“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot” – Michael Altshuler
Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether we’re being lazy and need to get into gear, or whether we’re truly running on empty. When you have a task you’re avoiding, and you find yourself yet again distracting yourself with easy work, social media, or staring out the window, take a moment to reflect. What is going on? Sometimes we are being lazy and avoiding the negative emotions associated with the task. Other times, though, we’re just running on empty.
Imagine a racecar that can usually get up to speed and race around the track with expert precision and efficiency. If the race car is now meandering around, swerving onto the grass, stopping at random points, or not getting over 25mph, you would need to run some diagnostics. Think of your brain as that race car. When you find yourself having trouble getting up to speed or staying on the track, here are some practical steps you can take.
“Lack of direction, not lack of time is the problem.” – Zig Ziglar
Run some diagnostics
Do a mental check in. Step back from what you’re doing and ask yourself honestly if you are not focusing on the task because you’re avoiding the negative emotions (boredom, frustration, self-doubt) associated with the task, or if, instead, you’re running on empty. When you’ve been working hard or exerting your willpower all day or all week, your willpower becomes depleted.
In the psychology literature, this state of running out of willpower is referred to as ego-depletion. The more you exert your willpower to do difficult or unwelcome tasks, the harder it becomes to exert more willpower, and the more acutely you feel temptations. For example, if you’ve been eating healthily all day, avoiding the donuts in the break room, the cookies in the pantry, and the pumpkin spice lattes at the coffee shop, then by the end of the day, you may have used up a lot of your willpower. You may then find yourself after having yogurt for breakfast and a salad for lunch, eating a whole gallon of ice cream, three brownies and half a bottle of wine for dinner. The reason it becomes harder to stick with your plans throughout the day is because of ego-depletion. By the end of the day you have less willpower left, and the temptation for ice-cream becomes even stronger.
So, check in with yourself. Are you being lazy and avoiding a task because it’s unpleasant (see the prior post on what to do if that’s the case)? Is your willpower depleted from doing difficult things all day? Are you running on an empty tank? Or is there something physical you need? As busy professionals, we often will push off physical needs to focus on the mental tasks at hand. I frequently skip meals, don’t have time to get water, or cut down on my sleep time. Then I find myself running up against a harsh physical reality that to function optimally, sometimes I just need to sleep, hydrate, or take some time to renew. If you are running on empty, then focus on renewal not just recreation or even rest. Sleep is a basic human necessity but sleep alone isn’t always enough to renew our focus. Instead, do things that make you feel mentally renewed and excited to re-focus on what you need to do.
“He who every morning plans the transactions of that day and follows that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” – Victor Hugo
Plan the track beforehand
When you’re facing a difficult decision or challenge in the moment, it takes willpower. Rather than trying to summon your willpower to force yourself to do the difficult work in the moment, the smarter thing to do is to plan ahead so that you need less willpower. With the food example, this would mean not walking into the break room where the donuts are, storing the cookies in a cabinet out of sight, or not buying the ice cream. When you don’t see the temptations and have to resist them, it doesn’t deplete your willpower.
When it comes to your work and time management, this means planning ahead what you will do. When I have a long day of time that I’m going to work with, I plan blocks of ‘deep work’ time, and take breaks between them to do ‘shallow work’ such as emails, scheduling, or quick phone calls. As the day progresses and I become more ego-depleted, it is harder and harder to decide what to do, so I fully rely on my pre-made schedule. By following your pre-made plans, it takes the difficulty of decision-making out of the equation. After 8 or 12 hours of working hard, I don’t have the bandwidth to figure out what to do next, but I can look at my pre-planned schedule and see what I had intended to do, and I can do it.
- Baumeister R, Tierney J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books; 2012.
- Baumeister RF, Vohs KD. Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2007;1(1):115-128.
- Duckworth AL, Gendler TS, Gross JJ. Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2016;11(1):35-55.