Three ways to improve self-control

Limit informational 'junk food' to increase productivity

Adults need to be more thoughtful about consuming information, just as children learn to delay impulsive urges and eat more nutritiously, writes Ed Batista, Stanford Graduate School of Business instructor, in the Harvard Business Review blog.

As Batista explains, early humans evolved a love for sweets because of their value in calorie-poor world. Eating them resulted in feelings of excitement, reward, and satisfaction. Today's vastly different environment means calories are plentiful, but humans still seek out sweets.

Batista argues that our relationship to information has similarly evolved. Early environments were also "information poor," he explains, and humans "evolved to pay close attention" to new developments such as new community members or communication methods.

Studies have shown a correlation between the capacity to delay gratification and life success. A follow-up with subjects from the Stanford marshmallow test, in which children were told they could have a second treat if they waited 15 minutes to eat a snack in front of them, found that those who waited were more accomplished socially and academically as adults. They also had higher levels of prefrontal cortex brain activity later on—an area important for controlling emotions and attention. 

"As adults we face a version of the marshmallow test nearly every waking minute of every day," says Batista, adding that as people interrupt themselves to check phones, email, and social media, they diminish their productivity and feel more overwhelmed.

Adults face temptations every day in the form of ubiquitous information, just as children (and adults) face temptation from sweets.

To resist "the mental equivalent of 'junk food,'" Batista suggests:

  • Identify personal habits and issues. People should notice how often they check their phone, email, and social media. Pay attention to when it happens—is it during conversations and work tasks? How does it affect productivity?
  • Take a step back. Today's electronics are designed to feel like an extension of a person's self. Recognize tools and take control of them by limiting automatic alerts.
  • Be rational. Emotions are at the center of these habits. People interrupt themselves to experience the excitement and anxiety that comes from new information. Physical activity, sleep, journaling, and meditation can help focus attention and leverage emotions (Batista, Harvard Business Review, 9/15).

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