Willpower maximization

Limited Willpower

When we imagine who we are going to be in the future, what we want to accomplish, and how we are going to reach our goals, we see ourselves as a super version of who we are now. We imagine that we can focus and achieve anything we set our mind to, at least if we can work hard enough. All it takes, in our vision of the bright future, is willpower to push ourselves to work harder, be smarter, and do the challenging but important work to get to the top.

 

The reality for us, however, is that this ideal version of ourselves will not simply appear with the flip of a switch. The hard work we view ourselves completing is not just hard, it is impossible to complete without focus and an ability to engage in deep work. We have to cultivate this ability if we want to see it in our lives, it is not simply a matter of willpower.

 

In the past I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When and how we move through several predictable stages throughout the day. For most people (those of us who are generally morning people – night owls are the same process in reverse), we wake up and our brains are fresh and ready to tackle the day. We can do our best focus work and complete important analytical work during the first roughly 6 hours of the day. Afterward, we fall into a trough, where our brain is tired and we are not good at being focused or doing analytical work. Later in the day we see a rebound, where we become a bit better on complex thinking work, but still find ourselves easily distracted.

 

What Pink’s research shows is that our day and our work isn’t driven so much by willpower but by the biological reality of the brain. Cal Newport’s research in his book Deep Work supports this idea. Newport presents several studies which show that our willpower only lasts so long before we give in. As he writes, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

We are not superheros and don’t have superpowers. We operate with a brain that can only handle so much before it becomes tired and stops working as well as we would like. We can resist those donuts in the morning when our brain is still fresh, but as the day goes on, we are going to become weary from the tough decisions we have to make, and our ability to fight off the donut craving will likely fail. We need to remember that our willpower won’t last forever and we need to set up systems and structures to help us do our best work when our brains are at their peak. Through these structures we can avoid negative temptations when our brains are in a rut. Plan ahead reasonably, and work to take steps that align with the reality of the brain. Don’t force yourself to rely on a superhuman effort that just isn’t realistic to be successful and accomplish the important things in your life.
Solving for Productivity

Solving For Productivity

My general sense, from working at a health-tech start-up to my time in government, is that we under-invest in how to be productive. I recognize that everyone will have different preferences, different abilities, and different thinking styles, but I have seen plenty of areas in which we could improve the how and when of our schedules to make ourselves more productive. We can level this up from individual level decision making around productivity into group levels of productivity to really improve our organizations.

 

In the start-up world I saw individuals who were incredibly productive, but who also seemed to work for 12 or more hours every day. This is impressive, but not very sustainable and not something that could scale. In government I have seen people face mountains of work, but fail to prioritize and schedule appropriately to focus their work. Both examples highlight the importance of how we approach our productivity and why we should have more discussions about planning, schedule design, and deep work if we are going to improve our productivity as individuals and organizations.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses these issues directly. He shares a story about a business school professor named Adam Grant, who produces a prodigious amount of work in terms of New York Time’s best selling books, academic journal articles, and award winning courses at his University. Newport met Grant who shared with him a PowerPoint outlining strategies for academics to become highly productivity and effective. As Newport states it, Grant, and the professors who developed the PowerPoint, “See productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve.”

 

This is the exact opposite of the productivity strategies I have seen in my two careers. The commendable start-uppers burning the midnight oil seemed to mostly just throw themselves at every project until they were spread too thin and slowed down other operations. Conversely, many of the people I have seen in government simply give in, arguing that there is too much work and not enough manpower to manage it all. Neither see their effectiveness and productivity in a scientific sense, adding variables and completing formulas to find their maximum (sustainable) productivity.

 

Newport encourages us to think about how we do our work and what work we prioritize. His suggestions also seem to be in line with recommendations from Dan Pink’s book When. From Grant, Newport learned, “batching of hard, but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” This can take place at “multiple levels” according to Newport who demonstrates how an academic can batch teaching into one semester and research into another semester. In our own lives, we can batch important analytical work into our productive and focused mornings, and we can save emails and rote paperwork for our afternoon struggle-bus hour.

 

We might be tempted by Newport’s advice to just double down on our hard work and extend our working hours. But this is not the best strategy for the best performance. Newport explains a lesson he learned while researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, “The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration – radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”

 

If we see a mountain of work and shrink from it, or if we see a mountain of work and blindly throw ourselves at it, our end result is not going to be the best possible outcome. What we need to do is think about how we can be the most productive in tackling the task in front of us. We need to think strategically and scientifically about our approach, batching the complex focus work into periods of productivity, and saving the less important work for the time when our brains have maxed out on their focus ability. This is something that leaders of all organizations should be encouraging and teaching to those they lead, otherwise they hold onto the secrets of good work, and allow those who work with them to flounder about in front of the challenges of work in the 21st century. By adding a little more time to planning and thinking strategically for how we work, we can make adjustments to kickstart our productivity. By giving ourselves realistic challenges and knowing when to say no, we can ensure that all of our work is the best we could possibly produce.

The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

The Benefits of Joining a Choir?

I have never been much of a singer, and the last memory I have of singing in a group (besides a happy birthday here or there) is from elementary school, when I got in trouble and had a parent teacher conference with my mother and the music teacher because I was inserting inappropriate lyrics into the song You Are My Sunshine (I’ll let you guess what kind of lyrics a fourth grade boy came up with for that one on your own).

 

Public singing, however, might be something that is really good for human beings, especially when done in a group. Dan Pink highlights the benefits of choral singing in his book When, “The research on the benefits of singing in groups is stunning. Choral singing calms heart rates and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function. It increases pain thresholds and reduces the need for pain medication. It even alleviates symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Group singing – not just performances but also practices – increases the production of immunoglobulin, making it easier to fight infections. In fact, cancer patients who sing in choirs show and improved immune response after just one rehearsal.”

 

That is a huge range of benefits from something as simple as just singing in tune and rhythm with other people. Pink presents the study in his book when talking about synchronicity with other people. He also highlights rowing competitions and the benefits that individuals receive when working in concert with other people. Being part of a group engaged in a singular activity and actively synchronizing your physical body in time with others seems to be something that brings humans a lot of benefits.

 

When specifically looks at choirs and row teams, but I would not be surprised if you saw similar benefits from people who run together in groups, play Hungry Hungry Hippos together, or engage in flash mob dances. I would expect that anything involving social interactions and coordination among people will begin to build the types of health benefits that researchers have found with choral singing. Physical activities probably boost our health more than board games, but I would not be surprised if studies of social board games would show reduced stress and improved physical health markers as well.

 

I think this is an under-explored area, especially in the United States. We really like our individual super heroes, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. We subscribe to the Great Man of History view and if you look at this year’s presidential election you will see arguments from the Democrats about which candidate is the one who can deliver and unseat the current president, but you won’t hear arguments about who can bring together the best team of thinkers and policy makers. Our country, with a foundation of Protestant work-ethic and a capitalistic culture that tells you that you can purchase everything to make your life fulfilling, is stuck on individual interventions and choices to health and happiness.

 

Choral singing and rowing and Hungry Hungry Hippos (ok no research on that last one) shows us that we need groups and benefit from social interactions and synchronicity. Despite the way we think about ourselves and our role in society in the United States, we depend on others and when we coordinate with social groups, we feel better. My suspicion is that any research into the health benefits of activities done socially will yield positive health results. This is an area we should explore more broadly, and in our individual lives, I believe we all need to take more steps to join choirs, do our exercising with other people when we can, and set up our own Hungry Hungry Hippo board game groups. It is not just our individual selves who will benefit and who need these groups, but all of society.

In The End, We Seek Meaning

In his book When, author Dan Pink investigates how humans relate to and understand time. He considers the time of day, the timing of events, and also how we understand things based on time dimensions such as beginnings, middles, and ends. His focus on endings is one of the more surprising parts for me, someone who doesn’t read that much fiction and isn’t much of a movie buff.

 

Human life is narrative, and we can’t help but think of our lives and events in our lives in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. We understand our lives by thinking about our end, which we will all eventually reach. We want our narrative to be happy, but Pink suggests that we also want something more than just happiness at the end of the narratives we create.

 

“Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. Poignancy, the researchers [Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen et al.] write, seems to be particular to the experience of endings. The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer – a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we needed.”

 

Pink shows that rich emotions are what drive us. Happiness itself is not enough of a rich emotion on its own to truly provide us with the depth that we need in life. We experience sadness and the realization that our world is transitory, and come to understand that we need complex relationships in our lives. What we ultimately enjoy and engage with the most are narratives that create a comprehensive meaning from these complex and often competing emotions.

 

Pink continues, “Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

 

We are looking for a life that is coherent from a narrative sense, but also has a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. We might not enjoy every moment and might not like many of the things we must do, but a fully engaging life is one that includes a vast array of experiences and emotions with other people. When we put everything together and reach an end, that is what we are looking for, and it is often a different set of experiences and emotions than what we would have if we purely searched for happiness, fame, and material possessions.

 

This is why the end of Avengers Endgame was so powerful for so many fans. We were happy to get an epic battle that we had been dreaming of for 10 years, but sad to lose the instigating protagonist of the entire series. While the depth of the meaning might not be the most impressive in cinematic history, I think many fans would agree that the ending was strong and powerful, because it included a touch of sadness with the joy that many receive from watching super heroes kick ass. It created a more poignant moment rather than just a happy ending, giving the whole series a new sense of meaning, just as we hope happens when we reflect back on our lives at the end of any milestone.

Slumps

“Slumps are normal,” writes Dan Pink in his book When, “but they’re also short-lived. Rising out of them is as natural as falling into them. Think of it as if it were a cold: It’s a nuisance, but eventually it’ll go away, and when it does, you’ll barely remember it.”

 

Pink’s quote about slumps ties back to stoic philosophy in many ways. Stoicism encourages us to focus on the present moment and avoid ruminating over the past or fearing for the future. When we are in a slump, we are in a sense doing both of those things. We are thinking of a future without creativity or the possibility of things being better, ultimately zapping our energy and ability to put forward a meaningful effort in the present. We are also thinking of a past that held more promise than the present moment, and wondering why and how the energy of the past disappeared. What we are not thinking of is how we can use our present moment to make improvements and take steps that meaningfully improve our current situation.

 

The slumps that Pink focuses on are the midpoint slumps in projects that we engage with in work type situations. His advice and reflections on slumps, however, can carry over into many areas of our lives. A slump in a school report or business project parallels slumps that we might feel in middle age or even just in the middle of a work-week (fitting for me to be writing this on a Wednesday morning).

 

“If you’re feeling stuck in the middle of a project, picture one person who’ll benefit from your efforts. Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to your task.”

 

The problem with a slump is that we are focused inward and fixated on a past that was better and a future we fear will be even more bleak. Changing our perspective to think about how we can make a difference for someone else shifts our thoughts back to the present moment, as stoicism encourages, and gets us to think beyond our own problems and concerns. It forces us to ask what we are doing with our brain power and efforts now, and how we can use the resources available in a way that maximizes our impact for the world around us. Helping others can be inspiring, and it can serve as a spark to help us overcome slumps in business, school, and life. It changes our motivation and helps us imagine a future that can improve over our past. Thinking of how we can help others isn’t just wishful thinking, it is practical thinking about the ways we can be better in the present moment and helps get us through our own slumps.

Midpoints

I’m a big fan of college basketball, and I really enjoyed the section of Dan Pink’s book When that discussed midpoints. Pink shared interesting research of college basketball teams which showed that teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win the game than the team that was up by one point. When teams were down by more than one at halftime they were less likely to win the game, but a one point deficit seemed to be a good thing. The reason, according to Pink’s read of the research, that the team down one at halftime came back to win was due to the “uh-oh effect” which spurred a sense of urgency for the losing team. The team that was up one point, and teams that faced larger halftime deficits were more likely to face an “oh-no effect” and were more likely to retreat.

 

Thinking about college basketball teams at halftime can translate into other aspects of our lives. If we hit 40 or 50 years-old we might have our own “uh-oh” or “oh-no” moment. When we are two quarters into the big project at work that we said we would complete before the end of the year, when we are halfway through a school semester, and every day at lunch we face a midpoint. We can look at what we have accomplished up to that point and decide whether we are going to push forward and double our effort, or if things feel hopeless and we might as well fold.

 

Regarding midpoints, Pink writes, “with midpoints, as with alarm clocks, the most motivating wake-up call is one that comes when you’re running slightly behind.” In college basketball, the team that is down one at the break realizes that they still have a chance, and that they need to pull things together to get the win. In life, we recognize that we have wasted several years at a job we dislike, that we haven’t hit the milestones on our work-project that we need to, or that we didn’t perform as well as we hoped on that midterm exam. These moments can spur us to action if we see that we are not too far off pace to reach our goals. However, if we are really missing the mark, we should recognize that midpoints can turn our motivation the other way.

 

If we see that we don’t have a chance of living in a mansion after all, if we won’t hit the project deadline even if we add 10 additional staff, and that we have no chance of getting an A in the course after bombing a midterm, then we are likely to give-up. In work and school we don’t have control over when we set the midpoint, and that wake-up call can be painful. Walking away might really be our best bet.

 

In life, however, we can control what we consider the midpoint, and we can change our motivation accordingly. Where it might make sense in business or school to walk away and focus a better effort elsewhere, in life we must move forward. Our best option becomes changing our midpoint perception and finding a way where we can look at our life and see ourselves as just slightly behind where we want to be. That way we take advantage of the motivation form the college basketball study and spur an “uh-oh effect” rather than face an “oh-no effect” and give-up.

 

What is important to recognize with midpoints is that they can be an opportunity for honest reflection of our progress in life, business, and other endeavors. Where we find ourselves at the midpoint can shape how we perform for the second half. Being slightly off-pace can spur us to action, but finding ourselves way behind can trigger a sense of defeatism. When possible, we can manage our halftimes to be more favorable for us, but when we can’t pick and choose our midpoint, then we face tough decisions in how we proceed.

Helping Infants Get a Good Start

In his book When, Dan Pink writes about the importance of getting a good start. Timing is incredibly important in our lives, and getting a good start can make a huge difference down the road in terms of the outcomes we want to see (or avoid). I wrote about the importance of getting a good start in a career and matching ones skills with a position that values and rewards those skills, but Pink also addresses the importance of getting a good start in life as a baby. Specifically, Pink writes about programs that send nurses into homes to help low income and often low education families and mothers with caring for newborn children. The policies make a huge difference in getting little ones off to a good start.

 

“Nurse visits reduce infant mortality rates, limit behavior and attention problems, and minimize families’ reliance on food stamps and other social welfare programs. They’ve also boosted children’s health and learning, improved breast-feeding and vaccination rates, and increased the chances mothers will seek and keep paid work.”

 

Programs to help young children are expensive up-front, but have a huge amount of benefit down the road. There is a lot of inequity in our society, and while we like to believe that the outcomes we see are purely the results of our own hard work and effort, that isn’t always the case. Having a caring home with enough nutritious food and positive role models makes a big difference in our early development. Getting a good start is key for building good behaviors and becoming successful down the road. The important piece from Pink’s emphasis with this program, is the social nature of the program and how bringing mothers and families that might otherwise be economically and socially isolated into society helps them ensure their kids get a good start.

 

Pink continues, “Instead of forcing vulnerable people to fend for themselves, everyone does better by starting together.” I’ve written about the importance of social groups for our happiness, and here Pink shows that more social connection and helping create social bonds of support for early mothers leads to the positive outcomes we want to see for young children. There are policies we can put in place that would reward these types of social connections and make them more available, and the studies that Pink highlights suggest that the benefits of those programs would be huge for the children who get a better start in life, and would also flow to the rest of society. The programs might not be obvious at first, and the beneficiaries (in terms of the parents of the young children) might not seem deserving at first, but it is worth remembering that the people who will benefit in the long run includes all of us, and not just those initial families and children who receive the good start.

Generational Changes and How Millenials React to a New World

I’m a Millennial, and my generation often gets a bad rap for many of the ways we eschew traditions. We are often seen as lazy, wanting instant gratification, and as the “participation trophy” generation. However, like any branding of a particular generation, I think these views on Millennials are undeserved. My generation is responding to a lot of new pressures from changing globalized economies to social media connectedness, to global warming. In a world of quick and often chaotic change, it seems reasonable that my generation would develop new values and abandon longstanding traditions that feel irrelevant.

 

A harmless example of this, one instances I can remember from high school where my generation killed off a tradition that didn’t fit us anymore, was when my school chose a dorky nerd as prom king. In a  world of social media, popularity contests were held each day in online friend counts. Our school dances were often closely monitored by teachers, the lights were on, and no one knew how to dance anyway. Prom didn’t really hold a special place in anyone’s mind, and rather than taking the idea of prom king seriously, as I had seen in movies growing up, we laughed it off as an irrelevant relic of the past, as prom itself felt to me and many of my friends at that point.

 

More seriously, Millennials are also no longer sticking with economic traditions of generations that came before us. The world we live in makes it feel almost impossible to follow the same rout as our grandparents to financial success, and we have to take new routs toward careers and financial stability. This isn’t well understood by many people in older generations, and has created a generational friction that can be seen in things like OK Boomer. The example I want to focus on is Millennials switching jobs regularly and rarely working for a single company for 30 years, let alone more than 5 or 10 years. Job change is very common for Millennials which is not well understood by individuals from generations where it was common for someone to start in a job at the ground floor, and work 30 years to a higher position and salary.

 

In his book When, Dan Pink offers a good explanation of why so much job switching is taking place today. Particularly early in one’s career, switching jobs can make a big difference. Getting a good start in the job market can make a huge difference in where one ends up in the long-run, and that is a pressure that Millennials face and which shapes the decisions they make in terms of where they seek work. Pink writes,

 

“A large portion of one’s lifetime wage growth occurs in the first ten years of a career. Starting with a higher salary puts people on a higher initial trajectory. But that’s only the first advantage. The best way to earn more is to match your particular skills to an employer’s particular needs. That rarely happens in one’s first job. … So people quit jobs and take new ones – often every few years – to get the match right.”

 

When viewed through the lens that Pink uses, changing jobs and not holding to the traditional 30 years with a company followed by retirement makes sense. We have a limited amount of time to make an impact on this planet, and remaining in a position that does not value the particular skills that we have, and does not reward us for building and cultivating those skills, does not make sense. We can find better economic and financial opportunities in other companies, and we have more technology to help match us to those opportunities. In this sense, switching jobs early and often isn’t the historical negative that it was for older generations, but is a reflection of new values and an attempt to make sure we are not wasting the opportunities we have in life.

 

I think that many of the things Millenials are criticized for ultimately fall into this kind of category. I am certainly no fan of helicopter parenting, but I think it is more helpful to look at what is driving Millenial parents to hover over their kids so closely. Just like the example of jobs, I am sure that if you pulled back the surface, you would see how a changing lens of the world is influencing the behaviors that Millenials are so often criticized for in regard to parenting. The take-away is that generational changes reflect broader changes in society, and criticizing an entire generation is less helpful than understanding how the world has changed and how those changes influence the decisions of other generations.

More on Temporal Landmarks

According to Daniel Pink in his book When, temporal landmarks can come in two varieties, social and personal. Social temporal landmarks are the dates that everyone shares in common while personal landmarks are the significant dates in our own lives such as birthdays, anniversaries, and dates of significant life events. Studies presented in Pink’s book show that both types of landmarks can serve as helpful anchors for jumping off points. Students are more likely to go to the gym on a Monday, at the start of a semester, or on the day after their birthday than on other random days.

 

Pink describes the anchoring effect this way, “This new period offers a chance to start again by relegating our old selves to the past. It disconnects us from that past self’s mistakes and imperfections, and leaves us confident about our new, superior selves. Fortified by that confidence, we behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our aspirations.”

 

In the physical world, we can make changes that literally do shut a door on one aspect of our lives. We can move to a new city, we can sell all of our TVs and gaming consoles, we chop down a tree and pave over the place where it used to be. These changes can have physical manifestations that designate something new, something different, and prevent us from continuing on as we always have. Temporal landmarks are not physical and permanent in the same way, but can still serve a similar function for us. They break apart a continuous stream of time and allow us to make distinctions between ourselves now and who we have been in the past.

 

Pink also argues that part of the strength of temporal landmarks is in the way they allow us to reflect and think about who we are, what we have historically been or done, and what our aspirations are for our futures. He writes, “Temporal landmarks slow our thinking, allowing us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions.”

 

My example of making a physical world change to change our behaviors is an example of taking a deliberate step to help us make better decisions. Temporal changes don’t necessarily create a physical barrier which changes our behavior, but they do give us a mental stopping point at which we can pause and consider how and why we do something. Rather than continuing on auto-pilot these landmarks make us pause and consider whether we are going in the right direction, whether we are regressing back toward a place we don’t want to be, or whether we can change course and achieve what we want. In many ways, without actually being a physical barrier, these temporal landmarks operate in the same way. Simply because they are not tangible doesn’t make them any more real in the ways we think about our lives, the changes we experience throughout life, and how we make decisions.