In the 70s, researchers from the University of Denver wanted to see if people who were on time with their school assignments also had clean socks. They hypothesized that it was a sign of someone who had their life together and got things done, so they decided to conduct this experiment.
What they found was that those who turned in work on time also took care of themselves and did not forget about small but important details like cleaning up after themselves and making sure they have adequate clothing for every occasion.
But the results were the opposite of what they expected. Students who turned assignments in on time were terrible about keeping up with their laundry, and students who kept up with laundry turned in their assignments late.
What has happening?
Researchers later realized that we only have a certain amount of attention and willpower we can pay during any day. If we first pay that attention and willpower to do laundry, we feel depleted before getting homework done. If we do the homework first, we tend to put off doing laundry for another day or even another week.
In a second experiment, people were left alone in a room with cookies. Some of them were allowed to eat the cookies while others weren’t.
Both groups were then given a complicated puzzle to solve. Those who were allowed to eat the cookies, along with a control group who never saw any cookies, spent an average of 20 minutes working on the puzzle. But those who had to practice willpower by not eating the cookies only spent 8 minutes working on the puzzle because they’d already spent much of their willpower.
If you go to a mall and give people simple math problems to solve, those who have spent a long time shopping will give up on the simple math problem much faster than those who just walked into the mall and haven’t been shopping yet.
Understanding what these experiments mean can completely change how you plan your work and how much you can accomplish in a day and your life.
Each of us has a finite amount of willpower each day, and it gets depleted as we use it. And here’s another surprise: We use the SAME stock of willpower for ALL tasks, regardless of what they are or how important or unimportant they might be.
We don’t have laundry willpower, homework willpower, cookie willpower, and math willpower… we have one glob* of universal willpower that we are given each morning when we wake up.
If you think you lack the willpower to exercise after work, it’s more likely that you used up all of your willpower at work and have none left. Exercising before work will solve your problem.
If you decide to go grocery shopping before you get your work done, you’ll use up your willpower to make hundreds of little decisions on what to buy and what not to buy. That’s why when you get home from the store, you might find yourself wasting time on the internet or television because you have no more willpower for doing real work.
If you do your creative work first thing when you get up in the morning, instead of putting it off to the end of the day, you’re going to get a lot more accomplished.
There are ways you can conserve your willpower and attention so that you have more of it for your important work.
For example, you can prepare the same foods for each meal so that you don’t have to decide each day what to make. Better still, you can pay someone to prepare a week’s worth of meals for you. If you don’t understand how willpower works, this will seem like an expensive option. But when you eliminate the attention, decision-making, and willpower needed to shop for and prepare 21 meals a week and instead use it on your work, you will make far more money than you spend on the meals.
Much like Steve Jobs, you can wear the same style of clothes each day so that you don’t have to decide what to wear. Steve Jobs would grab a pair of jeans and a black turtleneck each day without expending any of his attention and willpower on what to wear.
Don’t check your email in the morning. Reading a hundred subject lines, replying to 30 emails, writing 5 emails… this all adds up to a tremendous amount of decision making, attention, and willpower that could be better spent doing the work that makes you money.
Any unimportant tasks that you can eliminate or delegate will reduce the number of decisions you have to make and the amount of willpower you expend each day, leaving more willpower and attention for your main focus.
You’ve no doubt heard this technique of prioritization referenced as the “highest use of your time.” A $5000 an hour professional does not spend 5 hours a week cleaning her home. Why would she, when she can hire someone at $20 an hour to do that for her? She is still able to earn $4800 an hour employing the maid while doing her own work.
But if she spends 5 hours cleaning her own home, she has lost $25,000 in revenue. Or, to put it another way, she spends $25,000 a week cleaning her home, which is ridiculous at best and incredibly stupid at worst.
Here are the only three takeaways you need to revolutionize your life and double or even triple how much you accomplish:
1: Eliminate every little job and decision you can, freeing up willpower and attention for what is important. Get someone to clean your house, cook your meals, run errands, and so forth. Get rid of anything that takes time and attention but doesn’t provide you with a good return for your time. This might mean eliminating obligations such as being on a committee for a non-priority cause, quitting a hobby that doesn’t give you satisfaction, simplifying your home and belongings, simplifying your wardrobe, and so forth.
2: Start your day doing the most important thing, followed by the second most important and so forth. This might mean your first exercise, then perform the highest value work task, then the second-highest value work task, etc.
3: While we didn’t cover this, it is important to find something you completely enjoy that is totally unrelated to what you normally do. In other words, get a hobby you thoroughly love and spend a little time on it at the end of the day. This will take you out of the work realm, reduce stress, give you satisfaction and make it easier to get up tomorrow and jump right into your most important task of the day.