If you’re like me you power through your workday without distraction.

You don’t take no for an answer.

You tackle one project after the next.

You feel refreshed at every turn.

You ignore Facebook and texts.

You don’t need snacks or coffee.

You never restrain your words and behavior.

You emote all over the place.

You are so self-confident you never try to impress anyone.

You don’t have fear.

You always keep your eye on the prize.

RIGHT?!?!

Not really.

That’s the life I strive for, where all of my willpower is in tact. In reality, I – and presumably you too – are hit with all sorts of emotional, mental, and biological impulses throughout the day.

Vacations feel so good because we stop exercising willpower. We don’t work, we eat what we want, we drink what we want, we stay up late, we sleep late, we express ourselves, we are free! We keep nothing at bay.

Life often feels like one big test of willpower. Even when you love what you do for a living the 40+ hours / week to stay competitive in the workforce is exhausting, and most of the required behavior to stay on track depletes our willpower.

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With that said, a recent study led by Carol Dweck suggests that the most effective way to keep your willpower intact is to simply believe that willpower is not depletable.

Dweck’s study tested the longstanding theory that glucose levels and willpower are linked.

The theory states that when you tap your willpower the glucose level in your body goes down; thus, if you were to raise the level of glucose in your body, then your willpower reserve should go up as well.

The study was composed of two groups, both given demanding tasks to complete. Before being given the task, however, Group 1 was led to believe that willpower is not a depletable resource while Group 2 was led to believe that willpower is a depletable resource.

The participants who were led to believe that willpower was not a depletable resource showed no change in their glucose level when faced with the task at hand. Even a boost to their glucose level did not enhance their performance.

But the glucose levels for participants that believed willpower is a depletable resource did drop when faced with the same tasks.

This would indicate that believing willpower is not depletable is sufficient for keeping it in tact. Easier said than done.

Remember that the participants in the study were in a controlled environment in order to prove the researchers’ hypothesis. Once they went out into the world they joined the rest of us in the fight against willpower depletion.

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We can’t avoid every behavior that depletes willpower but we can at least strive to stay aware of the behaviors in order to improve our productivity.

Here are some behaviors – some avoidable, some not – which we know deplete willpower:

  1. Filtering Distractions – Email, Facebook, Twitter; your office doesn’t believe in doors; your friends keep texting you. Every time you try to ignore or deal with a distraction, your willpower suffers.

Tip: Turn off your technology, close the door (if you have one), buy some noise canceling headphones, alert family/friends/colleagues of your availability. These rituals organize your mind and win your focus.

  1. Resisting Temptation and Impulses – When’s lunch? Is it time for another coffee? Should I organize all of my folders into other folders before I start work? Your brain often wants to do so many things other than the task at hand. Though necessary and healthy, resisting the urges taps your willpower.

Tip: Chunk your day by scheduling tasks/projects that require the most concentration in the morning and those that don’t later in the day. Give yourself a scheduled impulse indulgence chunk of time to let loose and give in.

Sidebar: Given that the average person checks their email up to 74x/day and Facebook every two minutes this is becoming imperative in our modern day lives. They will lose their hold on you once you stop checking.

  1. Suppressing Emotion – This isn’t to say you should cry in a business meeting, but if you generally have trouble expressing your emotions you may not have the necessary willpower to complete a task when you sit down to do it.

Tip: When appropriate, let it out! Learn to express yourself; the self-confidence you will gain is critical for all areas of growth. Seek professional help if need be.

  1. Restraining Aggression – Restraining aggression is part of living on earth, but it does deplete you. If you find that you are restraining aggression left and right try to pinpoint the triggers. Maybe they can be avoided, removed, or resolved.

Tip: Exercise, hit a punching bag, build a soundproof scream room, keep a stress ball on your desk.

  1. Trying to Impress Others –This will wear you out. It’s essentially acting in a play nobody paid to see. Any time your natural personality is stifled you are exercising self-discipline, which taps willpower.

Tip: “Be yourself, everybody else is taken” – Oscar Wilde

  1. Coping with fear – We are all familiar with the energy-sap that fear creates. If you are afraid of someone or something at work your productivity will suffer.

 Tip: Seek professional help if need be. Fear is a lifetime battle but it dissipates when you confront it.

  1. Doing Something You Don’t Enjoy – If you have committed to a job or lifestyle that you don’t enjoy you will forever feel depleted. Doing something you don’t enjoy goes against the natural grain of human existence, which is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Tip: If the unenjoyable somethings are small tasks that are part of your workday save them for the morning when your willpower reserve is greatest. If it’s a larger issue, muster the courage to reevaluate your situation. Seek help if need be. You don’t need to live a depleted life.

  1. Selecting long-term over short-term rewards – Here we have the pleasure principle (seek pleasure & avoid pain) at play. You could watch TV right now or you could work on that business plan that could lead to professional and financial freedom down the line. Yes, long-term awards deplete your willpower but they’re well worth it.

Tip: Write down the accomplishments / gains you earned when you selected long-term over short-term. Keep them somewhere as a constant reminder. Or – dare I say it – a vision board that shows the rewards you will reap if you stay on the long-term path.

  1. People Pleasing – People who feel compelled to exert self-control deplete more than those driven by their own internal goals and desires. Speak up for yourself, express your emotions when appropriate, and believe in who you are. It literally makes you mentally stronger. As the American Psychological Association put it:

“When it comes to willpower, those who are in touch with themselves may be better off than their people-pleasing counterparts.”

Tip: Seek professional help if need be. If you find yourself people pleasing, try to evaluate where you can change your behavior and then take small incremental steps towards that goal.

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Thus, the fact remains that willpower depletion is a necessary part of life in order to evolve, whether personally or professionally. All new behaviors deplete willpower, but they also pave the way for a healthier lifestyle. Each new healthy behavior eventually becomes routine, paving the way for the next healthy installment.

It’s exhausting but you have to start somewhere or you risk getting mired in your old ways.

We all need to be on the lookout for the factors that thwart us. Our lives depend on it!

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One of the hardest lessons in life is accepting that to be good at something we need to practice it. Why we believe we should be good at something immediately is a mystery.

Somewhere along the way we adopted the “you should be good before you’ve started” fallacy.

Comparison compounds the situation.

We are aware of Bobby Fisher before we sit down to learn chess.

We are aware of Mark Zuckerberg before we decide to create a new social media business.

We are aware of Mstislav Rostropovich before we learn to play the cello. I’m just kidding, I didn’t know who Mstislav Rostropovich was before searching “famous cello players,” but you get the point.

Before we start any business we’re aware of all the masters of industry who have come before us.

The first steps of any new, unpracticed endeavor will not be great. That is when the self-judgment and comparison will kick in.

You can stop or you can persevere. Those that persevere become successful, who become skilled, who you can point to and say, “He/she is good at that.” Those that give up not only never become good at said skill they also tend to believe it wasn’t in the cards in the first place.

So were those that pressed on when they hit roadblocks so much better than the rest of us? Most of the time, no. What they did was practice and what practicing does is change your brain chemistry.

It’s not magic, and it’s not just doing something for 10,000 hours, though doing something for 10,000 hours does support the brain science behind the “magic” of practice.

Neuroscientists have discovered that myelin – the white matter in our brains – is responsible for making new tasks become rote.

Myelin is a white substance that covers axons (think of them as cables) that connect neurons. Nerve impulses travel between neurons via the axons and they travel best when there is myelin present. In fact, the more myelin the better.

You can think of myelin as grease on the axons that keeps the nerve impulse moving along to the next neuron. When you practice a new skill repeatedly it triggers particular cells in your brain (astrocytes) to release chemicals that stimulate another group of cells (oligodendrocytes), which then produce myelin.

Thus, practicing something repeatedly increases the production of myelin, which allows nerve impulses to travel between neurons faster and smoother.

Stop practicing too soon and you don’t give your brain the chance to produce the required myelin to make the skill or task rote.

It’s akin to walking an untraveled forest path that hasn’t been cleared. If you’re the first traveler there will be rocks and branches that need to be cleared and your progress will be slow. After enough people walk the same path it becomes smooth. That is what you’re doing with your brain: you’re creating a smooth path for nerve impulses to travel, and that’s what improves your abilities.

So when it comes to practice – rather than think, “I have done this three times and I am not good at this” – we can think, “I have done this three times and I have not yet produced enough myelin in my brain to make this skill easier for me.”

Still, the undeniable truth is that true geniuses do exist. Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of four. Perhaps he was born with tons of myelin in one area of his brain.

When you’re alive during the same period as a Mozart it can be discouraging. We will forever think, “I’ll never be great.”

And maybe not, but can’t you be very good? Do we all have to be great? I call this the delusion of insignificance: if we’re not amazing then we’re not worthy. We often don’t begin something when we don’t see immediate signs that we’re great – or will be great soon enough.

The secret to staying on track is cultivating a growth mindset, which I wrote about recently.

There are five points worth mentioning that relate directly to practicing a skill and not getting discouraged when you’re not as good as you wish you were as soon as you wish you were:

  • Get pumped about self-growth: Folks who are excited when faced with an opportunity to grow and develop are more likely to take on perceived challenges. Being open to growth means you are evolving; you are alive and kicking – versus stagnating.
  • Reshape your relationship with time: Learning and growing takes time. Be patient; afford yourself the space and time to learn new skills just as you would for a seed to grow.
  • Set Goals: Goals help set the course and structure your path, as well as help to motivate. Set small, accomplishable goals and keep revisiting and resetting throughout the process.
  • Reward: Reward your progress by focusing on the effort you have put in and the lessons you have learned to date, even if you are not there yet.
  • Be Realistic: You’re going to be less than perfect with any new skill you attempt. Be realistic about your progress and remember, you once didn’t know how to talk, walk, write, and eat. These too were all learned skills and they took time and a lot of effort, even if you don’t remember.

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I love the Thomas Edison quote, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This completely embodies the growth mindset as well as the key to unlocking the magic of genius.

When it comes to leadership and self-awareness, changes to your behavior will initially feel awkward and contrived. For instance, if your body language is off-putting then making a conscious effort to unfold your arms and establish an open stance will feel weird…at first.

If you have trouble engaging a room because your personality is dry, then learning to incorporate stories and humor will feel weird…at first.

Going a step further, if your company culture is built on a foundation of trusting the status quo then it will feel against the grain when you take your first step out of that unhealthy arena…at first.

Those first steps are crucial, but so are the second and third and fourth (and so on) because they create the neural pathways that build your confidence.

In the future they’ll probably come out with a pill that produces myelin in the brain, requiring less practice for a new skill. Until then, sorry to say it, practice makes perfect.

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Posted - 30 November, 2016
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