Willpower is a finite resource. I’ve been reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg at the suggestion of Cindy Lamir from Impact Business Coaches. It’s amazing what researchers will do to college undergraduates. In one study, they had two groups of participants. The first group was put in a room with a bowl of radishes and a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies and they were told to eat all the cookies they wanted but ignore the radishes (easy enough) for 5 minutes. The second group was told to eat all the radishes they wanted and ignore the cookies, so they spent 5 minutes resisting the warm cookies. Afterwards they were given a difficult puzzle to solve. The cookie folks spent an average of 19 minutes trying to solve the puzzle, the radish folks (in addition to being grumpy) gave up after 8 minutes. The radish folks had spent their willpower.
In another study with two groups of participants, one group was given an altruistic reason to resist eating warm chocolate chip cookies for 5 minutes and treated with respect. The other group was treated rudely and told to resist the cookies. The group that was treated with respect out performed the other group when given a cognitive test. The disrespected group had spent their willpower.
All of this involves your prefrontal cortex which, as I described in my post “The Big Lie”, is a small stage with room for maybe three actors. Unless you can make something a habit and, therefore, moved off the stage, you will be exhausting your resources. So how can you get the best results from your prefrontal cortex and optimize all those radish inducing moments? Here are 5 steps:
1. The early bird. Your best work is in the morning. Your tank is full. The stage is clean and there plenty of resources available. If you need to deal with a difficult situation (perhaps reprimanding an employee or talking to your ex) do it in the morning. If you are going to be creating (writing your novel, painting a master piece, or developing a new project) the early bird gets the worm and better results.
2. Unplug. The last thing you want to do is spend time on email, voice-mail, social media or sit around the water cooler. This seems counter intuitive – doesn’t everyone spend the first hour at work cleaning out their inbox and putting out fires? You are going to need to turn it off to do your best work. Putting out fires will only deplete your fuel tank and leave less resources for your creative best.
3. Focus. Set the timer for one hour and focus on your masterpiece. If you can’t possibly handle an hour, then start slow with 15 or 30 minutes . There are apps for this as well. Check out the link for some apps that are available to keep the distractions from your desktop at bay. Anywhere from 60 to 90 minute chunks are optimum for flow. Try for one chunk per day and then move up as your schedule (and distractions) permit.
4. Break. Take a break after your chunk of flow has been completed. Powering through on for 2 hours or 10 will diminish your abilities. Your prefrontal cortex only has so much in the tank and it needs some time to recoup. If it’s not possible to go for a walk, talk with a colleague or call your mother; kill some time doing menial tasks like cleaning out your inbox or clearing off your desk. Just be sure to step away from your masterpiece.
5. Return. Get back into the project only after you have completed steps #2 thru #4. Remember that as the day wears on, you are expending precious resources and that your best work is likely behind you. This is true so long as you can stay away from the radishes and rude folks. If you are starting a diet, upset with your cable company or just found out you bounced a check…walk away from the project. If you can’t do your best work with all of your resources and a stage with one actor on it – leave it for another day.
So now you are thinking – but I won’t get anything done. You can get things done and the quality of your work will be far superior if you just plan ahead. Take care of your prefrontal cortex to maximize your results. Stay away from the radishes for breakfast.
What would you do?