Doing Good Work Is Hard, So Don’t Sabotage Yourself

Meaningful work is the hardest work to do.

It takes willpower to focus the mind, resist distractions, and concentrate deeply on doing something great. Luckily, thanks to psychologists like Dr. Roy Baumeister we’ve learned a lot about the seemingly ephemeral and mysterious force that helps us do the best work of our lives — willpower.

Baumeister and his associates have shown that our store of willpower is an exhaustible resource that is consumed throughout the day based on decisions we make. Making decisions in the form of resisting temptation, consciously choosing to do something we know is good — it all taps into our willpower.

Minor and major exertions both pull from the same shared pool of willpower and when it’s gone it’s more or less gone until we recharge (i.e sleep).

The astute reader is asking at this point, “So, how do I get more willpower or use it better?”

I’ll tackle the question of expanding willpower in another article. For now, let’s focus on the other approach, using your current store of willpower better. The end goal is to save the majority of your willpower for the stuff that matters (I’ll let you define that as you’d like but I imagine doing some kind of meaningful work is part of that definition).

What follows is meant to serve as a menu of possible options.

Some are small and insignificant and others are a bit more substantial. Either way, pick and choose and experiment with the behaviors that give you the most bang for your buck:

1. Craft Some Meaningful Routines

Create and perfect a morning routine that eliminates decision points. Eat the same thing for breakfast, wear the same basic outfit, leave for work at the same time and commute exactly the same way every day. The same goes for an evening routine, too. And your “coming back from lunch” routine and your “taking an afternoon break” routine. Anything you do daily deserves your careful attention about how you do it. Routines are like automatic programs you run on yourself. Building the program takes willpower at first but once it’s ingrained it becomes largely willpower free.

2. Separate Decisions About Work and Doing the Work

Make the decisions about what you’re going to try to accomplish during the day all at once instead of thinking about the entirety of your responsibilities and selecting a new task every time you finish something.

Give yourself a doable list in the morning and focus on completing it before doing anything else. Separate the deciding about the work from the doing of the work. You’ll often have enough willpower at the end of the day to do some minor tasks but not if you haven’t already identified them.

3. Have a System You Love

The most important part of a task management system is internalizing the major types of information that enter your world and knowing what to do with it when it does.

If every email is a completely unique concept then you will need to engage your decision making capabilities hundreds of times per day, draining your willpower a little bit more each time. For instance, I know that many of the emails I receive represent some kind of task I need to undertake. As soon as I realize that, I extract the specific action I need to do and put it in my task management system with all the other tasks I’ve committed to. I know they are all in one place, I know I’ll look at it later, and now I can archive the email.

Similarly, I can quickly realize when a piece of information is simply a reference and I can throw it to my tool of choice with a few keystrokes. My task management system protects my willpower instead of massively draining it.

4. Know Your Tools

Commit to one tool for each “job to be done.”

When you bounce around multiple pieces of software for doing the same type of work you have to make way too many decisions. Make sure you can explicitly describe the job that each tool in your life is doing and eliminate all redundancies. One note taking app. One app for storing miscellaneous bits of reference material. One app for writing articles. You get the picture.

Tied to the previous point, know your tools inside and out. When you don’t know your tools every time you interact with them represents a bit of psychic drag that saps willpower.

Learn keyboard shortcuts and commit to becoming a power user of the tools you use most commonly. If you don’t know your tools very well you will resist taking the action you need because it takes too long to execute. If you use Gmail a good starting point would be learning those keyboard shortcuts.

5. Eliminate Notifications

It’s one thing to see a notification and to successfully ignore it and another thing to never even see it.

Be deliberate about when you have them turned on. Doing great work already takes enough willpower as it is, you don’t need dings and buzzes sapping it even more. Start paring down your notifications to only truly essential. If you aren’t sure whether a certain class of notifications are essential, it means they aren’t.

6. Stop Treating Your Mind Like a Terrible Computer

Keeping things in your memory saps willpower. Don’t be a biological Rolodex or calendar.

Anything you can offload from your brain and into the environment (via calendars, task management systems, reminders, etc.) represents less drain on your willpower. Save your willpower for doing the work and solving the problems, not remembering what the work or problems are.

7. Accelerate Decisions By Having Clear Priorities

Not having a sense of what’s important means every decision has to be reasoned from scratch.

Avoid this by deliberately developing priorities every couple months. I like mine to take the form of “X even over Y” where X and Y are both positive things. Once I’ve made these statements I can very quickly weigh decisions against them. For instance, one of my even over statements relates to “doing less even over saying yes.” When I’ve been approached for various opportunities over the last couple weeks it has been easy to refer back to that statement and make my decision accordingly.

I’ve made my priorities explicit and therefore useful for making real decisions in the real world.

The point isn’t to fetishize tips and tricks over the hard work of doing what matters.

At the same time, if there are relatively easy ways to preserve a foundational resource for having the energy and capability to do what matters then it’s silly not to explore them. Test out one or two of these ideas over the coming weeks, try them on in your life, see how they feel, and then either keep doing them and/or try something new. It’s up to you to craft the approach that works best for the way you like to operate and the only way to do that is to be open to experimentation and trying some new ideas.

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