In midlife, people can become so overwhelmed with multiple demands on their time that they can't get started on anything, much less those tasks that they need to get through somehow. You've got to get stuff done at work, pick up your kids, finish cleaning out your closets, maybe head to the gym, and get dinner on the table. Instead of starting any of these seemingly unmanageable tasks, you plunk down on the couch, turn on the TV, and pretend you can make it all go away.
Logically, you know that if you want to succeed at anything, you've got to persevere. However, you may not think of yourself as someone whose strong point is stick-toitness. You can take heart in a study published by Florida Institute of Technology psychologist Patrick Converse and his collaborators (2013) on what they call "dispositional self-control." In this fascinating study, Converse and team tested a national sample of 5000 10-year-olds, following them until they were in their mid-20s. The researchers looked at a whole set of personal characteristics including educational attainment, income, and job "complexity," or degree of mental effort required by their work. The participants also contributed data on negative, or antisocial, teen behaviors as well as positive teen behaviors such as studying, working and belonging to high school clubs and teams.
With the unique advantage of having longitudinal data, Converse and his team were able to test whether the kids with higher self-control would be more successful adults. To make a long story short, the answer is a decided "yes." Having greater ability to control their thoughts, feelings and behaviors as kids led the participants to show fewer acting-out behaviors as teens, to do better in school and ultimately to become poised to have more productive and satisfying adult lives.
Self-control isn't exactly the same as the ability to persevere, but it shares many of the same qualities. When you're high on self-control, you are able to "control the self by the self" (p. 65), as the researchers concluded. You can keep yourself from engaging in behaviors that will result in problematic outcomes, such as being disruptive or impulsive. This is called "stop control." Being high in "start control" means, additionally, that you can motivate yourself to engage in the behaviors that will advance you socially and academically.
Persevering through adversity, challenge, or just plain boredom means that you need to be high in both stop and start self-control. When your computer program won't cooperate with your wishes, you might feel like throwing your laptop against the wall, but that wouldn't solve the basic problem and would only make things far worse. You need to engage your stop control to keep yourself from letting those feelings overcome you. On the other hand, when you're plunked down on that couch, you need start control to get you to focus on the task at hand.
All of this might be well and good, you say, but isn't it true that the Converse study began with children whose self-control was already in its formative stages? How can you, as a midlife adult, make up for the lack of self-control you might have had during your own misspent youth?
There are reasons to be hopeful that you can expand on your self-control and abilities to persevere even if these were never your forte. Perseverance can become a highly rewarding mental state if, as you put your mental energies to completing a task, you allow yourself to enjoy the fruits of your hard work.
The next time you're ready to give up on a tough task, then, recognize that there are many practical and emotional benefits to sticking with it. Like the young adults in the Converse et al study, those benefits might eventually translate into greater career success. Even if you don't see a direct payoff, though, you'll at least feel that you tried. In the long run, your inner satisfaction will benefit from knowing you gave it your all.
Converse, P. D., Piccone, K. A., & Tocci, M. C. (2014). Childhood self-control, adolescent behavior, and career success. Personality And Individual Differences, 5965-70. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.11.007