subscribe to the podcast. Have a great week.



Laverl Z. Williamson, Benjamin M. Wilkowski. Nipping Temptation in the Bud: Examining Strategic Self-Control in Daily LifePersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2019; 014616721988360 DOI: 10.1177/0146167219883606