As a business leader, you no doubt find yourself making hundreds of small decisions a day, if not plenty of larger ones as well. Each one of these decisions, however minor, takes a small bite out of your willpower to remain a productive person that day. Experiments show that your personal willpower is a renewable resource—it is totally possible to develop more of it, but if you run out, it’s hard to get that magic back.
It’s why we might leave the office exactly at 5 PM some days. The thought of sticking around to do one more productive thing becomes nausea-inducing; we simply can’t do it. We’ve spent all day controlling our tempers, keeping distractions out of the way, and the like. But like a long-distance runner building up his or her endurance, it’s only a matter of practice to stretch these willpower muscles to their maximum potential.
Know when to quit. If you keep yourself in a perpetual state of willpower depletion—wake up early, stay up late, and work yourself constantly throughout the day—you will never recharge your batteries the proper way. This is like running a marathon day after day without ever stopping—you’ll “injure” yourself. Instead, take stock of how motivated you feel at certain points throughout the day. If you’re simply not feeling things, take a walk. Eat or drink something. Do something totally different for some amount of time, then come back to work and see how you’ll feel. Odds are you’ll notice it’s a little easier to get your stuff done.
Willpower doesn’t solve all problems. It may be in your interest to mark a task as complete or find a way around finishing it. Just because you have the gumption to go to Mars, for example, doesn’t mean willpower will get you there. Be realistic, especially when it comes time to evaluate whether or not it makes sense to keep trying at something.
Pick a reward for finishing a task in advance. If you love ice cream, treat yourself to some ice cream once you finish a giant task occupying your to-do list. The task might suck, but knowing that there’s ice cream waiting for you at the end will be a powerful motivator to keep you diligent and on top of things. Don’t begrudge yourself an incentivizing reward for slogging through a hard day—pick that reward ahead of time and concentrate on it.
Get more sleep. Sleeping well helps your brain manage its energy consumption, and an energized brain is one that’s ready to tear through a day in the best way. A lack of sleep presents itself to the brain in a manner that’s similar to chronic stress. All you have to do is go to bed earlier or wake up later (or both) depending on working style that best suits you.
Eat better and exercise more. This should be obvious. You are what you eat, so don’t eat so much junk food. Exercise releases all kinds of good brain chemicals that can make you feel happier, energized, and more determined. It’s in your interest to cultivate these things.
Prioritize your tasks. Do the most important thing first. Write down a physical list of what you need to get done today, in order, and get busy. This lets you maximize your effort on each task—you have the most willpower for the hardest tasks, and you can use the leftover for the minor items.