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Self-Control and Mental Elbow Grease

Self-Control and Mental Elbow Grease

Do you recognise the phrase, ‘Put some elbow grease into it’. It generally implies that your efforts are a bit lacklustre and you need to apply a more oomph.

Now, as a psychologist, I wonder whether we need to apply some ‘elbow grease’ in our life. Do we expect the good things in life to be delivered on a plate? Do we give up too easily? Does modern life make us too soft?

In a 1970’s classic psychology experiment, five year-old children were given a marshmallow and told if they could wait a while, (about fifteen minutes), they could have a second one. The temptation was too much for about two thirds of them, and they couldn’t wait. But a third did wait, using a variety of strategies to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of wanting, but not getting, a tasty treat. In other words, they used self-control. Now here’s the punch line; these children were studied again about ten years later. On average, those children showing self-control ten years previously had done better at their school achievements, were better socially adjusted and had a healthier weight. Being able to resist temptation and practice self-control influences our success in life. Some psychologists call this quality ‘grit’. Grit is the ability to stick to a long term challenge and to withstand temporary distractions and lapses in motivation.

The good news is that grit, or ‘elbow grease’ can be learned. You learn it by taking on something that takes you out of your comfort zone. You take it on and stick with it. Success in life often involves this gradual and steady application of mental ‘elbow grease’. It gives you a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of achievement. Maybe Thomas Edison was absolutely right when he said, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”

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