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It’s a question every leader should ask themselves: Is it possible to truly master ourselves and grow if we can’t control our impulses?
There’s this quote I read a long time ago by author and psychologist Daniel Goleman that says “Emotional self-control — delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness — underlies accomplishment of every sort.”
I agree wholeheartedly, but of course, this is no easy feat. During a heated debate, for instance, we often let our gut reactions dictate how we respond. But it’s the opposite of what we should do, especially as leaders. Still, keeping our impulses under control tends to be a huge problem in the business world; and yet it’s the exact thing we need to develop to ensure success.
Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman insists that we can change our ways. Impulse control, according to his research, isn’t only plausible, it’s an ability we can develop. I’d like to share four expert-backed strategies that have personally helped me hone this skill and might help you, too.
1. Delay gratification by even a few minutes
I admit this is a hard one. The urge to constantly check our phones or grab an unhealthy snack can be so strong. But we don’t have to take drastic measures like going on a full technology detox or completely revamping our diets to make changes. The point is to be conscious about delaying those impulses even for a few minutes.
Huberman refers to this as training your “no-go function”— a way of learning to inhibit our impulses. He proposes trying to aim for 20 of these no-go moments each day. “Something as trivial as having the urge to scroll through social media but refusing to pick up your phone can begin to train your ‘no-go circuit.'”
Delaying your craving for that bite of chocolate or sugary drink by just a little can help you start flexing your self-control muscles.
2. Practice mindfulness
When I first founded my startup, Jotform, 16 years ago — I was over-eager and ambitious. I was also a self-proclaimed perfectionist and this didn’t help with attempting to keep my impulses in check. But over time, as the pressure of growing my business became more intense, I made one of the best decisions for myself and my professional career: beginning a regular practice of mindfulness.
Instead of checking my phone first thing in the morning, I’d start journaling and then take more walks in nature to clear my mind. All of this helped to not only calm my anxieties (which generally lead to impulsiveness), but it also did something else: It helped me take time to reflect. I later progressed in my mindfulness journey by learning new breathing techniques and practicing guided meditations.
Huberman also recommends this technique as a way of training our brains. “You think, ‘Uh, I don’t want to do it, but I’m going to force myself to sit still even though I want to get up.’ That’s a no-go,” he explains.
3. Know your triggers and plan ahead
The truth is, we all have a list of things we know will make us impulsive. Going out to a fast food restaurant when we’re trying to eat healthier, for example, can be self-sabotaging. Or spending time with certain people who we know tend to touch our buttons can be a different kind of trigger. I’m not saying to avoid these scenarios altogether — but to plan for them.
If you’re meeting up with a friend for lunch, try to check out the menu beforehand so you already know what you’ll select when you get there. Or if you know you’ll be interacting with a difficult person, plan on taking deep breaths before responding or even taking a bathroom break to avoid saying something you might regret.
In her story for Inc, Jessica Stillman writes that “It’s amazing how often we fail to live up to our potential not because of fear or stupidity but because of lack of self-control.”
4. Be patient with yourself
Getting our impulses under control won’t happen overnight. I’ve spent years trying out the above strategies and trying to keep improving upon them. The above practices have also encouraged me to create policies at work to help create an atmosphere that reinforces using mindfulness and keeping our work/life balance in check. For example, I tell my employees to delete Slack from their phones and not answer emails during their weekends. It’s a way of promoting healthier habits that help us with self-control.
As leaders, it’s important that our growth and development also lead to making a difference in our professional lives as well as those among our team.
But keep in mind to be patient with yourself. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day — nor can we expect to kick our scrolling habits all that easily. But by taking small steps regularly to delay gratification, take up mindfulness and plan, we can make significant progress in the long term.
What I want to hit home as well is that it’s all too easy to be harsh on ourselves when trying to make any kind of behavioral changes. They require concerted effort and purposeful intention. More importantly, as Huberman wisely notes “Impulse control isn’t a fixed talent. It’s an ability you can train.”
We do have a say in the matter as long as we have the willingness.