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?