When we use willpower to make a hard decision we tap the same barrel of mental resources that our general cognitive processing draws from. And it’s a finite barrel.
In the last two decades, dozens of neuroscience experiments have confirmed this – a finding as startling as it is intuitive.
For entrepreneurs – fighting to make each day more decisive, creative and productive than the last – this insight is a game changer. We now know beyond a shadow of doubt that we’re only good for so many decisions or mental troubleshooting sessions in a day.
Willpower is a precious resource to be husbanded and doled out carefully. Those who get it will leap ahead in profitability and success. This article will show you precisely where and how to do it.
Your willpower drains faster than you think
Stanford professor and neuro-economics specialist Baba Shiv ran a simple experiment that is perhaps the best evidence confirming the depletion of willpower:
Grad students were asked to remember numbers – 50% were given seven random digits to retain while the other half were asked to remember a mere two digits. After completing this simple task subjects were told the experiment was over and were invited to select a snack of either chocolate cake or fruit.
Shockingly, the participants in the seven digit number group were almost 50% more likely to choose chocolate cake than the other group!
The scary thing about this result – and the subsequent experiments that confirmed it – is just how small of a cognitive demand it takes to impact our ability to use willpower. If memorizing a number for a minute or two means an unhealthy snack, what does hours spent wading through email do to your ability to make smart decisions?
The results are in and the science is solid: The neurological reservoir we draw from when we use willpower OR expend mental effort… has the ability to run dry. And it isn’t all that deep to begin with.
Smart entrepreneurs are starting to look at their workday as the strategic spending of precious willpower. Your top notch, finely honed decision making skills are only going to be available for a tiny handful of key moves today – so what moves are you going to make?
Here are three strategies some of my wise clients are using to maximize the gains of their daily willpower quota:
1. Eliminate as much “Friction” as possible
If you’re running a business, you need to be exhausting your gas tank of decision making and power-thinking ability on the highest leverage items possible. This means not agonizing over what to have for lunch for hours of your day.
Psychological “friction” happens when you experience that awkward “ugh, I don’t know what to do” feeling. It pops up when you find yourself torn between desires and priorities. Friction creates drag and slows you down.
Don’t know if you should go to the gym or finish writing that email? Ugh!
Should you last-minute-cancel that coffee date and stay in to finish that thing? Oy!
Torn between ordering a gourmet salad or something fried and delicious? Gah!
Each one of these moments of mental angst causes exhausting friction. As does every moment in your day when you have to engage in pedantic busywork that gets between you and the important stuff.
Try having preset lunchtime delivery set on Seamless.com – it’ll be well worth the surcharge for you to not think about it. Try loading your car with rolls of coins for feeding parking meters for the same reason.
Favorite friction fighting strategies amongst my clients include:
- Pre-schedule rejuvenating leisure (massage etc) at peak stress points during the week. Don’t think, or ask “Should I go?”. Just go.
- Eliminate pointless and bloated planning software in favor of pen and paper.
- Have a technical wizard contractor on hand so that if a piece of software (or whatever) becomes a problem, you can outsource the troubleshooting immediately.
Investing a few hours of creative effort up front – to identify and pre-solve problem areas where friction enters your day to day – will ensure your week runs smooth as silk.
The mental gas you used to burn figuring out meaningless details can become fuel for the big stuff – the stuff that moves you forward and makes you money.
2. Schedule creative work before all else
Long time readers of this blog will have heard this idea before. I harp on and on about it for a reason – it works like you wouldn’t believe.
The idea is simple: There are two types of labor – the creative important kind, where you’re not accountable to anyone but yourself. Writing is a great example of this, for me at least. The second type is work where you have to show up – my client consults fit this category perfectly.
If you fill your morning up with the second type of work – the necessity driven kind – then you’ll find your cognitive reserves running dry by the afternoon. You’ll need time to rest and rejuvenate the mental juices that drive creativity.
However, if you do the creative work first, you’ll be able to get through the necessity stuff on fumes alone. Because you have to.
You’ll finish your day feeling exhausted either way, but by doing creative work first you’ll ensure you get twice as much done.
3. Plan what you’ll do well before you do it
This is the game changer. So much friction is caused in people’s life by the pursuit of productivity itself – by stressing over the question “What should I do next?”
For entrepreneurs, the challenge is tenfold. Without a boss telling you what to do, you can be doubting if you’re doing “the right thing” constantly. That’s why most business owners who are massively productive – who work smart – spend a small portion of their week deliberately thinking out priorities for the next few days.
The idea is to never allow yourself to arrive, sleepy eyed and fuzzy of head, at your desk without an obvious place to pick things up. It’s the entrepreneurial equivalent of Ernest Hemingway’s habit of finishing writing sessions mid-sentence.
By investing a few minutes in a weekly, ritualized planning session you can ensure you spend your willpower doing stuff that counts – rather than burning it by figuring out what that stuff actually IS!
Like I said, complex planning systems only increase resistance. The simplest, easiest to implement version of this ritual is to answer this question:
What three things do I need to accomplish to make this week feel like a victory?
Then, when you sit down at your desk each morning you work on things that move those three commitments forward.
Your true number one priority
You’ve just discovered the most important work you can do as an entrepreneur.
Success is all about applying precious willpower to the highest leverage activities you can. This is perhaps the ultimate 80/20 principal and your business’s success hinges on your ability to figure it out.
So next time you catch yourself exhausting your mental reservoir on ineffectual fluff, remember: No successful business was ever built by choosing chocolate cake over fruit.
Do you know any other smart willpower preserving strategies? My list is hardly complete – share your best friction-free tips in the comments.