Why you can’t afford not to increase your impulse control

Key take-aways from this article:

  • A study about impulse control
  • Our smartphone habits
  • What is happening in our brains? (Very nerdy section of the article, you can skip this part if you like)
  • How do we exercise and increase our impulse control?
  • The constructive pause

Impulse control, attention and selective attention is a way of defining how our brain works with and interprets knowledge. In this blog post we dig into our impulse control and why it is so crucial to your well-being, both at work and in your private life – and especially why and how it affects our job performance.

A study about impulse control shows…

A classic example of why impulse control is important was shown in the famous Marshmallow Test conducted in 1960 at Standford University by professor Walter Mischel. Here, a group of children were given the opportunity to have one marshmallow or to wait 10 minutes and then get 2 marshmallows, 10 more minutes to get 3 marshmallows etc. 20 years later the study concluded that the longer a child could wait for a marshmallow, the better they managed in their adult life.

The above example is largely about our ability to control our impulse control. It’s simply about a reward and for how long we can wait to receive the reward. If we are tired and cognitively untrained, then it is easier for our brains to react quickly and choose a quick reward rather than waiting patiently for a bigger reward.

Our smartphone habits and impulse control

There are indications that our mobile habits are pushing our impulse control in a wrong direction. Most people have found that the more they are using their smartphones and other electronics, the harder it is for them to turn them off and have time without them. This phenomenon is primarily about a chemical reaction in the brain where a substance called “Dopamine” is released when we experience something nice that pleases us. It can be when we meet an old friend on the street or if we see something on social media or streaming services that we really like.

For the nerdy reader: in the next section I will delve into what exactly is going on in our brain when we need to take use of our impulse control. Feel free to skip this and read the rest of the article if you’re not interested in the brain’s functionalities.

What happens inside the brain

It is the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) that is associated with impulsivity and which is a major regulator of the Amygdala. This circuit begins with a pyramidal output from the Orbitofrontal Cortex to the central parts of the Nucleus Caudatus in the Striatal complex, then to the thalamus and then back to the OFC. Cortial circuits from these brain regions are involved in regulating impulsivity and compulsivity (inflexible, compulsive, problem solving and behavior).

Figure 25. Impulsivity and compulsivity are associated with failure to regulate a Corticostriatal Thalamic-Cortical (CSTC) circuit involving the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OBC), the base of the Nucleus Caudatus and the Thalamus.

The text is an excerpt from out publication made in collaboration with out chief psychologist Jens Hardy Sørensen. If you would like to read the entire book, you are welcome to contact me to have it sent to you. I usually like to put a good bottle of red wine to the person who reads through the whole book.

In other words…

When we run too fast in our daily lives or expose ourselves to too many impressions, it can be very difficult to wait for a reward. It can be shown in the form of a very talkative behavior. It may also appear that we may have a hard time waiting for it to be our turn to talk, or that we are constantly interrupting colleagues around us to satisfy our own needs without regard to the given situation.

Exercising your impulse control

You can train your impulse control in a variety of ways and it can help you give a more efficient everyday life and a more relaxed leisure time. Cognitive training with a focus on impulse control is about practicing how to defer a reward and we must also practice thinking, accepting and then reflecting on whether we want to act on a given situation or if it best to postpone an action in order to achieve a bigger reward.

Two initiatives that you can do

The first initiatives is found in our app where you can train your impulse control through cognitive exercises. For example you will be presented with two characters, then you need to choose whether or not to react with a click. The point is that you are presented with two characters that look like each other, but you have to click when they have the same color. By doing this you have to use your impulse control, in order not to click when the wrongs characters appear. It is important to do the exercises continuously so that you can continue to maintain and challenge yourself.

These types of exercises may seem relatively simple, but many are then met with some obstacles. Because if we start to expose ourselves to too many impressions or take on too many work tasks, than we can handle, then it starts to get hard not to press the button when you do the exercise – our impulse control is weakened.  Over time the exercises provided can give you an objective insight into how stressed our pressured you feel by using our stress indicator.

The other way to exercise your impulse control is by taking breaks. Breaks are something most managers and employees with whom we have worked find difficult. They all agree on the fact that they want to take a break and that they can benefit from it – but when they try they are quickly hit by everyday life and the breaks are not held. It may be due to regular hustle and bustle, but some also feel weird about sitting 1-3 minutes and starring out in the blue. A bank employee described how his office windows were facing the street and that he could not make himself sit there and flourish because what if a customer came by while he sat there and looked out in the blue…

The constructive pause

That is why, in collaboration with our customers, we have developed the constructive break which is a fantastic tool for doing an impulse control strengthening exercise. In all its simplicity, you have to sit down with our app, or a piece of paper, and then give yourself between 2-4 minutes where you accept all thoughts that pop into your mind and take notes of all the thoughts either in the app or on paper. It is important that you do not make a to-do list and you should not try to force some thoughts, but you should try to relax as much as you can.

In that way, the brain gets a time-out in a busy modern everyday life. When you have finished writing down the first thought you just wait for the next thought to appear and write it down. It is important to note here that there are no right and wrong thoughts, it is more about accepting that they are there. One thought might be that you have to buy dog food after work or that you have to call you colleague.

The impulse control exercise is that if a thought is that you need to call or write and e-mail to a colleague , then you need to simply accept that thought and not execute it right away. You are welcome to reflect on your thoughts and prioritize them after which thought you should do something about and which ones you may simply smile at and let go.

To summarize. After a constructive break, you don’t have a to-do list! But on the other hand you have knowledge about what is on top of your mind right now and these are usually things we use energy to keep down.