Do you have problems to keep motivated?
Is your usual to-do list filled with great hopes of accomplishing 20 things? Do you dump it when you are wasted at 11 AM after finishing just the first 5 things? Of course, you are not alone. This is a very common thing, from freelancers to researchers, or to almost anyone managing their own time. But this can be due to eating radishes instead of chocolate chip cookies.
Ego depletion was introduced a few years ago, as a placeholder of the results of several experiments… Which seem to show that your willpower can be depleted.
In one of this experiments, several test subjects skipped a meal to be hungry and then were split in 3 sets. One would eat nothing (poor lads). Another set were left alone in a room with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of chocolate cookies, freshly baked, and were instructed to eat two or three radishes while avoiding the cookies. And the lucky set were told to eat chocolate cookies, while avoiding the radishes.
After this, they were instructed to try to solve a geometrical problem, with the possibility of giving up if they wanted to. The trick here was that the problem was unsolvable. And the non-eating set and the chocolate cookie eater set tried longer to solve the problem, and reported being less tired than the radish eaters. Since they didn’t spend their mental energy in forcing to eat the radishes instead of the cookies, they had more willpower to keep on trying.
More research in this subject (and there is plenty!) has shown that there are some ways to replenish this ego depletion. Forming implementation intentions (like plans, projects, todo lists) helps, but is not the only solution. Getting rewards, doing fun things, eating something pleasant (or even mildly pleasant) can also help, but as before, it is not the only solution.
From some other experiments, it looks like ego depletion is just a self-regulatory method. Your brain just leaves some energy in reserve after a hard try. Which means that when you have almost no willpower left, there is still a lot you can do.
How can you use this to your productive advantage?
You have to gauge how you approach a todo list. If you start with a task you don’t want to approach (even if it is easy!) is more likely to erase your willpower than a hard task that you don’t dread doing. You should then sort your todo list depending on how much you want to avoid a task, and then sort by priority. If a simple task will eat a lot of your energy, leave it for last. If a hard, energy consuming task has a very high priority do it as soon as possible and follow the next suggestion.
When when you have no willpower left, there is still a lot you can do. Take a short break and give yourself a treat you like. You can eat a chocolate cookie, for example. Or draw a little, read a (not online) newspaper. Do something you enjoy but does not lead to procrastinating. Checking online feeds leads to checking Facebook which usually can end in doing nothing for an hour. Refrain from this and just eat that cookie.
Don’t forget to share this post in Twitter if you enjoy chocolate cookies!
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