Top 3 Reasons Agile Self-Leadership beats Self-Control as a Peak Performance Strategy

If you are like most people today, daily living is full of unpredictable events requiring you to constantly rethink, replan, and reprioritize.

One of the most commonly recommended strategies for getting things done today is to cultivate more “self-control.” The idea is that if you had more self-control you could get more done — and operate at “peak performance” level more often — because after all “normal” successful people have a lot of self-control, right?    That’s the common working assumption in our culture.  Rarely do you hear anyone talking about self-leadership or leading yourself to get things done.

But when you really think about it…what is self-control? Every one has their own definition, and many usually say something like “we don’t really mean “control.”  Are we just too lazy to find a more accurate way to describe how we get ourselves to do things?  I propose that Agile Self-Leadership is a much more precise, meaningful and inspiring way to think about how we cultivate and optimize our own performance.

I love the way NYU Professor and author of the excellent book Ungifted: Intelligence RedefinedScott Barry Kaufman  defines self-control.

 He says (and I’m paraphrasing with an AgiliZen spin – not quoting exactly) self-control can be defined as:  “the ability to get yourself to do things that

a) you aren’t really interested in doing and/or
b) you don’t see the value in doing or
c) do things according to schedule even if you are not actually “ready” to do them.

I’m deeply convinced that there are serious flaws (and harmful consequences) in the idea that self-control is a superior way of functioning. Not only does self-control often not get you the high productivity, or peak performance, or life-changing results you want. It isn’t fun! Relying on self-control is NOT productive in the long term. It leaves you feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and worse, feeling bad about yourself.


Using self-control as a primary productivity and
performance-enhancing strategy is only
DELAYING losing the game of living a life you love.

Self-control is not effective over the long-term because it doesn’t motivate or incentivize your brain to cooperate with you. After all, who among us is actually motivated to go through day after day just doing what you are told to do, doing things you dislike and /or don’t see the value of doing?  

I’m not going to get into all the reasons we as a culture bought into the illusion of self-control and so idealized it that we actually use it as the primary criteria for medically diagnosing people who don’t have a lot of it as “disordered” or not mentally healthy.

That is a whole other story.  But I will say this.

 One of the reasons we over-value self-control
is that even though we could get VERY similar results
by focusing on cultivating agile self-leadership and 
it seems too “hard” and too “slow” to get results through cooperation.

Yes, cooperation and self leadership are more challenging – IF you don’t have the skillset and mindset needed.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Once you learn fundamental self-leadership skill and the agile mindset, getting results is not only easier, your whole life becomes easier and a LOT MORE SATISFYING.

Just like living in a democracy requires citizens to be educated and take more responsibility than living under autocratic rule does, it also takes a little more effort to learn how lead yourself and self-cooperate. But the payoffs are worth it don’t you think? Especially if in spite of all your attempts to improve at self-control – it STILL isn’t working AND you are even more dissatisfied with yourself than ever.

This brings us to Reason Number 1 why Agile Self-Leadership and “Designing for Your Brain” instead of trying so hard to control your brain is more effective in the long run than self-control.

Reason Number 1 to Practice Agile Self-Leadership and Design for Your Brain  


Your brain IS DESIGNED to spend at least half to 3/4 of your days in auto-pilot – NOT in being controlled. 

You are not designed to be in conscious control of yourself or your brain as your primary mode of operation in life. At best, self-control aka “willpower” is an extremely limited resource. Relying on it to function is just ASKING for trouble. 

Understanding your auto-pilot — how it organically learns new habits and how it becomes ready to improvise effectively in the moment — that is where the real payoff is.  Your brain is designed to perform most of your daily functions in auto-pilot mode — relying on your internal scanning, monitoring and stimulus-response systems.  This means:

  • Using habits and skills it has learned over time so that it can do things almost effortlessly.
  • Responding to basic needs at the first signs of fatigue – rather than on a schedule.
    For example, we are DESIGNED to eat when we are hungry NOT on a schedule and when we do eat in a need-responsive, self-cooperative way, artfully using and strengthening our amazing appetite monitoring system, we become healthier and it becomes much easier to maintain a healthy weight as well.

These automated activities can be thought of as low-cognitive-load activities. Low cognitive load, auto-pilot activities don’t require you to spend as much of your precious peak operating energy doing them because you have already spent time actively making them feel easy.

Low cognitive load activities feel like they are so easy to do because you:

  • Have already learned and mastered them enough to perform them without a lot of conscious thought.
  • Have already learned the prerequisite or keystonehabits and skills needed to perform them.For example, you can easily boil water because you already learned how to operate the stove (or microwave), the water faucet, and the pot or tea kettle, etc. NOTE:  Whenever something feels really hard to do, usually there are some keystone habits or skills that aren’t fully developed yet.
  • Understand their value and you want the result intensely enough that you don’t actively and vehemently resist them.
  • Don’t debate with yourself whether or not you are “able” to do it — or whether or not it would be “worth” doing. The only debate you may have is whether or not NOW is the right time to do it.
  • Set the stage — Figured out a way to orchestrate your environment to make everything you need to do the activities relatively handy, easy to access, easy to put away, etc.

Examples may include watching TV, playing your favorite games, using a remote control, making a cup of coffee, brushing your teeth, checking email, making a phone call, driving your car, etc.

Think of operating on auto-pilot as being kind of like a game.  You start the day (game) having a full tank of gas that gets used up each day.  One of the conditions in this game that your fuel supply can only be fully refilled once a day while you sleep.  The way to win the game is to strategize ways to spread the use your fuel up without completely exhausting your supply.  Your engine (brain) operates when you don’t completely exhaust it and you get regular oil changes Think of oil changes as anything you do to keep yourself flexible, supple, encouraged when things get tough, and feeling satisfied with the progress you are making.  Optimizing your ability to get more miles per gallon is the way to win the bigger game. Miles per gallon are optimized by taking breaks (think of this like keeping air in your tires.) Another way to get more miles per gallon is to optimize your balance between high and low exertion activities.

Low cognitive load activities optimize your overall miles per gallon because they are like going downhill.  Engaging in “downhill” activities is how your brain NEEDS to spend at least half of your waking hours.

Most people only get an average of about 4 (3 – 6) total hours per day of uphill functioning from their daily energy supply.  Much less if they are sleep deprived.

Think of uphill activities as those requiring high levels of focus and conscious cognitive exertion such as:  decision-making, listening closely to what others are saying, reading non-fiction, writing, problem-solving, etc.

Other words for uphill, high exertion activities include peak performance, high cognitive load tasks, and creative flow state energy.

Designing for your brain is about learning how to lead yourself by radically accepting yourself as you are, while also inspiring, challenging and encouraging yourself to grow.  Self leadership also includes taking the time to teach yourself how to put as much as you can on auto-pilot (using habits, templates, priming, scripting,stage-setting  etc.) so that you have plenty of energy on reserve for tackling the more challenging activities of your life — including:

  • designing your day
  • decluttering projects, and
  • designing complex organizing systems such as a filing system.

Most people don’t realize that organizing and storage system design are complex, creative, high-cognitive-load activities that are comprised of several rather advanced skills including:  functional design skills, needs assessment, problem-solving, decision-making, project management, and habit cultivation skills all rolled into one activity.

So why do we expect ourselves and others to “just do it” using self-control?  It’s kind of absurd when you think about it.

Reason Number 2 to Practice Agile Self-Leadership and Design for Your Brain  

Your brain is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS trying to take care of you and doing the best it can with what it has to work with.  

Your brain is THE most loyal and forgiving friend you could ever hope for. In spite of all the things you have done to abuse it, it is actually ALWAYS looking out for your best interests, trying to:

  • optimize functioning
  • satisfy needs
  • solve problems
  • prevent problems
  • keep you safe
  • relieve intolerable discomfort pain
  • respond to perceived threats
  • avoid anything that it perceives as likely to overwhelm you
  • seek challenge and fully engaging experiences

Contrary to popular opinion, the fact is that your so-called logical brain is designed to be an ALLY and to be of SERVICE to your whole brain – not to be in charge and tell you what to do. Your logical brain is meant to work in close cooperation with the rest of your brain by designing meaningful agile goals that serve the whole you…not just what you “think” you “should” do or want.

But there is a catch.

You must commit to giving your brain what it requires,
stop being so controlling, and
cooperate with it instead. 

When you design for your whole brain it means you use your logical brain to consider all of your needs and integrate them into the way you design your days, your habits, your expectations, plans and goals, your relationships, your career and your environments to serve your overall optimal functioning in both the short and long term.

Bottom Line:

Give yourself the benefit of the doubt.  

When you LEARN a better way you WILL USE IT.  

Investing the time to teach yourself how to design habits that serve both your optimal daily AND your long-term functioning WILL PAY superior dividends. Designing for your brain will yield a much greater return on investment than self-control can even dream of.


Reason Number 3 to Practice Agile Self-Leadership and Design for Your Brain  

Designing for your brain IS a game you can WIN. 

Designing for your brain is a game where winning means getting your daily life activities to support the achievement of your long term goals — like health, wealth, love, and overall well-being.  It is all about playing to win the bigger game – the game of life.  

Designing for your brain is the ultimate act of being of service to the people in your life as well.  As you learn to practice agile self-leadership and optimize your personal functioning, you also become more able to lead, serve and support others to become their best selves.

Designing for your brain is how agile self-leaders “grow” themselves into living a meaningful and purpose-centered life. Self-control is not the key to fulfillment – it’s the key to being “controllable” and to being willing to spend your life being controlled – doing things you don’t really care about and that have little meaning to you.

When you practice agile self leadership and design for your brain, you take the time to figure out what you and your brain really need to get things done and to perform daily functions – even those you think you hate doing.

When you take the time to figure out how to make your brain happy

AND Design for it by connecting everything you do to
both immediate value AND long term gain —

the results are FAR superior to self-control.  

Designing for your brain IS the agile self-leader’s ultimate power tool in agilizing life.  Are you ready to play to win by leading more and controlling less?  

Stay tuned.  More AgiliZen resources for Agile Self-Leadership, Designing for your Brain and living and agile, productive, and meaning full life are coming!

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7 thoughts on “Top 3 Reasons Agile Self-Leadership beats Self-Control as a Peak Performance Strategy

  1. Pingback: What are the 8 Dances of Life? | Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed

  2. Like any strategy, there is a time and a place for self-control, but we GREATLY overuse it and sadly that means we neglect to develop our capability for self LEADERSHIP. Chronic over-reliance on control instead of on other strategies is just way too limited to significantly enhance our performance, life satisfaction and overall success.
    That’s all I’m saying.

    I define procrastination very differently. Delaying things is NORMAL and sometimes it’t a really good thing we wait before doing something. I consider the term procrastination to be a seriously chronic delaying of doing something vital – it is a highly derogatory label which is way overused in our culture to describe everything we don’t do instantly on demand. The issues are very complex so I can’t address every aspect in one brief article. But I do appreciate you reading, commenting and at least considering the possibility that there may be other effective ways to get things done beside using “control”. Happy Holidays!

  3. I don’t think we need self control only for doing things we don’t like or we don’t perceive a real value in doing them; but especially for long terms goals (we might choose ourselves) but dislike the work, commitment,…they involve now and just prefer other activities with instant gratification. A psychologist put it that way: procrastination is doing an activity your present self is enjoying, but your future self might suffer from it! and here self control plays a key role in this proces.

  4. Pingback: The Truth about Chronic Disorganization: What Causes It and How to Heal the Trauma of Lifelong Overwhelm and Frustration | Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed

  5. Pingback: The 8 Habits of Agility – Emotional and Mindset Foundations for Agile Sustainable Peak Performance and Productivity | Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed

  6. This is great, Ariane!
    I especially like thinking of your day in terms of “miles per gallon” and the “up-hill, down-hill” analogy!

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