Self-discipline is the key to success

Patience: the key to success?

Imagine you are taking a statistics exam at the university. What will your grade depend on? Sure, a confident use of numbers is helpful. A high level of intelligence doesn't hurt either. But an often underestimated quality is seat meat.

One could also speak of patience, self-control, discipline or self-control. All of these terms ultimately aim at the same skill: to prefer a later reward to an immediate reward. Of course, to stick with the above example, it is helpful to be intelligent and to be able to understand and learn statistical formulas quickly. But it is much more important to decide to grapple with the boring subject matter instead of going to a party or lounging in front of the TV.
The Innsbruck professor for experimental economic research Matthias Sutter carried out a comprehensive analysis of the importance of self-control in his work "The discovery of patience - perseverance beats talent" by. In it he came to the amazing conclusion that self-control is actually much more important than intelligence and talent for personal success.

The marshmallow experiment

The starting point for this research was a series of experiments known as the Marshmallow Experiment in the 1960s. In it, children were given a marshmallow. The experimenter then told the children that they can eat the marshmallow right away if they want. But if they waited until the experimenter returned to eat it, they would receive a second marshmallow later. So the classic dilemma: A small immediate reward versus a later, but larger reward. As you can imagine, most children found it extremely difficult to resist temptation. Still, many children managed to stand firm against the tasty marshmallow and get a second one. In the following years the development of the 562 boys and girls was followed up. After 20 years the differences became clear: Those children who managed to resist the temptation had better school grades on average, were leaner, took less drugs and more often had a university degree. A similar study from New Zealand also showed that people with high self-control save more money, drop out of school less often and are less likely to become addicted to gambling.
It is a paradox! At a time when everything is moving ever faster, when it only takes a few clicks of the mouse to buy a new pair of shoes, and when we can access any information immediately with our smartphones, an old virtue determines success and failure: Patience.

The Odysseus in us

Whether we can control ourselves or not depends very much on the techniques that we can use in such situations. In the marshmallow experiment, for example, some children consciously turn away from the seductive marshmallow, knowing that the sight of the marshmallow creates desires, and look at the wall. Odysseus already knew that too. As he approached the sirens on his journey, he knew their wonderful singing would magically attract him and capsize his ship as it headed for the rocks. According to legend, the goddess Kirke gave him a tip on how he could enjoy the song without being doomed. He should let his companions tie him to the mast and let the crew seal their ears with wax. In this way he could listen to the singing without ruining himself and his crew. You see, the ancients faced the same challenges as we do.

Train self-control

Of course, research is not just content to shed light on the current situation, but rather explores how we can develop our self-control.
A team of researchers led by psychologist Roy Baumeister investigated the effect of self-control training on the ability to resist temptation. The scientists divided study participants into two groups. While one group received two-week self-control training, the remaining study participants served as a control group that received no training. The training of self-control consisted of various exercises, for example slang filler words (e.g. "Um") should be avoided. This trains self-control, since the impulse to use filler words has to be fought against. It turned out that the training actually increased the participants' self-control.

At the beginning of a new year, self-control and patience are of great importance. Instead of giving in to every impulse immediately, it is advisable in everyday life to postpone a reward more often.


1: Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., De Wall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior. Journal of Personality, 74 (6), 1773-1802.