It’s a common occurrence. Friday afternoon you are sitting at your desk. You should be working, but you feel your attention waning. You feel a wanting to be doing anything other than the work at hand. You convince yourself you are spent. You feel the tank is empty. It has been a tough week filled with decisions, meetings, and drudgery. There are no deadlines looming over your head. You decide to check in with friends about weekend plans and distract yourself with your favorite internet diversions.
Now, think back to a Friday afternoon where you had a hard deadline of work due at the end of the day or it would negatively impact a project, your professional reputation, and your weekend plans. Remember how you managed to power through 3-4 hours with intense focus and finish it.
So, what is the difference between these two Friday afternoons? In the second one, you still had the same tough week at work. You still had those same convenient excuses available to you. Did you somehow find more in the tank because you had a deadline? Then why did you not find it before when you had important but not urgent work to do? What if there is no tank? What if it’s not that simple?
Let’s start with why you think willpower is a daily fuel tank. It certainly seems that way. You start out the day refreshed and full of purpose. You inject your caffeine. You crush some work with focus and check off tasks. Then you eat a big lunch. You get back to work, and it starts out OK. You manage to get a bit more done. Then you start to read emails. You lose your plan. You lose your focus. Then you seem to lose the fight to win the day. What happened? It feels like you burned up your fuel. You may have heard the term “ego depletion” or “decision fatigue.” Research by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierny seems to validate your intuition that you only have so much willpower each day, and once you use it up then it’s game over. They popularized the notion that willpower is a fuel tank. But what if that’s not the whole picture?
Nir Eyal in his excellent book “Indistractable” makes the case that willpower is more like an emotion than a tank of fuel. You can’t run out of emotions like joy or anger. They come and go throughout the day based on circumstances and the way you react to those circumstances. What might you gain if you are able to view willpower as an emotion that you can observe, respond to, and influence rather than a hopeless state of running out of fuel and having to wait until tomorrow to get more? A better question might be how has it been serving you to view willpower as a depletion model? Has it allowed you to crash on the couch and binge passive entertainment for hours after that hard day at work even though you would rather do something more rewarding? I know it has served me this way. Look, there is nothing wrong with crashing on the couch per se. I’m a big fan of all sorts of downtime, but what if you did it only when you really wanted to and for only the amount of time you wanted to before moving on to something better? What if hitting the wall did not mean the end of it all? What if you had the option to bounce back like a superball? How much more value could you get out of your day?
I invite you to try an experiment with me. It will require some work on your part, but I promise the rewards are well worth it. How do I know? Because for a week I have been doing exactly what I am proposing you try. Even though it is still a work in progress, and I am making mistakes and discovering my particular challenges, I have already achieved massive improvements in my productivity and also gained valuable insights in how my own brain and motivation work. For this experiment, you will be your own guinea pig. You will discover for yourself if willpower is that simple tank of fuel or if it is something more complicated over which you have more influence than you previously thought. Consider how much more personally valuable running your own willpower experiment is than having the lab coats or the productivity hackers tell you what it is. How much more will you learn?
For this experiment, we will be doing 3 things: timeboxing, noticing distractions, and reflecting.
Timeboxing – It’s a system but also a mindset
Simply put, timeboxing is allocating a certain amount of time to an activity in advance and then sticking to it. This doesn’t sound very groundbreaking. It sounds like how a calendar is supposed to work. But is your calendar working this way? Do you have gaps in your schedule? What do you do during those times? Are you picking and choosing tasks off a to-do list? Checking social media and news? Fighting fires? How much time and energy are you putting into all those decisions during the day? At the end of the day, do you feel as if the work you did reflected your values? That is the crux. Your calendar should reflect your values. This means it should be obvious what you value most by seeing what you are spending most of your time and energy on. If that is something that could improve for you, then it’s time to take charge. Fill your calendar from waking to sleeping. A chock full calendar with no “breathing room” might seem scary at first. I definitely had some fear and resistance around it. I especially feared losing what I have always called “free time,” but after implementing it I have come to realize that my free time without purpose and forethought ended up a lot of times being wasted time. It may seem paradoxical to schedule free time along with how and why you plan to do a certain free time activity, but try it and see what you learn. Also, this does not mean you will not be taking regular breaks. Every 30 minute work block gets a builtin 5 minute break. So, if you have scheduled a 30 minute activity at 10 AM, then set a timer for 25 minutes. When that timer goes off, you are done working on that activity. This will put you in a mindset that increases your sense of urgency. It will improve focus. It will reduce distractions. You will get more done. The ticking clock should feel like a mini deadline. For longer blocks of time, scale up. A 60 minute block has a 10 minute break or two 5 minute breaks. Do whatever you want during those breaks. I have a personal list of things that elevate my mood and energy. How far can you walk in 2.5 minutes before you have to turn around? How many different yoga poses can you fit in? Make it a game! The important thing is to be committed to working the work activity for that amount of time and to set the implementation intention to get back to work when the break is over. Don’t forget to schedule real periods of downtime as well. Be specific about how you plan to spend it on something that you value. See how fast 25 minutes goes by when you schedule that block of time to check in on social media and other internet escape. Notice the resistance to quit when the timer goes off. How interesting. How can you utilize that awareness? This is also a great opportunity to schedule time for activities that are important but not urgent such as self improvement and learning. I bet there is at least one of these you have been putting off for a long time. Why are you not doing it already?
Noticing distractions, acknowledging them, and then getting back to work.
You will have distractions that try to derail you from the task at hand. Some will be external, but most will actually be internal. Take whatever control you can over the external. Silence your phone. Close email and instant messaging apps. If you are in an office setting, put up a sign that says when you will be available for office hours. You have more control than you think, but you have to be strong. Do not use the inflexibility of the outside world as an excuse to not make a real effort to take control. For the internal, first notice the distraction. Notice that it is only a craving to escape the discomfort of what you are doing in the present moment. Allow it for a second and acknowledge it. Recall the importance of the task at hand and why you value it and want to honor your commitment. If the distraction is something you need to remember to do, just jot it down quickly so you can get it out of your head and get back to work. You are retraining your brain. It will not be easy at first, but it will get better with time.
Reflecting and scheduling the next day
Schedule 15 minutes at the end of the day to examine your calendar, assess how well you lived your values, and look for ways to improve. How well did you honor your commitments? Where and when did things go awry? Were there external circumstances or internal ones that challenged you? How could those be improved and what did you learn? Leave in your calendar what you committed to doing that day but put right into your calendar alongside it what you actually did for that time so you can see the patterns emerge. I also encourage you to journal about what you learned. For example, I learned quickly that scheduling a commitment of focused time directly after lunch was not working for me. I learned that it was not due to a lack of willpower. I could power through, but I was not being effective. I was fatigued after a grueling workout in the heat and a big lunch even though my sleep hygiene is great. So, I have now committed to having a free period for that hour which can include a power nap (but only when needed) and also personal interests that do not require me to try to power through my resistance. This has allowed me to recharge and be much more productive after that free period. I have found productivity for valuable things later into the day, a timeframe in which I was never able to be productive before! I basically found more valuable hours in a day, and that has been amazing! I know you will have your own incredible insights. With your newly acquired awareness and data, schedule tomorrow using today as a template. Use recurring events as much as possible. Do not beat yourself up about commitments you were not able to keep. Instead, ask how you can negotiate commitments that you can keep. Rinse, repeat, reflect, improve! After doing this for a couple of more weeks, I expect to be able to schedule a whole week at a time with ease.
This most likely will not be easy at first. If you have not had practice at maintaining focus for set chunks of time, you will be distracted. It is your current habit. You are retraining your brain to be less distracted. You are training it that you will no longer indulge it with rewarding behavior every time it prompts you with the discomfort of wanting to escape the present moment. Tell me how it goes for you. What gold did you discover for yourself? What tips do you have to share? I love feedback!
If you would like some help getting started with this experiment, schedule a no obligation free coaching session with me. I would love to hear about your goals and help you get the results you want. You will come out of your free strategy session with better clarity of values and focus of purpose along with actionable items you can start working on immediately to move you closer to your goals.
References and resources:
Indistractable by Nir Eyal
A series of meta-analytic tests of the depletion effect: Self-control does not seem to rely on a limited resource.
The Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience explores the science of self-control and concludes that self-control performance is a product of motivation, not capacity.
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierny
This is the depletion model of willpower we are challenging with our personal experiments