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Focusing

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 (90)
  • James

    This is all old news to me. I appreciate the article, but I wish it went deeper than the standard laws of how to be productive.

  • Yawn

    yawn

  • Kiger151

    This article is complete b.s. I mean come on, what is it trying to tell us…be brainwashed? Sleep all day? resist your human impulses? this is socailist propaganda at its best.

  • Stan

    You sound like an idiot. Where does it say sleep all day? Unless your day is only seven hours long. Resist human impulses? Some of them, yes. Unless you give into every single one, and are therefore that guy who picks his nose in public. Socialist propaganda? Seriously? As a troll, you aren’t even amusing.

  • Wowresults

    Awesome: outsource our self-discipline!
    Tks so much for the idea

  • jake

    by resisting human impulses it is merely telling us to be rational human beings and think about our actions before taking an instant action that might not be good for us

  • Guest

    Not necessarily true, you’re referring to the glycaemic effect and the effect of sucrose is actually relatively low. The original comment referenced insulinaemic response however, which is another matter.

    But that aside, it is a great list with exception to point 6. The stoking metabolism/meal frequency myth has been thoroughly debunked – assuming identical energy intake it makes no difference whether or not you have 1, 3, 6, or any number of meals per day. In fact a good deal of research is showing that periods of intermittent fasting may have beneficial effects on markers of health. And in fact the metabolic effects that have been observed in subjects who undergo these periods may be conducive to greater focus and productivity.

    What is probably more detrimental (particularly with regard to blood glucose control – which would tie in with the purpose of the original point in the article) is adopting a haphazard meal frequency. Anyway I don’t mean to hijack this comment stream, but I just thought I’d chime in. These concepts do run counter-current to accepted nutritional lore, despite being all over the peer-reviewed literature have yet to filter down into the mainstream science (nutritional dogmas are hard things to shake). 

    Still, the rest of the list was very poignant, particularly point 1

  • Daniel J. Newman

    Great tips thank you

  • Keenanmcl

    There IS no limit on will. This is premiss is bull crap.

  • CrossRunner

    Try running a marathon. Self discipline doesn’t need a trainer.

  • Daveroswell04

    The sleep is an issue for me.

  • Amaru

    It was Ulysses, not Odysseus who lashed himself to the mast of his ship to resist their call.    

  • Ge_techno

    Odysseus in the Greek language – Ulysses in Latin

  • Tony Schwartz

    Odysseus is the Greek name for Ulysses — I believe they are one and the same Amaru

  • Tony Schwartz

    Always interesting that the people who have nasty, dismissive comments are invariably anonymous.  And usually can’t spell very well. 

  • Tom Aplomb

    I agree with much of this, but I take issue with Whitehead’s statement that civilization advances through the increase of mindless operations. Economic growth and mass-production may increase through that, but civilization and all it entails grows and develops only through mindful activity. I do understand, of course, that the point of the post is to give us tools to do more of that. I also do not agree entirely that the instant pull is always wrong. Sometimes, it’s dead-on right.

  • Mul Kay He
  • Debra Savittieri

    Wonderful article and enlightening.

  • Jadhavyogesh01

    hi

  • Richard

    I agree with James, this article is well-intentioned cookie-cutter stuff.  I need something more in depth

  • Sue Mitchell

    What a valuable article! I found #3 really interesting, the idea that if we feel very compelled to take immediate action, something primal and not necessarily in our best interest has been triggered. I’ll be taking special notice of that in the next few days. It does ring true.

    I also like that you included sleep in here. For me, it makes an enormous difference in my ability to follow through on my intentions instead of being pulled toward instant gratification.

    I recently wrote a similar article and came up with 5 S’s for sticking to your guns: Sleep, Support, Systems & Structures, Starting and Steps. Many of these parallel nicely with your list.

  • Paulo Ribeiro

    Hi @facebook-525671537:disqus !
    Excellent text. Could I translate to portuguese and put in my blog, with your due credits?

    The address is http://www.umpapolivre.com

    Cheers

  • Tony Schwartz

    of course, thanks!

  • Travis Dommert

    Great post Tony!  

    We teach (ok, preach) many of these same truths daily to help people align their BE goals with their DO goals, align their behaviors with their intentions, and achieve their own personal brand of greatness through focus, consistency, and accountability. We have a free version of our app available at http://www.irunurun.com.  Would love your feedback!

    Kind regards, Travis

  • Travis Dommert

    I like the 5 S’s, thank you for sharing that!  

    We also talk about how important it is to have powerful recovery routines in place to help people handle stress.  We talk about the 4 F’s: Faith, Family, Fitness, and Fun!

    (Personally, I have a fifth F: Football.  But, that’s just me.)

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