Getting More Done with Less Stress – Increasing Your Willpower in Business and in Life

Guest blog by Sunil Bhaskaran, Chief Innovative Strategist, www.CahayaMind.com

Willpower – a Problem and an Opportunity for You

One of the top things that people report as a personal weakness is their lack of self control i.e. their ability to withstand distractions or impulses.  This has become ever more critical today with the vast and almost endless series of distractions.  One study [1] showed people (men and women) spending a quarter of their waking hours resisting desires.  The most commonly resisted desires included the urge for leisure and playing instead of doing a piece of work.  The urge for sex was interestingly found to be just a little ahead of other distractions like checking email, social networking sites, website checking, watching TV etc!   When people tried to resist a desire, they succeeded only 50 percent of the time.

You can begin to imagine the impacts of lost time, productivity, money.. hopes, goals and dreams due to a lack of self control.

But there is hope!

If there is a problem or challenge, there is usually a corresponding opportunity – the opportunity may be for you to increase willpower for both yourself and for your business teams and hence elevate your competitive edge in business.

Solution Part One

The solution begins with awareness and understanding.

The research of Dr. Roy Baumeister (one of the world’s most cited psychologists/researchers) has shown that willpower is biologically limited and has to do with glucose in your bloodstream. The food that you eat gets converted into glucose that is carried around the body via your bloodstream.

Here are two things to understand about glucose and the brain:

  1. Glucose in your blood stream gets used up every-time you make a decision or switch from one task to another i.e. the level of glucose in your blood stream drops every time you decide something or switch from one task (e.g. checking an email) to another (e.g. getting your sales presentation complete for this afternoon).
    1. Glucose is used by your entire body: your brain uses up about 20 percent of the caloric input of food.
    2. The brain monitors the level of glucose in your blood stream. If it drops too fast, it shuts down parts of the brain that are used for decision making, control of impulsive actions, task switching, memorizing, recalling memories and understanding.
  2. NOTE: it is not the lack of glucose that shuts these parts or functions down – rather the brain detects a lowering of the glucose level. So restoring glucose levels by eating more can only help to a certain extent and of course is subject to other risks: overeating, diabetes etc.  The solution is thus certainly not merely to eat more to restore brain function.

A couple of conclusions here:

  1. If you spend a lot of time, moving from one menial or unimportant task or project to another – making decisions, switching tasks furiously, recalling and storing memories, trying to understand the issues: then you are burning up precious available resources for projects that are unimportant – resources that could be diverted to more important and critical projects.
  2. One of the important functions of the brain that gets reduced when the brain detects a lowering of glucose levels is the function of resisting impulses (e.g. distractions to work).
  3. So if you are spending a lot of time resisting doing something or switching from one menial task to another, you are burning up precious resources that can be diverted to more important tasks and projects: tasks and projects that can put even more money.. and satisfaction back into your pocket.. but also you are reducing your ability and function to resist impulses or distractions.

Steps to resolve this and increase willpower:

  1. New Awareness

    Just like an Olympic athlete builds muscles and better performance with better awareness of their biology,  your awareness of the biological limitations of willpower over different time frames (hours, days, weeks months and years) will help frame an understanding of what it really takes to make a goal or dream come true for you and for your team.  Building a system of journaling and tracking what you do over a day for several days for 1 – 2 months builds up this awareness.  The awareness builds up the case in your mind for the adoption of new habits.  Building this awareness together with someone else e.g. a boss, a mentor, a coach, a team member – helps considerably towards building new and more effective habits.

  2. New Habits

    Based on observations done in the author’s consulting business, it is easier to create new habits than to change old existing ones.  The brain is extremely plastic (a neurological term meaning that the brain is very quick to learn new things and to make new connections pertaining to new ideas and concepts).  Some of the latest research indicates that it takes about 90 days or slightly more of consistent practice to learn a new habit and have strong new connections in the brain that represent this new habit.   These new habits include

    1. Prioritizing doing what are the most important projects i.e. the projects that put the most money and satisfaction back in your pocket and
    2. Putting the other projects and activities lower in priority

    This may involve scheduling higher priority activities at your peak brain performance times (typically but not always early morning or late evening).  The trick is to schedule these activities so that you are more likely to get these done rather than the distracting lower priority items and the other distracters like social media, watching emails, watching videos on the internet, etc.

  3. Upward Spiral 

    From our observations of our clients over the last 10 years, we have seen that when people have a long to do list (over four items), they typically (on an average) get none of these done.  But if they have less than four, they get about 50 to 75 percent done on their projects by 2 pm in the afternoon (assuming that they start their work at about 9 am).  The interesting thing is that this success gives a ‘shot in the arm’ and gets people motivated even more to get more done for the day; leading to what we call an upward spiral in energy, peace of mind and deep satisfaction.

    One important sub point in this is that the clarity of purpose by identifying clear, do-able, non-conflicting, win-able specific and finite outcomes, gives people an additional chance of success for the day; the identification of goals with a collaborator (e.g. your team or a coach) on a daily basis accelerates this process tremendously.

  4. Getting into the Flow 

    Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a world renowned researcher into performance and what is referred to as the flow state has indicated that the right combinations of challenge and skill lead to people operating at a high or flow state. Some people refer to this state as ‘The Zone’.  When you are in ‘the zone’, you are energized or centered and indirectly more able to resist distractions etc.Working with limiting your tasks and projects typically lowers the challenge level to a level matching your skills.  As you observe daily your challenge levels for your tasks and projects, you can begin to gauge where your skill and challenge meet just right; as you gradually over each day increase your skill and challenge just right, you are more likely to get to the flow state.  The practice is to debrief daily with your team or coach or manager on where your skill and challenge are for that day in each of your projects.  The analogy is like someone training to be an Olympic athlete – when you first start training, you must start at your current abilities and then gradually but surely increase the challenge and your skill periodically.

  5. Breakthrough as a Lifestyle

    In our observations of our clients, as we work with them daily, we observe that as they increase their skill and challenge over time, their willpower increases, their abilities to resist distractions goes up and there is greater satisfaction and greater results over time.  This is not an overnight phenomenon – it takes practice over time and patience with yourself.  This is indeed the biggest obstacle for most clients – their need to be perfect quickly – an impatience for quick success.  The biggest gift to yourself is patience – patience for your own success gives you the patience to train others – crucial for a sustainable and vibrant business.

Author:

Sunil Bhaskaran

Mentor, Coach, Author & Speaker

Having owned and run several businesses himself, Sunil speaks, trains and mentors from his own real-life experiences. Sunil began coaching and training people in 1989; and he has been in high demand as a mentor, private coach and keynote speaker for more than 20 years. His “Brain Performance Program” has made a profound difference in the bottom-line of thousands of business people worldwide. Additionally, Sunil has designed leadership, diversity, and accountability trainings for the corporate world at companies like Cisco, Comerica Bank, Compass Cares, to name a few.  For more information on his programs utilizing brain science, please go to www.CahayaMind.com


[1] Research by Dr. Roy Baumeister: German Beeper Study