Once again, the thoughts of the nation are turning toward New Year’s resolutions: lose weight, quit smoking, eat healthy, save money. Statistically speaking, about a third of people are going to slip up on those resolutions before the end of the month (and anecdotally speaking, I will be one of them). So once again, the psychologist’s mind turns to the question of what qualities help people succeed at what they set out to do.
When we think of keeping a resolution, a key phrase for lay people and psychologists alike is “self-control”, referring to how we control our impulses, resist temptations, and buckle down to do the things that aren’t fun or easy to do. You can think of it as the behavior behind the “hard nose to the grindstone”, or everyone’s favorite marshmallow task.
Self-control isn’t the whole story, however. There’s another idea making its mark on psychology, grit. Grit follows a much longer time scale than self-control, of months, years, or even decades, as we persist with a particular goal despite any setbacks. Grit is how people can make it through challenging programs and careers, when they have passion for what they are doing, and a willingness to practice.
Grit and self-control are closely related, but not identical. One theory for the relationship between grit and self-control is described as a “hierarchical goal framework”. This means you might have big-picture or long-term goals, which are broken down into smaller goals, and then still smaller actions you can take to achieve your goal. Self-control helps you achieve the individual actions in the heat of the moment, and grit helps you keep the big picture goal in mind.
Consider one hierarchy of goals. The big goal might be “become a Master Chef”. To achieve this, you would need to break this down into smaller goals, like “learn how to make pasta from scratch”, and “develop really great knife skills”. Each of these would then need to be broken into still smaller actions, like “practice chopping one onion each day”, “study pasta recipes”, and “save for a pasta machine”. Self-control is needed to carry out the individual actions, like getting out that onion and knife even when you’re tired and would rather watch tv, or resisting dipping into your pasta machine money to go see a movie. Grit helps you keep that goal of becoming a master chef as your guiding star at the top of your mind, supporting all of those goals. If your self-control fails (and you spend your pasta machine money on other things), grit is what makes you start saving again. Or, when it turns out that way of achieving your goal isn’t going to work – your don’t get that internship at the restaurant, for example – grit motivates you to find a new plan for getting there.
Now, someone who has a lot of grit probably also has a lot of self-control, but you could also have one without the other. An aspiring master chef with great grit but some self-control issues might achieve her cooking goals while seeming to have no self-control when it comes to controlling her emotions or curbing her impulses, because only the boost from her gritty goal is enough to help her exert any self-control. On the other hand, you might also have someone who has great self-control and so saves money, completes tasks on time, and resists all sorts of temptation, but does so without any overarching purpose or drive, perhaps shifting from one goal to another – soccer in middle school, chemistry in high school, theater in college – succeeding at each for a brief period of time, and then changing allegiance to another passion as circumstances change.
I read about this theory with the idea of New Year’s resolutions in mind, and so I focused on one key dichotomy between self-control and grit: self-control is certainly trainable, but grit may not be. Self-control is can be compared to a muscle, in that it gets stronger with use; the connections the prefrontal cortex uses to help excite some brain regions and calm down others can be strengthened. Grit, on the other hand, is much more challenging to train and improve. How do we keep that big picture goal as fresh, exciting and motivating as the day you first discover and commit to it? How do we help people figure out new ways of approaching that goal when one of the chosen paths becomes blocked and a new one must be created?
This is all the more important because grit is the aspect of self-control that may be more important to feeling fulfilled, and finding a purpose in life. Consider our friend with aspirations to be a master chef, who has great self-control but only average grit. She might find herself carrying out all the steps she’s laid out, ticking off the right boxes: chopping onions, seeking out internships, watching cooking shows…only to find herself standing at the kitchen counter one evening, knife in hand, just going through the motions with no more thrill about the prospect of achieving that master chef goal. She could continue to exert self-control to achieve the goal, but all the while wonder why on earth she is still pursuing it.
What does this suggest for this year’s new resolutions? You might start trying to figure out if your resolution calls for self-control (save money, lose weight) or more grit (go back to college, find a new career, pick up a new hobby), and what your history with self-control and grit is like (you can take a formal survey to find out how “gritty” you are to see if your resolution will be an easy success, or a challenge.
Duckworth, A., & Gross, J. (2014). Self-Control and Grit: Related but Separable Determinants of Success Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23 (5), 319-325. DOI: 10.1177/0963721414541462