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Time Management

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 (88)
  • Preemptive Placebo

    Baumeister found that positive-mood-stimulus restores the ability to self-regulate.  In short, laughing refills the self-control fuel tank.  Personally I believe that only a certain type of humor refills the tank.  We must be laughing WITH others to refill the tank.  When we laugh AT others we deplete it further. 

    Most of society’s largest problems have a self-control element to them.  Obesity, indebtedness, addiction, divorce/infidelity, violence….

    For hundreds of thousands of years we evolved in what are now termed traditional societies.  Those small groups gave immediate negative feedback to an individual who did something that displeased the group as a whole.  They acted as very concrete reminders to each individual that actions have consequences.  They were the external enforcers of individual self-control.

    Gradually over the past few decades we’ve been moving away from action/consequences model of self-responsibility and toward a more holistic models to explain these self-control related issues.  By doing so, I believe, we are causing harm to ourselves. 

    By telling people that their obesity is in their genes or caused by high-fructose corn syrup, we remove the personal responsibility element from it.  Telling people that they are “an addict” creates the belief that it is a permanent and unchangeable fact.  Rather, we could simply acknowledge that they are physically addicted to a substance at this moment and may have a higher tendency than the average person to indulge in that particular substance.  By looking at it this way, addiction is a temporary and controllable state. 

    Please do not confuse this with a lack of compassion. It is not. As traditional societies knew long ago, the most compassionate thing we can do for someone is to allow them to experience the consequences of their actions.

    Getting back to Baumeister and the internal enforcers…  Traditional societies played another important role.  They gave us an outlet – sitting around the fire telling stories – where we could refill our self-control tank by laughing WITH others. 

    Over the next few days or weeks be conscious of the times you find yourself laughing.  Ask yourself if you are laughing AT someone or WITH them.  Laughing AT someone is not only impolite to them, it is damaging to oneself. 

    It is one of the most harmful things we do on a regular basis.

  • Guest

    Absolutely love this article. I

  • Guest

    This article is great. I’ve also read the book ‘Be excellent at anything’ which is brilliant. It goes into each of these tips in more detail.

  • AdD

    One of the BEST, most timely articles I’ve read in a while. Exactly what I needed to hear at such a crucial turning point in my life.

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  • Mike Tarullo

    I realized as I was reading this article (found in my Twitter feed) that I was juggling multiple tasks and inboxes across two monitors and a pad of paper in front of me.  Where once we thought multitasking was some kind of superhuman feat, now it seems mostly responsible for shortening our attention spans. 

  • Taylor Trask

    This post needs to be printed and hung in the offices of every startup, corporation and place of business in the world.  Quality stuff that totally hit it on the head for me.  Thanks guys!

  • ajpaschka

    He was a highlight at the 99% conference.. I still think about everything he said there.

  • Bbissonnette

    I definitely wouldn’t take the advice of number 6.  Complex carbs spike insulin more than table sugar.  If you want extended energy eat protein and fat. And only eat two big meals a day.  I skip breakfast every day and crush my to-do list every morning.  

  • Ivan Paramonau

    #1 and #3 are completely new thoughts for me. Thanks!

  • Tickertin

    I stay focused by saying no and living intentionally with a serious internal dialog as to my purpose. I say no to what takes me away from what I want to be, do and focus on. There is no guilt in saying no; I have one life and it will be lived at it’s best. 

  • Rod Rodriguez

    Brilliant article, meaty and really interesting. I have to agree about the temptations being everywhere distracting us to be more productive. I guess it would take a lot of practice before I get a hang of being really in control of my life again, I wish it was easy to work offline. 

  • Rstep

    This is incredible!  One thing that should have been included, remembering to stretch in the morning. This usually causes a mental state of relaxation for me and helps focus on tasks ahead.

  • smallreflection

    Super helpful information I need to remind myself of more often (especially the “more sleep” part). As a Christian I find that Christ’ instruction concerning self-control goes hand-in-hand with this across a myriad of areas, beyond applying it to work habits. I’ve found that when my significance and purpose is found in relationship with God, work can have true meaning and my  motivation to persevere and focus increases. Living for please God as opposed to self encourages me to die to my tendency to cop out for shallow short-term rewards.

  • Tony Schwartz

    Yes, I agree that the clearer one’s sense of purpose — who you want to be and how you want to behave as a consequence — the easier it is to say no to the singing Sirens!

  • Tony Schwartz

    This runs deeply contrary to everything I understand about nutrition. I’ve seen no evidence that complex carbohydrates spark insulin more than table sugar. Unlike simple carbohydrates and sugars, complex carbs, which contain more fiber, are absorbed into the blood stream and converted into glucose much more slowly.   That means more stable blood sugar, and higher energy for longer. 
    The same effect is achieved from eating frequently. Eating a good breakfast stokes the metabolism, and helps to fuel stable high energy.  

  • tonyschwartz

    These are great thoughts, and I second them.  The capacity to take responsibility for one’s behaviors is life-changing for anyone who does so, and, as a consequence, for the people in their lives. 

  • Davidgravelives

    Thank you.

  • Shane Burroughs

    Good thoughts here. I generally get less than 6hrs sleep and I try to do everything at the same time. I need someone to travel with me during the day to slap me on the back of the head when I’m not following this advice.

  • Kira

    I feel vindicated! I thought I was crazy not being able to focus for long periods of time. I need to have daily structure so I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Unfortunately, our society is geared toward multitasking for extended periods of time. Not good for anyone. I have always felt misunderstood because I”m creative.My brain does not operate like others. Thank you for backing me up on this!

  • F I L Z

    really nice text. even if you wouldn’t believe because the title don’t sounds like it, but the most important book in the world, if its about willpower, is from Alfred Adler, and Titled the Sense of Life.
    It was imho the greatest german psychologist, and the book should still be available on certain big book sites 😉
    its just about a few dollars, so: have fun with it.

  • Alex

    This raises some very interesting and pertinent areas and skims over others… Its true that effort and focus are needed to achieve what one wills. The irony is that what one wills tends to be focused on things that DONT have lasting value at all. As mentioned in the opening paragraph we tend to avoid pain and seek happiness (pleasure) in a very short sighted way. The big question is: is the effort required to get that happiness worth the effort in the first place, especially when the drawbacks of that pleasure are taken in account. Most peoples sights are set pretty low: more money, a better house, car, etc, success in business, a higher status, a better relationship etc. Pretty ‘normal’ stuff really, but not capable of providing a dependable and/or lasting happiness as they are subject to loss and inconstancy in one form or another. But in the face of no other alternative sources of lasting pleasure and happiness thats seems to be the only option right?

    Interestingly the last point about ‘grounding yourself in deeply held values’ does point to a happiness that is dependable and long lasting. The most important asset we have is our mind and is really the only ‘thing’ that matters when it comes to finding lasting happiness. 

    A long time ago one person realised that it is possible to find a totally dependable happiness that it is not shaken by the vagaries of the world, the Buddha, and set out a course of training for the mind, a master plan for taking control of your happiness, and which led to unshakable happiness. Will power is central to that training as it is the crux of every act we make. He made a distinction between skilful and unskilful actions. The former being actions that lead to pleasant results (conversely actions that don’t cause harm to yourself or others). Understanding the cause of pleasant and unpleasant results, and how our actions are central to that, is empowering as puts the individual in control of their own happiness.

  • DonaldYiGeorge

    Being held accountable is super important to me to stay focused. Any heard of a Seinfeld calender? I used variations of that to stay on track.

  • Travis Ulrich

    I’m a fully self-employed graphic designer. Just being self-employed takes pretty much all my self-control but I manage to hit the gym, and hard, 3 times a week. I’m only able to do this because of your first piece of advice: 1. Make more of your behaviors automatic.It’s only possible that I’m getting this much physical activity because I’ve hired a personal trainer. I have to show up because someone is waiting for me. I can’t wimp out once I get there because my personal trainer won’t let me. Self-discipline is taken completely out of the equation.So a little twist I’d add to your piece of advice is: See if you can outsource your self-discipline. It might be a trainer, a mentor, a cook, an assistant or virtual assistant, or maybe a friend or family member.

  • tonyschwartz

    Wonderful!

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