Chasing Success: Why Self-Control Is More Important Than Self-Esteem

by Andrew Long

According to recent reports from BBC, The Atlantic and Psychology Today, we're living in possibly the most narcissistic period in history.

Here's the "narcissism epidemic" in two graphs:

A score of "20" is considered a classic narcissistic personality, and we seem to be well on our way.

(By the way, you can take your own narcissism quiz here to determine where you fall on the scale.)

And, here's the American Freshman Survey:

Meanwhile, actual test scores on things like math and science have consistently fallen during this same time period.

What we're looking at is "ambition inflation," a 20 percent increase in the last 35 years.

People's goals are getting bigger and grander. Researcher Jean Twenge says, when you have falling aptitude scores and increasing self-confidence, "there's going to be a lot more people who don't reach their goals."

What about you? Are you going to be one of the people who reaches his or her goals?

Or, will your ambition out strip your aptitude?

Despite the above news, there is a psychological trait we can all work to build that actually is positively correlated with higher GPAs, higher incomes and better results overall.

What is this magical trait? Self-control.

Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, the author of a meta-analysis on self-esteem, as well as numerous other studies on self-control (here, here and here) has this to say:

Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success (than self-esteem). Despite my years invested in research on self-esteem, I reluctantly advise people to forget about it.

Thanks, Roy.

You heard the man. You probably already know if you've heard of the classic "marshmallow test" (see adorable video below).

Essentially, it's the ability to reframe "hot thoughts," ignore temptation and delay gratification.

Being able to do so tends to predict high future income, high GPAs, lower rates of teen pregnancy, lower rates of STDs and pretty much everything else most people want to achieve.

So, what can we use from the research to become more self-controlled?

Here are the best tips suggested by research:

Eat and drink so that your blood sugar is stable throughout the day.

Self-control depends on blood sugar.

Exercising self-control seems to "cost" blood sugar, and the higher our blood sugar, the easier we find it to tackle tough tasks (up to a point).

In the research, even rinsing one's mouth out with Gatorade or some other sports drink temporarily boosted people's ability to have self-control.

Do the hardest tasks first thing in the morning.

Self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted throughout the day.

Most of us have the greatest self-control at the start of the day, or right after we've had our first coffee.

Don't waste this time checking email or social feeds. Instead, tackle the hardest task you have to get done that day and get it out of the way.

That accomplished feeling that follows will give you another surge of motivation to tackle the next task.

"Not now, but later" works best when you're tempted. 

It works better than saying a categorical "no" to the thing that tempts you.

If you can even delay just 10 minutes, it's quite likely that the temptation or urge will pass and you'll be free to go about your day.

Identify yourself as someone who has high willpower and it will be so.

From seven years of studying human psychology, I know that a person's identity-level beliefs are most powerful in defining his or her realities.

So today, start telling yourself, "I'm a person with solid self-control," and your subconscious mind will begin to work to make it so.


It may sound obvious, but how many of us deliberately cultivate our willpower and self-control, for the sake of strengthening it?

Most of us were forced by circumstances of a sport, a hobby, a musical instrument or a class in school to develop our self-control.

If you're still in school, hitting the books at a predetermined time every day can be your practice.

If you're a musician, sitting down with your instrument at a predetermined time will do the same thing.

If you do those five things, you'll be on your way to becoming a more self-disciplined person. And, that is much more likely to bring you the success and happiness that you deserve.