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Everyday Success: How to Engage Self-Control & Grit


Tenacity, persistence, endurance, dogged determination. Qualities to seek out when recruiting high talent, merits to employ when pursuing goals, assets to harness when chasing your dreams.

Elite athletes possess these traits, as do high performing business people or essentially anyone excelling in their chosen domains. Everyday success also fosters these qualities, but what are they really? Moreover, how do you develop them?

Through her research in achievement and success, Angela Duckworth, (professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania) found there were two obvious determinants of success: self-control and grit.

According to Duckworth, self-control is the capacity to regulate attention, emotion and behaviour in the presence of temptation. {1} Self-control is called upon when there are two conflicting action tendencies (such as impulses) and the prefrontal brain areas become involved in top-down regulation; one of these impulses is affiliated with short-term gain and gratification whilst the other is geared toward enduring values and long-term goals. {2}

Grit has been defined as 'perseverance and passion for long-term goals' {3} and further research has indicated that grit predicts the achievement of these goals despite obstacles and setbacks. Evidence suggests that self-control is related more to every-day success whereas grit is affiliated with long-term goal attainment. However, both contribute to overall success due to the nature of goal orientation and attainment.

Fortunately psychologists and scientists alike have discovered that both self-control and grit can be developed, meaning it's never to late to pursue your goals and achieve your dreams. Let's explore how!

Ways to Cultivate Self-Control

1. Regularly employ your willpower. Having the ability to delay gratification is willpower at its essence. Like a muscle, your willpower gets stronger the more that you use it. Furthermore, researchers have discovered that the more individuals employed willpower as children, the more self-control they possessed as adults, leading to greater success in life. {4} What's more, is the prefrontal cortex area of the brain appeared more active in individuals when they were employing willpower VS those who were not. This is the area responsible for self-regulation, emotion regulation, executive functioning & empathy.

2. Be mindful. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that a regular meditation practice leads to changes in our brain structure. One of these changes is an increase in grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, along with the anterior cingulate cortex (responsible for decision making and emotion regulation) and the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory). Strengthening these ares through meditation has been directly correlated with improvements in self-regulation, EQ, memory and motivation. {5} 3. Set milestones of smaller goals that spiral up into larger goals. Having incremental achievements along the path to the end goal releases dopamine in the brain and provides a sense of pride. Dopamine has several affects on self-control, one of which is it's influence on the anterior cingulate cortex in relation to cognitive flexibility and control. {6} Pride is a positive emotion that is associated with our accomplishments and an increase in confidence to expand our belief in our potential to do greater things. This in turn broadens our perspective of what we can achieve and as a result, we achieve more.

See what Adm McRaven has to say about the simple milestone of making your bed every day:

Ways to Develop GRIT

  1. Foster a growth mindset. Carol Dwecks' research on mindset identifies a growth mindset as that which believes growth is possible through learning, that which embraces challenge, believes effort is essential and that which views failure/setbacks as opportunity. Duckworth believes that a growth mindset is imperative if endeavouring to nurture grit, and it's understandable why.

  2. Keep the end in mind. So often we get caught up in the complexities of our day, that our attention gets derailed and we neglect to focus on our end goal. Keeping our vision front of mind has been linked to goal attainment and success and writing our goals down is the key. Aside from writing our goals down, sharing our goals with others also increases our likelihood of attaining them. Gail Matthews found that individuals who shared weekly updates with colleagues/friends were more than 70 percent likely to accomplish their goal (completely accomplished their goal or were more than half way there), compared to 35 percent of those who kept their goals to themselves, without writing them down.

  3. Do what you love. The very definition of grit includes the word passion. This suggests that if you are truly interested in what you are doing and continue to cultivate that interest, you are more likely to achieve success. Find something that inspires you and use that inspiration (another positive emotion) to broaden your perspective and stay true to your path. Barbara Fredricksons' broaden & build theory confirms that positive emotions open us up and provide us with enduring psychological, intellectual, physical and social resources. {7}

In closing, we are in the fortunate position of knowing that employing self-control and grit can lead us to success and we know that each of these behaviours can be developed. However, the ambiguity of human nature remains our challenge. Dr. Libby recently supported this notion at the Mindful Leadership Forum when she said "why is it we do what we do when we know what we know?".

Start playing on your own team and the odds will be in your favour. Channel those positive emotions and strengthen your probability of success.

1 Duckworth, A. & Gross, J. Self Control and Grit: Related but separable determinants of success. Current Directions in Psychological Science October 2014 vol. 23 no. 5319-325

2 Maglio, S. J., Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2013). The common currency of psychological distance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 278–282

3 Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M & Kelly, C. GRIT: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 6, 1087–1101.

4 Casey, B. J., et al. (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(36), 14998–15003

5 Lykins, E. & Baer, R. (2009) Psychological funcitioning in a sample of long-term practitioners of mindfulness meditation. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly Volume 23, Number 3 ; Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

6 Ashby, F. Gregory; Isen, Alice M.; Turken, A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, Vol 106(3), Jul 1999, 529-550.

7 Fredrickson, Barbara (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. .American Psychologist, Vol 56(3), Mar 2001, 218-226

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