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distraction

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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You hear a Star Wars ringtone repeat until the call finally goes to voicemail.

Nearby, some coworkers are discussing the logistics of The Walking Dead while the latest Drake album plays through communal speakers.

You stare at your computer screen, trying to remember what you were about to do when you’re asked to join a meeting that will go nowhere and solve nothing.

After the meeting a coworker asks you to help him with something. You can’t believe he couldn’t figure this out on his own.

Your boss has been absent the last few days and suddenly bursts in to alert everyone to stop what they’re doing because the ship is about to go under. This happens every month.

As our offices get hipper and the sharing of information encouraged more and more you might find yourself in an unproductive working environment. Fear not! There is hope.

All it takes is changing all of your ingrained habits and routines. I know, easier said than done. But it’s not impossible. Here are some tips:

  1. Buy noise reductive earphones. I used a pair while I wrote my book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night. My neighbor’s house was under construction for six months. I would not have been able to write a word without my trusty Bose noise-cancelling headphones. These earphones – coupled with a little white noise or brain.fm – makes a world of difference.

Note: These things really work. If you do this, put a sign on your back to gently approach you because it can be terrifying when you’re not expecting someone.

2. Set boundaries with your time. Every office has a few interrupters who routinely need help, who like to chitchat, who seek advice. They’ll hunt you down. See if you can have some fun with this one: maybe an “ON AIR” light to indicate you’re not available, maybe a velvet rope, or maybe an auto-response you create in the AM that announces you’ll be unavailable for a period of time that day (every day?).

3. Chunk your time: This can be done the night before or first thing in the morning. Assign time periods for your projects so you have a plan in place. It can be very relaxing to look at your daily calendar and see, “OK, I’m doing this until 12, then I’m doing that until two.” Assign a time slot for tedium like answering emails and such and then turn off those notifications for the rest of the time. Tell the people in your personal and professional life to call if there is an emergency, rather than text or email. That way you’ll know it’s necessary to pick up.

4. Divide your day into Creative & Reactive work. To time-chunk more effectively, try this. Creative work is projects that require your undivided attention and the full scope of your mental capacity. You’ll want to schedule those early in the day when you are the least depleted. Reactive work – answering phone calls, emails, unimportant but unavoidable meetings and so on – can be slated for the latter half of the day.

Note: During the creative part of your workday block out everything that is not part of your creative work. No emails, phone calls, texts, social media.

5. Don’t go to every meeting if you don’t have to. If you work for a meeting-heavy company, figure out when your presence is truly required. Maybe you can get exemption if not truly needed. If you are truly needed, see if the meetings can be scheduled for a time that works for you (see: #3: chunk your time). Basically, this falls under the “don’t be afraid to speak up” umbrella. If you never say anything then you’ll never know.

6. If you’re not a fireman, don’t get involved with putting out every fire. There are those reactive-putting-out-fires constantly environments that can tire a soul out, i.e. the whole company might fold any second if we don’t do THIS! Maybe you can implement a grass roots campaign to analyze what’s urgent and what’s not. A nice consequence is you will begin to behave proactively (versus reactively) to abate these “urgent” scenarios from reoccurring.

7. If you’re drowning in work, prioritize. Sit down with your manager/boss to help prioritize your workload. Then you can chunk your time (#3), maybe work from home, and skip some meetings perhaps (#4). To be clear, I’m referring to the overwhelming workload that results because you might work at a company where everyone wears a lot of hats, or perhaps someone was recently let go and their job was folded into yours. This isn’t because you don’t know how to manage your time and/or distractions. Bottom line: don’t assume other people know you are overloaded. It’s your job to speak up.

8. If your boss is inconsistent, ask for confirmation. This can be frustrating. You start to work on something only to be told to change directions midway; something was given top priority and then there’s a new something that’s suddenly an even higher priority; but wait, now there’s something even more important; actually, now that they think of it, the first thing is still the most important and by the way, where are you on that? If you have a boss like this, get confirmation on the prioritization of work.

9. When your colleagues aren’t carrying their weight, do this. Communicate, but don’t tattletale. For instance, you can send a group email to all parties involved, with the boss cc’d, asking for confirmation on who’s responsible for what. That way it’s in writing and there are no assumptions. If the scenario doesn’t allow for that type of communication the next best thing is to speak with the colleague(s) themselves. Again, speaking up is vital!

The only reliable way to get different results in this world is to change your own behavior. Don’t expect anyone to change. Much of being productive in an unproductive work environment involves being communicative about your needs and speaking up for yourself. It’s the only way you’ll know what resources and freedom are available to you.

A great byproduct of all this speaking up for yourself is your self-confidence will improve; your self-efficacy will be bolstered; you’ll feel empowered to ask for what you need; the world will start to work for you instead of against you. Perspective is everything. Don’t presume anyone knows what’s happening in your world and don’t expect anything to change without your effecting the change first.

It all starts with you.

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