Whether you want more time, less stress, better project leadership, less unplanned risk, greater influence, or to move another step forward in your career, self-control will be one of your greatest assets. So, let’s look at 10 techniques you can use, based on research by psychologists and neuroscientists.
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All the evidence suggests that we increase self-control when we deliberately apply rational thought to a situation where we habitually let our mental autopilot take control.
This autopilot thing happens nearly all the time and it’s what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes as ‘System 1’. When you buckle up and take ‘System 2’ out for a spin, its reasoning power gives you the self-control you want.
That sweet sugary drink you fancy… will rot your teeth and bloat your tummy. That cigarette that is calling out to System 1… it’s another step towards a laryngectomy – or worse. Stop and think about what your actions mean in another context than your immediate gratification. What do they mean long-term, or to other you care about?
A series of brain structures is responsible for your habitual responses. And whenever you repeat the response, it strengthens the neurological linkages and hence your impulse to repeat the habit. Once you can hijack that circuit, you can start to introduce a new habit. This will weaken the connections driving the unwanted behavior and start to program a new habit. If System 1 is going to run your life, at least choose the defaults it applies!
Fight or flight? Often, we start at ‘fright’. When we see a big, daunting, scary task ahead, we recoil. So, break your massively audacious project into a series of small steps that seem real and achievable. This is one reason why successful project managers use a lot of milestones.
As you complete each step, recognize and celebrate your achievement to boost your confidence to move on to the next. This is another reason why successful project managers use milestones – and the reason we prefer them to deadlines: deadlines motivate by fear, while milestones motivate by pleasure.
Trying to resist that second glass of wine? Hoping to get that report done by Friday? “Try” and “hope” are words for the 50:50 people who are prepared to anticipate failure. Make a commitment to somebody – or, better still, to everybody. That will focus your mind and make the pain of success greater, driving lazy System 2 to take control of the “how”.
One of the best ways to get rational System 2 to take its responsibilities seriously is to exercise it – and few things are better than making use of your memory. Make a habit of memorizing names, numbers, and appointments so that involving System 2 in your daily affairs becomes a habit.
Nothing is more likely to make you default to a careless System 1 response than being mentally exhausted. So invest in mental and physical resilience. Here is a gratuitous equation:
R = r1 + r2 + r3 + r4
Resilience is built on a foundation of rest, relaxation, refreshment (good food and plenty of water), and regular exercise.
Before you make any decision or adopt any plan, ask yourself: “what could go wrong?”
In fact, better still, ask: “when something goes wrong, what could it be?” Not only will this question help protect you, but again, it will get you into the habit of involving System 2 in your decisions.
Some situations are particularly risky, in that they rob us of our self-control: bars, disputes, and incentive schemes are examples. If you can and are comfortable to, avoiding these situations is a great strategy. However, oftentimes, this will be impossible or undesirable, so as you approach them, become aware of the risks they pose, and before your rational thinking is compromised, assess the potential outcomes and make a plan.
“If – then” thinking is a very powerful way to manage risk, inform decisions, and also engage System 2’s logical powers of projection. Before any decision, identify a number of plausible scenarios for the future, and test your decision against those scenarios.
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Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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