Managing Willpower and Staying Productive

Wikipedia defines ego depletion as “idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. When the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired, which would be considered a state of ego depletion”. I usually call it the “afternoon slump” or “time for yet another cup of coffee”. No matter how you define it, everyone can agree you feel like you have less motivation and willpower as the day goes on.

Treating willpower as a resource

The first step to make your willpower work for you is treating it as a quantifiable resource. I choose to think of my willpower gas in a gas tank. You start your day with a full tank (willpower does not suffer from price inflation, your tank will always be magically filled by morning), and using mental energy uses gas. Anything that uses mental energy drains willpower, such as a work task or a chore. The lower your tank gets, the easier it is for you to rationalize procrastination, deliver something of lower quality, or not do whatever you set out to do at all.

Recharging your willpower

“But my tank is empty before all my work is done!”, you manage to say, after procrastinating for a few minutes. Lucky for you, I have a handy checklist of reflections to ensure I always stay productive!

  1. After you complete something, reflect on your accomplishment. You did a thing! Bathe in the satisfaction (figuratively, unless your task was to make bubble bath mix).
  2. Remove task anxiety by breaking each into the smallest common denomination.
  3. Use breaks wisely. Find an escape that takes your mind off work at that time and make sure work can’t interrupt you.

Putting it into practice

Now that we treat willpower as a quantifiable resource and can mindfully engage with it, let’s take a look at some processes we can use to maintain productivity throughout the day.

Get a quick win

Make the first task of the day something easy to accomplish. You’ll feel great after. Trust me.

More doing and less thinking about doing

Avoid nebulous tasks. Itemize each task’s sub-tasks with concrete deliverables for each task in the morning or, preferably, the night before.

Total focus

I prefer my work blocks to be 50 minutes of work and then a 10-minute break. The ratio is subjective. The point here is to be completely focused on a task for however long it takes to finish it. Afterwards, take a few minutes to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished and recharge. And check Snapchat.

Stock your mini-fridge with Red Bulls

We’ve spent the time to make our time working uber-efficient, but don’t forget how you use your break time is equally important! Reflect on the things that are truly an escape for you; something that you can get lost in. Think of those things as a Red Bull for your willpower. When you really need a boost, crack open one of your Red Bulls and give your willpower wings! (Get it? Red Bull gives you wings? And the article is about willpower? Not every joke is a winner)

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James Mensch is the Tech / Product Lead at The Wed Clique and the CEO at Magnifai. I believe in building intelligent products, using data to drive decisions, and engineering for social impact. I write about some of the cool stuff I do with tech, productivity and motivation psychology, and my social innovation projects. Connect with me on LinkedIn or say hi on Twitter.