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Work / Life Balance

A Master Plan for Taking Back Control of Your Life

Our willpower is a highly limited resource, and it gets depleted by every act that requires its use. We outline 8 steps you can take to maintain peak performance.

Here’s the problem we face, every day of our lives. Nearly everything that generates enduring value requires effort, focus, and even some discomfort along the way.  At the same time, we’re deeply wired to avoid pain, which the body reads as mortally dangerous, and to move toward pleasure, the more immediate the better.

We’re also exposed to more temptation than ever. The world is literally at our fingertips, a few keystrokes away. It’s forever beckoning us, like the Sirens singing to Odysseus, who lashed himself to the mast of his ship to resist their call.The sirens sing to us, too: Have the dessert. Skip the workout. Put off the hard work. Surf the web. Check your email. Indulge your whims. Settle for the easy way out. Thanks to researcher Roy Baumeister and others,  the evidence is clear that we have one reservoir of willpower. It’s a highly limited resource, and it gets depleted by every act that requires its use. So how do we take back control of our lives?  What follows are the key moves we can make. It’s not all or none.  More is better, but each one will help.

1. Make more of your behaviors automatic.

Because our willpower is so limited, our best defense is to rely on it less. Here’s how the brilliant mathematician Alfred North Whitehead put it: “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” A ritual is a highly precise behavior that you perform over and over, at a specific time, so it becomes automatic and no longer requires much willpower to get it done.

2. Take yourself out of harm’s way.

You can’t easily lash yourself to a mast, but you can selectively avoid temptations. If you want to lose weight, it makes sense to remove your favorite high-calorie foods from the shelves, and to tell the waiter at restaurants not to bring the bread.  If you want to get challenging work done, turn off your email entirely for designated periods of time rather than try to resist its Pavlovian ping.

3. Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.

The more powerfully driven you are to take instant action, the more likely you shouldn’t. When the pull is intense, it’s likely you’ve activated your fight-or-flight physiology. That’s great when you’re actually facing a life-or-death situation and need to react instantly. In most life circumstances, it serves you better to reflect before you react.

4. Sleep as much as you must to feel fully rested.

For nearly 98% of us, that means at least 7 hours a night. “Fatigue,” said Vince Lombardi, “makes cowards of us all.” Specifically, it undermines our capacity for self-control, and we’re more likely to default to instant gratification.  The best sleep ritual is not just to choose a precise bedtime, but also to begin winding down at least 30 minutes before turning out the lights.

5. Do the most important thing first in the morning.

That’s when the vast majority of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.  Our energy reservoir diminishes as the day wears on, which is why it’s so difficult to get to the hardest work late in the day. Conversely, the more focused you are, the higher the quality of work you’ll do, and the more you’ll get done. I often get more important work done during the first 90 minutes of the morning than in the rest of the hours of the day put together.

6. Eat energy rich foods in small doses at frequent intervals.

Food – specifically glucose – literally fuels willpower.  Unfortunately, the body can only make use of a limited amount at any given time, so we need to refuel at least every three hours.  Sugars and simple carbohydrates provide a surge of energy that doesn’t last, while lean proteins and complex carbohydrates provide a steadier, more enduring source of energy and therefore willpower.

7. Do one thing at a time.

With so much coming at us so relentlessly – emails, texts, people, and information – we assume the only way to get to it all is to juggle multiple tasks at the same time.  In fact, moving between tasks creates something called “switching time.” When you shift attention from one focus of attention to another, the average time it takes to finish the first task increases by at least 25%.

8. Work in sprints.

Human beings aren’t meant to operate like computers, at high speeds, continuously. Rather, we’re designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy. The ultradian rhythm refers to a 90-minute cycle inside us, during which we move from a state of higher physiological arousal progressively down towards fatigue. Focus intensely, ideally without interruption, for no more than 90 minutes at a time. Then take a real break, for at least a few minutes, to relax emotionally, give the mind a rest and physically recharge.


Above all else, it’s critical to ground yourself in deeply held values. Knowing what you stand for is a uniquely powerful fuel for behavior, especially when the going gets tough, and the temptation is to take the easy route. If you’re clear about who you want to be in any given situation, non-negotiably, the songs of the Sirens aren’t so alluring. —

What About You?

How do you stay focused and motivated?

Comments (85)
  • pest control

    Sweep and vacuum your place on regular basis and clean the spills immediately with soap to prevent from pest infestation.

  • pest control

    Sweep and vacuum your place on regular basis and clean the spills immediately with soap to prevent from pest infestation.

  • pest control

    Sweep and vacuum your place on regular basis and clean the spills immediately with soap to prevent from pest infestation.

  • Scott Marchiny

    Some really good advice here.   Im an adult male with ADD so i am constantly fighting with myself to stay focused and stay on the project at hand.   Setting timers for myself has been working great lately and is the only way for me to take actual breaks and not immerse myself in things for hours upon hours at a time.   I still have a terrible time with insomnia but im working on it.   Thanks for this article.

  • Matt

    I agree sleep is huge.  I started making that a priority a couple years ago and not only am I more productive, but I have a much better attitude toward life and others.  I recently started working through my in-box one thing at a time, and you are totally right that work gets done more quickly.  I will start to pay attention to when I feel compelled to do something.  I have a feeling it will be very enlightening.

  • Francis Mwangi

    That is good news to me. I am guilty of breaking them all, now to work on put them together in my life. Thanks a lot, GOD (JESUS) Bless.

  • Tim Nguyen

    Excellent tips. #2 is brilliant. Additionally, you should put yourself into goods way as well. So, using Tony’s example of losing weight, you would want to go to a place where people are generally more fit, such as the beach or the park. Rather than reading your book at the coffee shop, read it at the park where you are surrounded by active people.

    I am also a huge believer in writing your goals down, but not every little goal, but rather the biggest baddest most important things in your life. Review them regularly and let them shape your life. We are what we eat, and we are what we think.

  • Fahim

    #3 is a big one for me. I’ve felt compelled to take some big risks, career-wise (I work in theatre and film as a performer) and I’ve had some losses (and wins) that I could have foreseen with some better judgment. It’s true that some things in life might seem like life-or-death, but once you assess what your values are, those things might not have any real meaning to you and not worth the risk. I like the quote “good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”

  • Royan Kamyar, MD/MBA

    Awesome. Day planning and steps outlined above are essential for good health as well as productivity:

  • orbitalpixiedust

    “If you’re clear about who you want to be in any given situation, non-negotiably, the songs of the Sirens aren’t so alluring.” — YESS!!!

  • John Milne

    So simple, clear and short. Great advice.

  • Shannen Ellis

    Wonderful advice. Thanks! 🙂

  • Shannen Ellis

    I stay focused and motivated by setting up effective goals. I read a great article about effective goal setting here:

  • Victoria Blanco

    I absolutely love this post! The one that stood out the most for me was “Doing one thing at a time” . . to often people say that multitasking is best when it fact if you don’t concentrate on one thing at a time, everything will suffer. I actually read a really good article how you can Take Control of your Life Now in 5 simple steps.

    Check it out: It will definitely be worth it. Once I started implementing these things I really started to take control.

  • wayne

    thank you and god bless you

  • jack as

    Drive your car. Don’t let the car drive you. This automated bullshit is for the fuck heads who don’t want/can’t think. Work out you dumb fucker. W/o daily. That bullshit you heard about big muscles is hippy nonsense. Get them. Use them. You’ll be happy. Drink water not beer. Get high on doing the better job. Get a big brain by using it all the time. Use science. Be smart. Be American. Don’t let television define you. Don’t let that media hype bullshit run your life.

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