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The magic of willpower and habits

Do you ever feel so exhausted after making difficult choices or doing unpleasant tasks all day that all you can do is sit on the couch and ‘veg out’? That is a state called ego-depletion. Willpower, it turns out, is a limited commodity. When you resist temptations repeatedly, you use up your willpower. In the state of ego-depletion, two things happen: You have less willpower to bring to bear on the next difficult decision, and you feel temptations more strongly. The cookies that you had been resisting all day are now unbearably tempting.

The best way to conserve your willpower is to not put yourself in situations where it is excessively or needlessly depleted so that you can save it for the important things. Another willpower hack is to create new habits. Going to the gym when you haven’t gone in a long time (ahem.. pandemic) is hard. But once you are used to going every day, it’s easy. It becomes a habit. The same is true of how you manage your time. If you create a habit of procrastination, then it will be your default state. If you create a habit of sitting down and making a prioritized list of what you need to do and then planning when you will do it, then it will take less willpower to get the important things done.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Habits occur because of a cycle of: cue, craving, response, and reward. Think about the habit of checking your phone. You probably realize that it breaks your concentration when you’re working on a difficult task. Nonetheless, when you hear the notification go off, you likely start to feel a craving to pick it up and see what it is. When you do, then you have a reward. Checking the notification relieves your sense of unease or curiosity. By repeating this cycle of cue, craving, response, and reward, you make the action automatic and harder to break. Every time you hear the cue (notification) you will have a stronger craving to complete the cycle and check it. However, by understanding the habit cycle you can also learn how to create new habits and break old ones.

For a detailed discussion of how to make or break habits, check out this podcast on the topic with Dr. Rob Orman on the Stimulus Podcast. You can listen in your car, when you’re exercising, or as you’re doing chores around the house. It’s available online, on iTunes, or on any podcasting app. We discuss practical, evidence-based ways to minimize the willpower you waste and to break or make new habits.

“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.” – Epictetus

“I’ll feel more like doing this later” and other lies we tell ourselves

Procrastination means postponing things when we expect to be worse off for it. We know it would be better if we just started the report, studied for the test, sent the email, did the homework, or made the difficult phone call now. But we put them off in large part to avoid the negative emotions we’ll experience when we do them.

Here’s the funny thing. We know we should do the work when we had planned. We have to trick ourselves into thinking it would be better to do it later. So we tell ourselves lies:

I’ll feel more like doing this later.
I’ll be more excited about doing this if I watch another episode first.
I shouldn’t even have to do this in the first place, so I certainly shouldn’t have to do it now.
Doing this now will ruin my day, I should just do it later.
Other people put things off, why shouldn’t I?
Let’s just not think about this right now.

Sound familiar?

Planning vs procrastinating

There’s an important distinction between planning and procrastinating, just as there’s a distinction between being lazy and running on empty. It’s important to figure out which one you’re doing. You can certainly plan to do something later. Planning out when you will do different tasks to get projects done on time is key to managing your time well. It becomes procrastination when you put something off in a way that you know will make your life more difficult, painful, or worse later. Procrastinating could make your life worse because now you’ll be late on a deliverable, because you’ll have to give up other things you had planned to do, or because you’ll have to sacrifice sleep or other things you like.

How can you tell if you’re procrastinating?

Listen for the little voice that’s lying to you. If you’re planning then you’ll feel in control as you map out your tasks, your time, and how you plan to delegate your energy. If you’re procrastinating, you’ll hear a voice that isn’t your better judgment suggesting all sorts of reasons you should do the undesired task later. The voice will have all sorts of clever and creative ways to convince you to leave the job for another day. It’s originating from your own mind, after all, so it knows all your tricks, weaknesses, and temptations.

What to do if you find yourself procrastinating?

You don’t have to procrastinate. It’s a choice that becomes a habit. Here are three strategies to start to break out of the habit.

  1. Recall why you were going to do the task today. This was your allocated time for a reason, recall that reason. What will be worse about your life if you put this off?
  2. Refocus on who you want to be. Instead of trying to beat yourself up into doing something, remind yourself of who you want to be. Habits are built from the inside out. First decide what kind of person you want to be, then choose the actions that create that identity. For example, instead of forcing yourself to do the task, instead, recall that one of the characteristics that you value about yourself is that you are a person of discipline, a person of focus, a person who gets things done, or a person who does what they say they will. Then take the action that a person with your desired trait would do.
  3. Do the immediate next step. To get over the huge activation barrier, break it down into a manageable next step. That could be: turn on your computer, open the file, write three sentences of outline, open the book and read two sentences, do one practice test question, make one phone call, write two sentences of an email. Make it a laughably small immediate next step, one that you can’t possibly talk yourself out of. Once you’ve done it, pick another immediate next step. After time, you’ll gain momentum and find that you’re most of the way through the previously impossible task.

Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work. – Stephen King, On Writing: A memoir of the craft

Are you being lazy or running on empty?

“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.

Further Reading

  1. Baumeister R, Tierney J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books; 2012.
  2. Baumeister RF, Vohs KD. Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2007;1(1):115-128.
  3. Duckworth AL, Gendler TS, Gross JJ. Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2016;11(1):35-55.

Don’t die before your time

“Despair over the brevity of our chaotic lives is common to us all, even the rich and the famous.” – Seneca

What makes life short

How often do you notice that minutes or hours have passed and you have wasted time that you can now never recover? How often do you listen to yourself and ask what is truly important for you to spend your time on? By contrast, how many days do you spend in a perpetual cycle of busyness, of a never-ending to-do list, and of a calendar dictated by other people or filled with unimportant things? At the end of the day we often find ourselves worse off than when we had started. Our time and energy are even more scarce than when we woke up.

“Thus the time we are given is not brief, but we make it so. We do not lack time; on the contrary, there is so much of it that we waste an obscene amount.” – Seneca

Life is made shorter by the time that we waste. To die before our time means to have spent our time on things that don’t matter and to live without intention. We squander time our on things that have no purpose.

“The problem… is not that we have a short life, but that we waste time.” – Seneca

How to avoid dying before your time

To make the most of your time means to be intentional. Take stock of the last week. How much time did you spend with focus and intentionality? How much was spent mindlessly, idly, or passively? How many hours in the last week have been taken from you? Living intentionally certainly does not mean working all the time. Time spent thinking, learning, dreaming, connecting,  introspecting, bending “your own ear inward to hear what it is that you yourself have to say” are all meaningful.

“A life well spent can truly be a long life.” – Seneca

To understand whether you are spending your time well, you need to understand and decide what is worthwhile for you. What people, ideas, pursuits, or accomplishments hold true value and meaning? What do you enjoy about the way that you work? What things that you do give you a sense of fulfillment? What things do you do that help you more deeply understand yourself, others, or ideas and truths?

The next step is to understand where your time is going. A great way to do this is by logging all your time for a week and looking at it through the lenses of meaning and efficiency. What things are you doing that bring no meaning to your life? Where are you acting inefficiently?

Practical steps

If you feel like time is rushing away, it may be “because you don’t grab it firmly enough… You let is slip away as if it were something unimportant that could easily be replaced.” – Seneca
The way to grab onto your time firmly is to:

  1. Identify the things that have value to you. Create a list of what is important to you. Now shorten the list by half. It is impossible to function well with 35 different ‘top’ priorities. If possible, cut the list in half again.
  2. Track all your time for a week. I have created an excel sheet you can download from the bottom of this post. Create the categories of things that you spend time on. At the end of each day, go through and select what you were doing during each half hour increment. Do this for a week starting at midnight tomorrow. Page two will graph out how you spent your time. In an upcoming post, I’ll help you reflect on what you find after tracking your time in order to be more intentional with your future.

“How many things have taken time from you when you were not even aware of giving it away, how much was frittered away on pointless worry, in ignorant bliss, in the pursuit of pleasure, in the seductions of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will see that you are dying before your time!” – Seneca


Lucius Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life” version translated by Damian Stevenson, 2018

How to write… and do other unpleasant tasks you’ve been avoiding

“Ask: What is so unbearable about this situation? Why can’t you endure it? You will be embarrassed to answer.” – Marcus Aurelius

Among the dozens of academics and busy professionals I’ve worked with, writing projects were the number one type of work that they procrastinate on. If writing projects are a breeze for you, then substitute in whatever projects you tend to avoid.

There are several reasons why writing tops the charts as most procrastinated-on activity. First, writing typically requires a large chunk of time. Writing isn’t something that can be easily intercalated into 15-minute breaks between meetings and other tasks. It can be harder to create big chunks of time among meetings, clinical schedules, teaching, or other time commitments.

Second, when we think about writing, we often begin to fear the many negative emotions we will feel when we sit down to write. The thought of writing brings on fear of boredom if we’re tired of the topic, fear of failure (the paper will get rejected, the grant won’t get scored), feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and imposterism.

How can we break through the activation barrier and start writing? Over the course of the most recent 4-week workshop I ran with academic faculty who hailed from California to Scotland, several participants chose a writing goal to work on. One individual finished a long-overdue book, another made major strides on her master’s thesis, and still others began to see real progress on papers or other writing projects. Here are some practical ways you can start to see progress on your own writing projects.


  • Think about why you want to finish this project. What outcomes or benefits will it give you? What will it mean for you to be done with this project? How will it feel? How does this writing project align with one of your big goals or values or your big mission or vision? Leverage the power of your WHY and recall it often.

“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.” ~Albert Gray


  • Set concrete goals and lag measures. What project do you want to get done, and by when? If you have several papers to write, for now, just pick one. If it’s a book, pick your final due date.  Next divide up the project into smaller goals or tasks into a timeline, such as a chapter each week or month, or the methods section in 1 week, the results section in 2 weeks, the discussion in 3 weeks, etc.
  • Decide on critical actions you need to do to meet the goals above. These are your lead measures. For example, it may be that you need to write for 3-4 hours per week, or you may have to set up specific meetings and collaborations. Put time on your calendar when you will write or do those things and protect the time from encroachment by other tasks! Be as specific as possible with what you will do. I think of this as the Clue method after the board game. What will you do and where will you do it? It will be Prof. Plum with the methods section in the study, or it will be Dr. Green with the prologue in the library. For many of us, we may not be able to write every day, or even on the same day each week. Our clinical, teaching, and other work responsibilities may be sprinkled across all times of day, night, weekday, and weekend. Don’t let the irregularity of your schedule become a stumbling block or excuse. Fit the writing time in wherever you can. If that looks like 2-3:30pm Weds, 9-11pm Thurs, and 8-9am next Monday, then so be it.


  • Identify the inner obstacles you will face when you set out to follow your plan above. Be clear that these are inner obstacles, not outer obstacles such as your schedule, your family, politics, coronavirus, or your coworkers. Perhaps you can anticipate that as soon as you sit down to write, you will be tempted to one of the let-me-justs such as “let-me-just check my email really quickly” or “let-me-just check my social media account” or “let-me-just read the news.” In addition, maybe you know you will be deterred by the feelings of boredom, frustration, imposterism, anxiety, or shame for having procrastinated on it so long already!
  • Create implementation intentions for each of the inner obstacles you anticipate. Implementation intentions are a simple, powerful tool that has been shown in many different research studies to improve the likelihood that you will actually follow through with something by several fold. Here’s how it works. Plan ahead for what you will do when you encounter the above inner obstacles using phrases such as:
  • When [inner obstacle occurs] then I will ______________________.

Here are a few that I use:

  1. When I start to feel like I want to avoid writing because I’m afraid I’ll put all the work in and it won’t get accepted, then I’ll remind myself that this is an important paper to write, and that it definitely won’t get accepted if I don’t even write it.
  2. When I start to feel bored doing it, then I’ll remind myself that I don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. I don’t act at the whim of my emotions.
  3. When I start to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, then I will sequentially ask myself: “what is the immediate next step.” See the prior post on activation barriers for more on this.

Re-assess your inner obstacles daily and plan for how you will overcome them using the implementation intention model. Keep your implementation intentions close by to pull out of your mental toolbox and use whenever the inner obstacle arises. Any time you find yourself attributing problems to external obstacles, reframe your thinking and find the inner obstacle that is the problem and plan for how you will manage it.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Alan Alda

Finally, question your assumptions. You may have assumed for so long that writing is unpleasant and therefore you should avoid it, that those assumptions have become conclusions. What if you could change your own mind and challenge your own assumptions? Pick an assumption: either the assumption that writing will be unpleasant or the assumption that you should avoid unpleasant tasks. Challenge your assumptions. Instead, focus on creating more joy and meaning in your writing and remind yourself that you can write even when you don’t feel like it. Hold your assumptions up to the light and scrub them off. Happy writing!

Further reading:

  1. Gray A. The common denominator of success. 1940.
  2. Oettingen G. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current; 2015.
  3. McChesney C, Covey S, Huling J. The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Free Press; 2016.

How to overcome the activation barrier

It is ultimately liberating to realize that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to sit down and do it.

Why we procrastinate

You have a task to do. Maybe it’s a paper you have to write, a test you need to study for, charts you have to finish, or a presentation you have to prepare. It’s there and you know there is no way to expunge its specter from your life except by doing it. You also know that once you sit down and start working on it, that it won’t be nearly as horrendous as you think.

BUT there is an invisible barrier keeping you from actually sitting down and starting to work on it. Every time you think about starting it, you are either filled with dread or you find yourself inexplicably doing something else. You realize you simply must check your email, do the dishes, watch just-one-more-episode, check if someone has liked your most recent social media post, clean the attic, or get a head start on your taxes.

There is an activation barrier to getting started on tasks that we think will be unpleasant. As a former card-carrying chemist, I like to think of things in terms of free energy graphs. Imagine you have a project or task that is unfinished. You need to take it to the finished state. There is some activation barrier to getting it done.

Have you ever wondered why that is? What is inside that activation barrier?

Let’s imagine dissecting the activation barrier and seeing what is inside. If you did, you would find several things, but one of the most important is: a desire to avoid feeling a negative emotion associated with the task.

Avoidance of negative emotions

That’s right, much of why you procrastinate comes down to avoiding negative emotions. Depending on the task, the emotion you are avoiding may be boredom, insecurity, self-doubt, imposterism, fear of failure, frustration, betrayal, and anxiety, among others.

There are plenty of tasks we avoid because we know they will be boring. Think about the mundane task of paying bills or doing paperwork. Many people are chronically late on their bills or paperwork because they want to avoid the feelings of boredom and frustration.

Alternatively, you may procrastinate to avoid the feeling of insecurity and fear of failure. If you are worried you won’t be successful at the task you are working on, you will avoid feeling that insecurity by avoiding the task itself. If you are working on a paper you will submit and you are worried it will be rejected, a presentation you are worried will flop, or a new business venture you are worried may fail, you will likely experience self-doubt and fear of failure whenever you sit down to work on it.

So what do we do? We avoid feeling negative emotions by avoiding working on the tasks that induce those feelings.

“How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?” – Seneca

Practical Solutions

Here are two questions to ask yourself to start to overcome the activation barrier.

First, cultivate curiosity. When you notice yourself procrastinating, ask yourself why. What are the feelings you are trying to avoid experiencing? Is it boredom? Is it something deeper related to your own self-doubt, anxiety, or insecurity?

Once you’ve identified the feeling you are trying to avoid, ask yourself: “Am I willing to feel that feeling in order to get the job done?” When you phrase it that way you may realize that yes, you are willing to feel boredom in order to get this done. Or you may be willing to feel some insecurity in order to have a shot at successfully completing the task.

It is freeing to realize that you do not have to wait for the whim of feeling to fill your sails and drive you to action. You can act whether you feel like doing something or not.

Second, ask: “What is the immediate next step?”

If I have a paper to write, I will sometimes procrastinate on it to avoid feelings frustration, fear of failure, self-doubt, etc. One powerful way to overcome the tendency to avoid daunting tasks is to ask what the immediate next step is. For a paper, that may be to turn on your computer and pull up the file. Then ask what the next step after that is. It may be to identify the area you were working on last and pick one paragraph to work on. The immediate next step after that may be to write two paragraphs of the introduction or methods section.

By focusing only on the immediate next step, you break the activation barrier down into manageable pieces. In the immortal words of Anna from Frozen II: Do the next right thing.


Get curious next time you find yourself procrastinating and ask what emotion you are trying to avoid by avoiding the task. Then, ask what the immediate next step is.

Future posts will go into more detail about how to manage the thoughts and emotions that lead us to procrastinate. For now, put these two steps into practice and watch how you are able to lower the activation barrier to getting things done.

“The happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast – a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good… A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources.” – Seneca

The compass, the clock, and the key

You need three lenses to think about how well you are managing your time: strategy, efficiency, and mental clarity. These lenses can also help you figure out the underlying causes of common problems like: I have too much on my plate; I can’t focus well when I sit down to work; I constantly procrastinate on certain tasks. Do any of those sound familiar? If so, look at them in a new way by picking up each of the three lenses in turn.

The only way to have more time in your day is to be strategic with what you do and efficient in how you do it.

Strategy: The Compass

When you look at the things that you are spending your time on, which ones are strategic? What things do you spend your time on that amount to fighting battles that won’t ultimately help you with the war? Imagine you are a battle strategist, leaning over a table with little figurines of your troops and resources. You are choosing how to deploy them. You wouldn’t waste resources in ways that are not going to ultimately help you be successful in your war campaign. Yet in our own lives, we often waste time, energy, and resources on things that yield little benefit for us or others, and that move us no closer to our long-term goals.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” – Seneca

To answer the question of whether a certain project, role, or activity is strategic, you must first know what your goals are. Think of this lens as a compass. First ask where you want to go, then ask if the things you are doing will get you there. Often, we don’t know exactly where we want to go in our careers. When we sit down to write out five-year plans, we stare at the blank piece of paper with a pen in our hand, feel worse once we realize we have no goals, and we abandon the exercise. Do not give up.

If you don’t have a clear five-year plan, instead think about what you value. For example, I have no idea what my career will look like in five years. However, I do know what things are important to me and that I value: I want to have an impact, relieve suffering, and help other people. I also know what is important to me in the way that I work: It is important for me to do work that allows me to be creative, have autonomy over what I do, and work as part of a great team. Beyond those values or requirements, I am flexible.

Think about your own career in terms of your mission and values beyond just the roles or titles you want to have. Use your mission and values as your compass to direct what things you add to your plate, and what things you drop from it. Your compass will tell you what to prioritize, what to delegate, what work you do needs to be A+ work, and what can be B- work.

Efficiency: The Clock

When you have too much on your plate, you have two options: remove something from your plate using your compass or grow the size of your plate. Efficiency is how you increase your capacity to do more. There are many aspects to efficiency, but one is working with a deep focus.

“Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker.

Does this scenario sound familiar? You have an hour before your next meeting. You sit down to start a project or task. However, you decide to just quickly check email and knock out a few emails so that you’ll be in the right frame of mind to work on the project. Then get sidetracked with an email that required you to text someone or look something up. Once you were on your phone texting, you then decided to deal with the frustration of all those emails by taking a break to skim facebook, Instagram, twitter, and linkedin. Then you look back at the project you were going to do and realize that with 20 minutes left you barely have enough time to get started. However, you feel guilty, so you dutifully try to do at least a bit of it. But then you find yourself still thinking about the emails you got and all the other things you have to do.

Finally you rush to your meeting realizing you wasted an hour, you will now have to find time tomorrow to work on the project, and you feel guilty and frustrated because you wasted your hour.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat again tomorrow.

To work with a deep focus, you need three things:

  1. Create the time you need. It is hard to work with a deep focus for only 15 or 20 minutes. Create blocks of time to work on projects or tasks that require your full attention.
  2. Create the space you need. To give a task your full attention, remove all external distractions. Clear your physical and, more importantly, your digital spaces. Shut down your email program, phone notifications (or your entire phone), websites you don’t need, and close the door to distractions.
  3. Create the mental clarity you need. You likely already knew items 1 and 2 above. So why don’t you do them regularly? The reason is our thought clutter. Clearing the thought clutter is the final key to working with a deep focus.

Mental Clarity: The Key

Why is it that the scenario above repeats itself again and again? It is because we fail to manage our thoughts and emotions. The reason your reach for easier work, like email, or distractions, like facebook, is to avoid the negative emotions you think you will feel when you start working on the more difficult task. Perhaps you worry you will feel boredom, frustration, inadequacy, a sense of imposterism, self-doubt, or fear of failure. The fear of all those emotions leads you to avoid the task at hand and seek out easier tasks, distractions, or ways to feel ‘busy’ without actually working on the one thing your compass told you to prioritize.

This idea is will be the central premise of all my posts: To manage your time you have to first learn to manage your own mind.

As a first step, begin to intentionally notice the thoughts you have when you sit down to do a difficult task. What negative emotions are you avoiding? What feelings are you worried you will feel? What thoughts drive you to immediate gratifications, easy wins, or mindless entertainment? Write down the thoughts you have and the emotions you are avoiding. Understanding those thoughts will be the first step to changing them.

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Don’t lose today

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what is in Fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in yours.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life1

When you think about how to manage your time, it may seem counter-intuitive to focus on the present. Shouldn’t we create to-do lists, calendars, and carefully categorized action items? Yes and yes. All those things have an important place. However, the only moment you can ever control is the present moment. If you constantly focus your thoughts, hopes, and plans on the future, you may “hang upon tomorrow and lose today.”

The Danger of Just Dreaming

There is good research from the psychology literature that just wishing for something or having positive visualizations about what you want to accomplish in the future will not only not propel you forward, it can paradoxically make you less likely to take the needed action. For example, in many different studies, individuals who had positive fantasies of what they wanted to accomplish, but did not contrast their dreams with their present situation and create an implementable plan, were less likely to reach their goals. Only dreaming or fantasizing about a future goal tricks your mind into thinking you have already accomplished it. Fantasizing about accomplishing future goals makes your blood pressure decrease and makes you feel better, but alone it is not productive. This phenomenon has been true in weight loss, time management, and many other fields.2

Instead of just dreaming, you have to look at your future goal, look at your current situation, and plan for how you will overcome the internal and external barriers to get to your plan. I’ll talk much more about this in a future post! For now, spend less time in the future, and more time thinking about how you use each present moment.

Being Present

Many busy professionals I work with talk about their desire to be present. They constantly have a million thoughts and to-do items and ideas bouncing around in their heads and can’t be present in any given moment. When they’re working on one task, they’re thinking of three other tasks and the 900 emails in their inbox. When they’re answering emails, they’re thinking about the things they have to do at home. When they’re at home, they’re thinking about all the work they have left to do.

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing.” – David Allen author of Getting Things Done 3


Think about how you can be present with each thing you do today. When you work in a focused way with “nothing on your mind except what you’re doing,” you will work more efficiently. You will enjoy your work more. You will do higher quality work. And, most importantly, your mind will feel calmer.

Don’t hang upon tomorrow and lose today.


  1. Seneca. On the Shortness of Life. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; New, Revised, Translation Edition; 2018.
  2. Oettingen G. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current; 2015.
  3. Allen D. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin Books; 2015.

Why time management?

What would it feel like for you to have no stress at all around how you manage your time? What would it mean for you to be in total control of everything you have to get done? If you feel like you’ve hit a plateau with how much you can accomplish, what would it feel like to realize you can create more time than you think?

If I had to boil it down to three things that I want to give you, it would be peace, values, and system.


Having more peace means less overwhelm and stress, less running around thinking about things we have to do but never having time to do them. It means fewer mental post-it notes of all the things we have to do, and allowing ourselves to think only of the task we’re doing. It means being present.


Does how you currently spend your time reflect what is important to you? Or does it reflect the most urgent things that have to get done, or the tasks that no one else wanted, or, perhaps, someone else’s values? Creating a values-based schedule means making sure that how you are spending your time is in line with what is important to you.

A System

In order to be effective and work efficiently you have to clear your mind of everything but what you are working on. To do that you have to have a reliable system to capture your thoughts and ideas and know that you will come back to them at their designated time. We falter and worry when we don’t have a plan.

My Goals

My dream is to enable people to work at the best of their abilities and in ways that bring joy and create more margin in their lives for all the things that are important to them, not just their work. I believe that most of us are not functioning near our capacity in our work. As a country, we spend about 25% of our day procrastinating or wasting time. More importantly, most of us are far from our maximum capacity for fulfillment, for creating meaning, and for finding joy at work.

Time management is not just something we do, it’s how we do everything.

Good time management is how we meet our career goals, by being strategic with what we do and efficient in how we do it.

Good time management is how we meet our personal goals, through ruthlessly prioritizing, through planning and execution.

Most importantly, good time management is how we create time in our lives for the things that are most important to us: our families, communities, interests, health, ourselves, and service to others. Come join me, and let’s explore how to create time for your life.

Take action

To start being more intentional with your time, write down the three things that are most important to you. Are the front-and-center in your life? Or are they pushed to the side-lines? Sign up for my email list serve, or consider signing up for the Time For Your Life workshop.

Are you ready?

Let’s begin.