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Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self

Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self

You are an achiever, working hard each day to realize your dreams. But what about those days when you hit the snooze button on your alarm or opt for watching an extra hour of TV? Later you might berate yourself for having poor self-control, but what really happens in those moments when you decide between short-term comfort and future goals? Researcher Alexandar Soutscheck at the University of Zurich has found evidence that the same part of the brain responsible for empathizing with others also plays a role in self-control. According to the results of Soutscheck’s study, another way to think of self-control is “empathy with your future self”[1].

The Science Behind Self-Control

People have been fascinated with the neuroscience of self-control since the famous “Marshmallow Test” of the 19060s[2]. In this test, children were given a marshmallow and told that if they avoided eating it for fifteen minutes, they would get a second one. Some were able to wait, while others ate the first marshmallow right away. Scientists assumed the frontal cortex of the brain played the biggest role in this ability to sacrifice short-term satisfaction for long-term fulfillment.

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Soutscheck’s study, however, reveals that

our impulse control is less based on an order from our executive command center, or frontal cortex, and more correlated with the empathic part of our brain. In other words, when we exercise self-control, we take on the perspective of our future self and empathize with that self’s perspectives, feelings, and motivations

From the perspective of our future self, we are able to make decisions that line up with our future goals. Instead of simply restraining themselves or telling themselves what to do, the most successful impulse controllers relate to their imagined future selves like a trusted mentor, allowing their future self to positively influence their current decisions.

The Important Role Empathy Plays

Soutscheck’s study also reveals what happens when we fail to exercise the empathic part of our brain. When Soutscheck interrupted the empathic center of the brain in 43 study volunteers, they were more likely to take a small amount of cash immediately over a larger amount in the future. They were also less inclined to share the money with a partner. Soutscheck’s study showed that the more people are stuck inside their own perspective, even just from having the empathic part of their brain disrupted, the more likely they are to behave selfishly and impulsively.

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When you think about it, impulsivity is often just acting unkindly toward your future self. Consider the previous examples of hitting the snooze button or watching an extra hour of TV. By engaging in these activities, you are hurting the joy and fulfillment of your future self. That’s right, self-control may be more aptly described as behaving altruistically toward your future self. So instead of thinking in terms of restraining your current impulses, think of giving your future self the tools and experiences you need in order to achieve your goals.

The Key to Empathizing with Yourself

Next time you find yourself caught between short-term pleasure and long-term goals, try these simple actions:

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  • Imagine your future self achieving your long-term goal.
  • Step into how good your future self feels about achieving the goal, for example feeling grateful for all the sacrifices that were made.
  • Consider what your future self, who has achieved the goal, might advise you to do in your current situation.

The important thing to do is to step outside your own perspective in the moment. The more we stay trapped in our immediate perspective, the more likely we are to behave in ways we’ll regret. So make stepping into other perspectives and practicing empathy a regular part of your day, even if just the perspective of your future self.

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Lindsay Shaffer

Lindsay is a passionate teacher and writer who shares thoughts and ideas that inspire people to follow their passions.

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Published on July 29, 2020

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

Have you been thinking of how you can be a more strategic leader during these uncertain times? Has the pandemic thrown a wrench at all your carefully laid out plans and initiatives?

You’re not alone. The truth is, we all want some stability in our careers and teams during this disruptive pandemic.

However, this now requires a bit more effort than before and making the leap from merely surviving to thriving means buckling down to some serious strategic thinking and maintaining a determined mindset.

Is There a Way to Thrive Despite These Disruptions?

Essentially – yes, although you need to be willing to put in the work. Every leader wants to develop strategic thinking skills so that they can enhance overall team performance and boost their company’s success, but what exactly does it mean to be strategic in the context of the times we live in?

If you happen to be in a leadership position in your organization right now, you are most probably navigating precarious waters given the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There’s a lot more pressure than before because your actions and decisions will have a much greater impact these days not just on you, but also to the people who are part of your team.

Companies often bring me in to coach executives on strategic thinking and planning. And while pre-pandemic I would usually start by highlighting the advantages of strategic thinking, nowadays, I always begin these Zoom coaching sessions by driving home the point that this pandemic has now made strategic thinking not just an option but an absolute must.

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Assessing and making plans through the lens of a good strategy might require significant work at first. Nevertheless, you can take comfort in the fact that the rewards will far outweigh the effort, as you’ll soon see after following the 8 strategic steps I have outlined below.

8 Steps to Strategic Thinking

As events unfold during these strange times, you’re bound to feel wrong-footed every now and then. Being a leader during this pandemic means preparing for more change not just for you, but for your whole team as well.

As states and cities go through a cycle of lockdowns and reopening, employees will experience the full gamut of human emotions in dizzying speed, and you will often be called on to provide insight and stability to your team and workplace.

Strategic thinking is all about anticipation and preparation. Rather than expending your energy merely helping your company put out fires and survive, you can put the time to better use by charting out a solid plan that can protect and help you and your company thrive.

Take the following steps to build solid initiatives and roll out successful projects:

Step 1: Step Back, Then Set the Scope

One of the things that leaders get wrong during their first attempt at strategic thinking is expecting that it is just another item on a checklist. The truth is, you need to take a good, long look at the bigger picture before anything else. This means decisively prioritizing and stepping away from tasks that can be delegated to others. Free up your schedule so you can focus on this crucial task at hand.

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Then, proceed with setting the scope and the strategic goals of the project or initiative you plan to build or execute. Ask yourself the bigger question of why you need to embark on a particular project and when would be the right time to do so.

You need to set a timeline as well, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years. Keep in mind that your projections will deteriorate the further out you go as you make longer-term plans.

For this reason, add extra resources, flexibility, and resilience if you have a longer timeline. You should also be making the goals less specific if you’re charting it out for the longer term.

Step 2: Make a List of Experts

Make and keep a list of credible people who can contribute solid insight and feedback to your initiative. This could range from key stakeholders to industry experts, mentors, and even colleagues who previously planned and rolled out similar projects.

Reach out to the people on this list regularly while you work through the steps to bring diverse insight into your planning process. This way, you will be able to approach any problem from every angle.

Bringing key stakeholders into this initial process will also display your willingness to listen and empathize with their issues. In return, this will build trust and potentially pave the way for smoother buy-in down the line.

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Step 3: Anticipate the Future

After identifying your goals and gathering feedback, it’s time to consider what the future would look like if everything goes as you intuitively anticipate. Then, lay out the kind and amount of resources (money, time, social capital) that might be needed to keep this anticipated future running.

Step 4: Brainstorm on Potential Internal and External Problems

Next, think of how the future would look if you encountered unexpected problems internal and external to the business activity that seriously jeopardize your expected vision of the future. Write out what kind of potential problems you might encounter, including low-probability ones.

Assess the likelihood that you will run into each problem. To gauge, multiply the likelihood by the number of resources needed to address the problem. Try to convert the resources into money if possible so that you can have a single unit of measurement.

Then, think of what steps you can take to address these internal and external problems before they even happen. Write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Lastly, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different possible problems and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

Step 5: Identify Potential Opportunities, Internal and External

Imagine how your expected plan would look if unexpected opportunities came up. Most of these will be external but consider internal ones as well. Then, gauge the likelihood of each scenario and the number of resources you would need to take advantage of each opportunity. Convert the resources into money if possible.

Then, think of what steps you can take in advance to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Finally, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different unexpected opportunities and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

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Step 6: Check for Cognitive Biases

Check for potential cognitive biases that are relevant to you personally or to the organization as a whole, and adjust the resources and plans to address such errors.[1] Make sure to at least check for loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effects.

Step 7: Account for Unknown Unknowns (Black Swans)

To have a more effective strategy, account for black swans as well. These are unknown unknowns -unpredictable events that have potentially severe consequences.

To account for these black swans, add 40 percent to the resources you anticipate. Also, consider ways to make your plans more flexible and secure than you intuitively feel is needed.

Step 8: Communicate and Take the Next Steps

Communicate the plan to your stakeholders, and give them a heads up about the additional resources needed. Then, take the next steps to address the unanticipated problems and take advantage of the opportunities you identified by improving your plans, as well as allocating and reserving resources.

Finally, take note that there will be cases when you’ll need to go back and forth these steps to make improvements, (a fix here, an improvement there) so be comfortable with revisiting your strategy and reaching out to your list of experts.

Conclusion

A great way to deal with feelings of uncertainty during this pandemic is to anticipate obstacles with a good plan – and a sure road to that is practicing strategic thinking.

In the coming months and years, you’ll need to continue navigating uncharted territory so that you can lead your team to safe waters. Regularly doing these 8 steps to strategic thinking will ensure that you can prepare for and adapt  to the coming changes with increasing clarity, perspective, and efficiency.[2]

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Featured photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM via unsplash.com

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