Category: Productivity

The Best way to Improve Your Performance

Here are some easy tips, which I elaborate on later, to improve your performance at almost anything.

  1. How you practice makes a big difference. You need to think about feedback loops, deliberate practice, and working in chunks.
  2. The mindset between top performers and amateurs is different.
  3. Sleep is incredibly important.
  4. There is a difference between hard and soft skills.
  5. Leverage tempo, focus, and routines to work for you not against you.
  6. Make sure you have time for rest.
  7. If you want to think, take a walk.

***

Improving Performance

No matter what we do for a living, a common thread is a desire to get better. And yet few of us were taught what matters and what doesn’t when it comes to improving performance.

Given that we spend a lot of time doing things that we never get better at, I thought I’d share my “developing world-class performance” commonplace book with you. (Here commonplace book just a fancy word for a folder with notes in it.)

How you Practice Makes the Difference

Four-time world memory champion Joshua Foer says:

Amateur musicians … tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.

How you practice and who you practice against makes the difference. 

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much stronger opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome. (source)

Feedback loops are how we get better. Funny isn’t it that we rarely get helpful feedback at work whereas world-class performers in almost all other disciplines get regular feedback from a coach. Now you know why we rarely get better at things we do over and over at work.

In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin writes:

You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Work in chunks or pulses (and don’t multi-task). Deliberate practice should be so hard that you can only sustain it for a relatively short amount of time.

From Talent is Overrated:

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

Your Mindset Makes A Difference

When practicing and playing there is a different mindset between average and top performers. Amateurs believe errors were caused by something other than themselves whereas professionals believe they are responsible for mistakes.

From Talent is Overrated:

Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

Sleep is Key

Aside from practice, sleep is the next most important thing.

In Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute mid-afternoon nap, some 2 hours a day more than the average American.

The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists. (source)

The Difference Between Hard and Soft Skills

So all of that is great for technical skills (like chess and music) where there are pretty defined rules about good and bad but how can we develop the softer skills? Like Soccer or Swimming?

Change how you practice, increasing the number of repetitions. The way that Brazil develops its soccer players is fascinating. They use a game called futebol de salão, which creates a laboratory of improvisation.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”

Copy people who are better than you. Consider how Ben Franklin improved his writing. Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager, Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

From Talent is Overrated:

Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Use Leverage to Accelerate Productivity

In order to do our best work, even thinking, we need to focus on one thing

From Your Brain At Work — Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance.

Consciously evaluate your hidden scripts that execute to make sure they’re working for you. For instance, your habit of going to work and checking your email might be a good ritual but it might derail your progress because you’re not matching time and energy effectively.

From Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career:

A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.

While we all need routines and habits to free up our brain for some heavy lifting, it’s important that we regularly review our subconscious processing to make sure it’s still what we need.

Your environment matters more than you think. Think of your physical and virtual environments as nudging your unconscious.

 

You Can’t Work 24/7

You need downtime. I don’t care who you are, there is no way you can work 24/7 for weeks. Leisure has been proven to extend your life, reduce stress, and make you more creative. When you’re at work, work. When you’re not there take some time off. Embrace the ability to do nothing.

From Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing:

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

Exercise also has numerous health benefits. From Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving At Work, Home, and School:

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

Take a Walk Before Deciding

Some philosophers walked to think and others walked to escape. Kant combined walking and habit.

From A Philosophy of Walking:

Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.

Kant by contrast had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.

Putting it Together

There you go. All of these are helpful individually but together they help you accelerate your performance to new and sustainable levels. It’s simple but it’s not easy.

Work in Pulses

We’re not designed to multitask and we’re certainly not designed to work continuously without a break.

We’re designed to pulse, that is alternate between expending energy and recovering.

Pulses

(via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time)

The heart beats. The lungs breathe in and out. The brain makes waves. We wake and sleep. Even digestion is rhythmic.

We’re built the same way according to Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Schwartz told Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time that we’re not built for the modern environment.

Ignoring the Obvious

(via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time)

(Because the ideal worker is measured in hours) we tend to put in long ones, (Schwartz) said. We ignore the signs of fatigue, boredom, and distraction and just power through. But we’re hardly doing our best work.

“We’ve lost touch,” Schwartz says, “with the value of rest, renewal, recovery, quiet time, and downtime.” The pressure of long hours, in a face time world, combined with the constant bombardment of modern interruptions (think email, phone calls, texts, meetings, etc.) means that increasingly we’re not doing our best thinking at work. Maybe we should heed the advice of some famous philosophers and take a walk.

Sleep

We sleep in 90-minute cycles, with our brain waves slowing and speeding, only to begin again.

Schwartz’s thinking was influenced by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson is the guy behind the 10,000 hour rule.

Here is Schulte explaining in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Ericsson studied young violinists at the prestigious Academy of Music in Berlin to see what it takes to be the best. Ericsson is widely credited for coming up with the theory that it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice in anything to become an expert.

“That led to the assumption that the best way to get things done is to just work more hours ,” Schwartz said. But that’s only part of it.

Ericsson’s study found that not only did the best violinists practice more, they also practiced more deliberately: They practiced first thing in the morning, when they were freshest, they practiced intensely without interruption in typically no more than ninety-minute increments for no more than four hours a day.

Most important, the top violinists rested more — napping more during the day and sleeping longer at night. Sleep is actually more important than food. “Great performers,” Schwartz wrote in Be Excellent at Anything, “work more intensely than most of us do but also recover more deeply.”

Three-hour meetings? That’s a recipe for disaster leading to subpar work and poor decisions, not to mention meeting marathons drive people to hate work.

Attention Deficit Disorder

A lot of adults I know think they suffer from ADD. These are the people who, when they get out of a 3-hour meeting, talk on the phone, send an email, and write the grocery list to “make up time.” Well you can’t really make up time, and working like this is incredibly ineffective. But before we get to that, is all of this multitasking driving us to disorder? Could Attention Deficit Disorder be driven by our always-on environment?

Ed Hallowell believes so.

He’s a psychiatrist with ADD, and he spent years working on practical solutions to help people being overloaded by too many demands on their time and energy.

I read his book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, a few years back.
He claims we have “culturally generated ADD.”

Having treated ADD since 1981, I began to see an upsurge in the mid-1990s in the number of people who complained of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. Many came to me wondering if they had ADD. While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what I called a severe case of modern life.

Breaks Inspire Creativity

Scientists have found that people who take time to daydream score higher on tests of creativity. And there’s a very good biochemical reason why your best ideas and those flashes of insight tend to come not when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, oh ideal worker, but in the shower.

In a series of tests using brain imaging and electroencephalography, psychologists John Kounios and Mark Beeman have actually mapped what happens in the brain during the aha! moment, when the brain suddenly makes new connections and imagines, Kounios has said, “new and different ways to transform reality creatively into something better.” When the brain is solving a problem in a deliberate and methodical way, Kounios and Beeman found that the visual cortex, the part of the brain controlling sight, is most active. So the brain is outwardly focused. But just before a moment of insight, the brain suddenly turns inward, what the researchers called a “brain blink.” Alpha waves in the right visual cortex slow, just as when we often close our eyes in thought. Milliseconds before the insight, Kounios and Beeman recorded a burst of gamma activity in the right hemisphere in the area of the brain just above the ear, believed to be linked to our ability to process metaphors.

A positive mood heightens the chances for creative insight, as does taking time to relax, as Archimedes did in his bathtub before his eureka! moment about water displacement and as Einstein did when working out his Theory of Relatively while reportedly tootling around on his bicycle.

Working in Pulses

Terry Monaghan, a self-described productivity expert, whom we met in Work, Play, Love encouraged Brigid Schulte to work in pulses. The idea is to chunk your time. This is why one of the single most effective changes you can make to your work day is to move your creative work to the start of the day — you give yourself a chunk of time.

Discussing this in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte writes:

The idea was to chunk my time to minimize the constant multitasking , “role switching,” and toggling back and forth between work and home stuff like a brainless flea on a hot stove. The goal was to create periods of uninterrupted time to concentrate on work— the kind of time I usually found in the middle of the night—during the day. And to be more focused and less distracted with my family.

When it was time to work, I began to shut off e-mail and turn off the phone. When it was time to be with family, I tried to do the same. I began to gather home tasks in a pile and block off one period of time every day to do them. It was easier to stay focused on work knowing I’d given myself a grace period to get to the pressing home stuff later.

The Thirty Minute Pulse

When you find yourself procrastinating, avoiding something or otherwise stuck in a state of ambivalence, try a timer. Monaghan, recommends 30 minutes then taking a break. “Your brain,” she says, “can stay focused on anything, even an unpleasant task, if it knows it will last only thirty minutes.”

I find this useful. I have a 15-minute hour-glass sitting on my desk.

Putting It All Together

Work in pulses. Chunk your time. Do a daily brain dump to get things off your mind. Keep a notebook with you. If you feel worried or stressed, write it out in your worry journal. Add more of a routine to your day to help avoid decision fatigue. When things are automatic, they don’t consume as much energy.

Don’t wake up and check your email, get to the office and check your email, and then check your email hourly throughout the day. Check your email in batches: late morning and late afternoon.

Most importantly, make time to pause and think about what is most important to you. Narrow your focus and make 80% of your time on the three big things that are important to you. Let everything else fit in the 20% of time left. Let the truly sucky stuff fit in 5% of the time. If leisure is important to you and you can’t find time for it, schedule it in. When you wake up, do one thing that’s important to you right away.

Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

You’re busy. I get it.

But what can we do about it?

What would you do if your schedule suddenly opened up and we found we have more time? I bet you’d reply with read, travel, and maybe even sleep. Some of you would want to organize the drawers, clean off your desk, or simply watch a movie.

So where is the time for that on your schedule?

Terry Monaghan is a self-described productivity expert whom we meet in Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

Terry Monaghan’s approach to time management is simple: You can’t manage time. Time never changes. There will always and ever be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize, she said, is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need, want, or should do. “When we die, the e-mail in-box will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t,” she tells us. “Eighty percent of the e-mail that comes in is crap anyway, and it takes you the equivalent of nineteen and a half weeks a year just to sort through. Eighty percent of your to-do list is crap. Look, the stuff of life never ends. That is life. You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing.”

Start with what’s important.

But everything is important you say? Everything seems important: work, family, friends, community, taking out the trash, paying bills, getting the oil changed, fighting the relentless torrent of clutter …

If everything is important you might be trying to do everything all at once. A “fusion lover,” as Ellen Ernst Kossek would call it in her book CEO of Me. Kossek describes how some people seem to thrive on multitasking, which we know is an illusion at best.

You know these people, they are the ones replying to work emails while at the kids’ soccer game or calling the daycare provider to check in. But there is another layer to this, and that is the people who can’t decide what’s most pressing – they can’t focus on anything because they are driven to do everything. These people end up doing both work and home activities in a halfhearted way. This results in mediocre outcomes.

Time management gurus talk about clearing away any nagging “internal friction” that erodes the willpower and clouds the thinking before one can take off to superproductive heights. But honestly, in living in a stew of ambivalence and self-doubt, crashing between the impossible pulls of the ideal worker and ideal mother, “internal friction” doesn’t even begin to cover what’s going on inside.

Indecision about what is important and what is not important is like putting our lives on hold. We pursue both what we want and what we do not.

Psychologists say that ambivalence is, literally, being of two minds. In their labs, they have found that that nebulous feeling is far more uncomfortable and stressful on the body and mind than either embracing one position over another or merely being neutral. But the discomfort of the ambivalent soul becomes unbearable if we are forced to make a choice. In constant battle with yourself, you fight, not to truce but to a stalemate. There is no clear victor, no end in sight. It’s like living life on hold. We distract ourselves from this uneasy internal landscape with busyness, with the bustle of our to-do lists. To be ambivalent, say the psychotherapists David Hartman and Diane Zimberoff, is to be preoccupied with both what is wanted and what is not. “The opposite of ambivalence is a rigid intolerance for ambiguity, nuance or paradox,” they write. “The synthesis of the two is ‘passionate commitment in the face of ambiguity.’”

In response to this, Schulte realized:

I would never be able to schedule my way efficiently out of the overwhelm. I had to face my own ambivalence about trying to live two clashing ideals at once. There would never be enough room in a day for both. As I had been on this quest to understand the overwhelm and the way out, I watched helplessly as Jeff, one of our best friends, died suddenly and inexplicably of stomach cancer. Life is so fragile. I simply couldn’t wait, like so many people clucked, until the kids were grown and gone and the madness was over to live my best life. … I may not have the time.

***

But you feel overwhelmed? This comes from unrealistic expectations. When we fail to meet our lofty goals for ourselves we think “we’re doing something wrong,” rather than challenge the assumptions.

Managing the overwhelm … comes down to knowing the underlying story that’s driving those unrealistic expectations.

***

So what can we do about this? How can we figure out our “shreds of far-flung time confetti” and package it into something useful, something meaningful? Something that allows us to live a more fulfilling life without always focusing on what we’re not doing.

Start by asking yourself what is most important to you. Then, and here is the key, work to “create a system and routines” that help you accomplish that.

It’s not so much that they scheduled everything down to the minute, but Monaghan forced Lucchesi to take the most important pieces of her jigsaw puzzle and fix them in time on her calendar first. Everything else flowed around those big pieces.

Schedule the stuff you want to do in big bold chunks of time and let everything else fit in around it.

***

Some other tips:

  • Clear your desk. “We started small: by clearing my desk. “It gives your brain a rest from visual clutter.” As we worked to build systems and routines into my days, we always seemed to be coming back to my brain, and how getting a handle on the overwhelm was not just about creating more space and order on my calendar and in my office, but doing the same in my mind.”
  • Get off the worry wheel. “Right now, you need to free up all this energy that’s being consumed by worry.” She told me to take out a piece of paper, set a timer for five minutes, and write furiously about absolutely everything that was bugging me. I didn’t have to do anything about this “Worry Journal.” Just getting the ambivalence out of my head and putting it somewhere would give my brain a rest. “It’s a way off the hamster wheel.”
  • To-do lists. “We did the same with the enormous to-do list I carried around in my head like a mark of shame. Every Monday morning, I began to set aside time to plan the week. I began with a brain dump. It was the list of everything on my mind from here to eternity. The working memory can keep only about seven things in it at one time. And if the to-do list is much longer than that, the brain, worried it may forget something, will get stuck in an endless circular loop of mulling, much like a running toilet. The brain dump is like jiggling the handle. “If your to-do list lives on paper, your brain doesn’t have to expend energy to keep remembering it,” Monaghan said.

***

Of course, this isn’t anything new. It’s the stuff we learned in preschool. “Plan. Do. Review.” Only we lost sight of what was important to us as we became adults. Take the time to figure out what’s important for you and embrace it. Try one of these things and if it doesn’t work, ditch it and try something else. “There is no right answer,” Schulte writes. “This is life.”

Another way to think about this is backward, using inversion. What would ensure failure towards achieving our goals? Aside from the obvious, splintering our time amongst hundreds of tiny threads seems like a reasonable way to ensure you don’t really do anything. Does that look like what you’re doing with your time?

Sit down and make time for what’s important for you next week. Do it now.

Still curious? The last part of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time contains a fascinating discussion on how our minds and bodies are meant to work in pulses, to alternate between spending and recovering energy.

10 Ways to Get Smarter, Be More Productive, and Do Everything with Zero Effort

weights
Why did you click? Was is for the promise of being awesome? Was it the ten ways to get smarter? Was it for the image that has nothing to do with the post?

Why do you want things to be so simple and easy?

The best way to be more productive, generally speaking, is to stop clicking on headlines like this one.

I know, I do a few of them now and then too so I’m just as guilty as the next person competing for your attention. (In fact this year I’ve been experimenting a little more with headlines just to see what would happen.)

Generally, I’m feeling disgusted with all the illusory promises of quick ‘x’ in my twitter feed, my inbox, and my life. And headlines are one of the keys to spreading messages. So the odds of this stopping anytime soon are slim.

10 ways to listen to music better. 10 ways to pay attention. 10 ways to have sex. 10 ways to build better relationships. 10 keys to being awesome. 5 ways to win every negotiation. 10 ways to get rich by doing nothing. … blah blah blah.

These are hard to resist and there is sort of a Gresham’s Law at play where the bad content drives out the good. We want everything for nothing. It doesn’t work that way.

There are no shortcuts.

But often these articles disappoint. (Sometimes they don’t though; that’s variable reinforcement for you.) Most of the time, however, you’ll forget these nuggets of distilled common sense by the time you click on the next piece of link bait.

And next week, the same crap will be out with a different title. You’ll click again and agree with the common sense advice again. This isn’t really knowledge. It’s an illusion. And it’s mostly a waste of time.

Farnam Street is different. (I hope.)

I’ve been thinking a bit about what 2014 will look like on the site. My goal remains to expose you to things that you’re interested in that you never knew you were interested in. That means that if you read the site for a day it won’t be as valuable as if you read it for a week, a month, or even a year. It means you won’t agree with everything on the site, nor should you. Posts contradict themselves all the time.

I want to give you tools that you can use to live a more meaningful life, make better decisions, and generally just be a knowledgeable person.

That’s not a headline that promises quick wins but rather something we build toward each and every day. Slowly. Non linearly. There are fits and starts. Things are not always packaged in a digestible manner. There is effort required on your part and that’s a good thing.

Shane

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

Mornings are an underutilized tool to aid productivity.

Let me explain.

We’re often at our peak in the mornings. This is why Mark McGuinness suggests the single most important change you can make to your workday is to move your creative time to mornings. We’re more mentally alert and our mental batteries are charged.

Where do we spend all of this energy? Email. Meetings. We fragment our time. This, however, isn’t the path to success. There is another way.

“Before the rest of the world is eating breakfast,” writes Laura Vanderkam in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast “the most successful people have already scored daily victories that are advancing them toward the lives they want.”

Vanderkam studied successful people and she discovered that early mornings were when they had the most control over their own schedules. They used this time to work on their priorities.

Taking control of your mornings is very much like investing in yourself. This is how Billionaire Charlie Munger got so smart: he set aside an hour in the mornings every day just to learn.

While there are 168 hours in the week not all of them are created equally. Vanderkam writes:

People who were serious about exercise did it in the mornings. At that point, emergencies had yet to form, and they would only have to shower once. As Gordo Byrn, a triathlon coach, once told me, “There’s always a reason to skip a four o’clock workout, and it’s going to be a good reason, too.”

Most people find doing anything that requires self-discipline easier to do in the morning. The same can be said for focus.

Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has spent more time studying willpower and self-discipline than most. In his book he highlights one famous experiment where students were asked to fast before coming into the lab. They were then put into a room with food. Specifically, radishes, chocolate chip cookies, and candy. Some of the students could eat whatever they wanted while others could only eat the radishes. After the food, they were supposed to work on “unsolvable” geometry puzzles.

The students who’d been allowed to eat chocolate chip cookies and candy typically worked on the puzzles for about twenty minutes, as did a control group of students who were also hungry but hadn’t been offered food of any kind. The sorely tempted radish eaters, though, gave up in just eight minutes— a huge difference by the standards of laboratory experiments. They’d successfully resisted the temptation of the cookies and the chocolates, but the effort left them with less energy to tackle the puzzles.

“Willpower,” Baumeister and co-author John Tierney write, “like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse.”

This is a problem because you don’t just have one willpower battery for work and another one for home. They are the same battery. And this bucket is used to control your thought processes and emotions. As Baumeister said in an interview:

You have one energy resource that is used for all kinds of acts (of) self-control. That includes not just resisting food temptations, but also controlling your thought processes, controlling your emotions, all forms of impulse control, and trying to perform well at your job or other tasks. Even more surprisingly, it is used for decision making, so when you make choices you are (temporarily) using up some of what you need for self-control. Hard thinking, like logical reasoning, also uses it.

Most self-control failures happen in the evening after a long day of traffic, bickering kids, pointless meetings, and other things that zap our self-control.

Baumeister continues:
“Diets are broken in the evening, not the morning. The majority of impulsive crimes are committed after 11: 00 p.m. Lapses in drug use, alcohol abuse, sexual misbehavior, gambling excesses, and the like tend to come about late in the day.”

After a good night’s sleep, your battery is charged and ready to go.

In What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, Vanderkam writes:

In these early hours, we have enough willpower and energy to tackle things that require internal motivation, things the outside world does not immediately demand or reward.

[…]

That’s the argument for scheduling important priorities first. But there’s more to the muscle metaphor. Muscles can be strengthened over time. A bodybuilder must work hard to develop huge biceps, but then he can go into maintenance mode and still look pretty buff. Paradoxically, with willpower, research has found that people who score high on measures of self-discipline tend not to employ this discipline when they do regular activities that would seem to require it, such as homework or getting to class or work on time. For successful people, these are no longer choices but habits.

“Getting things down to routines and habits takes willpower at first but in the long run conserves willpower,” says Baumeister. “Once things become habitual, they operate as automatic processes, which consume less willpower.”

If we learned anything from Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, it was that routines and habits played an important role in success.

In 1887 William James wrote on Habit:

Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results. … The great thing, then, in all education, is to make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and to guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.

As Tierney and Baumeister write in Willpower, “Ultimately, self-control lets you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.”

So what are the best morning habits?

Vanderkam writes in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast:

The best morning rituals are activities that don’t have to happen and certainly don’t have to happen at a specific hour. These are activities that require internal motivation. The payoff isn’t as immediate as the easy pleasure of watching television or answering an email that doesn’t require an immediate response, but there are still payoffs. The best morning rituals are activities that, when practiced regularly, result in long-term benefits. The most successful people use their mornings for these things:

1. Nurturing their careers—strategizing and focused work
2. Nurturing their relationships—giving their families and friends their best
3. Nurturing themselves—exercise and spiritual and creative practices

Nurturing careers
The reason people do work requiring focus early in the day is the lack of interruptions. Once the day gets going, everyone wants a slice of your time.

You can crank things out; novelist Anthony Trollope famously wrote, without fail, for a few hours each morning. Charlotte Walker-Said, a history postdoc at the University of Chicago, uses the hours between 6: 00 and 9: 00 a.m. each day to work on a book on the history of religious politics in West Africa. She can read journal articles and write pages before dealing with her teaching responsibilities. “Once you start looking at email, the whole day cascades into email responses and replying back and forth,” she says. These early-morning hours are key to managing her stress in a suboptimal academic job market. “Every day I have a job,” she says. But “in the morning, I think I have a career.” She’s on to something; one study of young professors found that those who wrote a little bit every day were more likely to make tenure than those who wrote in bursts of intense energy (and put it off the rest of the time).

Nurturing relationships
One of the secrets to happy families is that mealtime with family matters.

This idea of using mornings as positive family time really stuck with me as I looked at my own life. While my kids tend to get up later, many small children wake up at the crack of dawn. So if you work outside the home and don’t see your kids during the day, why not take advantage of this? You can keep your eyes constantly focused on the clock, as I have a tendency to do, or you can set an alarm to give yourself a fifteen -minute warning, and then just relax. People always pontificate about how important family dinner is, but this is just not a reality in families with young kids who want to eat at 5: 30 or 6: 00 p.m., especially if one or both parents works later hours. But there’s nothing magical about dinner. Indeed, if the research on willpower is to be believed, we’re more crabby at dinner than we are at breakfast. Family breakfasts —when treated as relaxed, fun affairs— are a great substitute for the evening meal.

Nurturing yourself
The general sentiment here is that everyone else is sleeping so you’re not missing out on something important and you can spend time taking care of yourself, which generally leads to a positive impact on your productivity throughout the day.

In What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast Vanderkam suggests making over your mornings by tracking your time, picturing the perfect morning, thinking through the logistics, building a habit, developing a feedback loop and tuning up as necessary.

Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage and a self-proclaimed night owl, taught himself to appreciate mornings by thinking about the positive.

“The reason we stay in bed in the morning is because our brains get fatigued by thinking about all the things we have to do that day. We’re thinking about tasks rather than things that are making us happy,” he says. But the reverse of that is also true. “If you’re thinking about things you’re looking forward to, that makes it easy to get out of bed. What your brain focuses on becomes your reality.”

How Your Work Environment is Sapping You Dry (and How to Fix It)

When it comes to making decisions, your ability to think through problems is important. Consider this your raw mental horsepower. Most of us never tap into our available horsepower because we are hampered by one important and overlooked aspect: our environment.

The Modern Office is Terrible for Thinking

I first clued into this by studying Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Sure, they consistently make good decisions but they also share a few traits that enable them to get the most out of their mental horsepower. A big chunk of their ability to think through problems comes from how they structure their environment.

Most of us make decisions in an environment where it is very hard for us to behave rationally.

In fact, I’m hard-pressed to imagine an environment worse for rational decision making than that of the modern office worker.

You arrive at work and immediately start to answer the critical emails from your swelling inbox, telling yourself you’ll get to the low priority stuff later. The phone rings, it’s your boss wanting to know if you have time to chat on the 15-page proposal he was supposed to read for the meeting in 30 minutes. Having not read the proposal yourself, and not wanting to say “I haven’t read that,” you glance at the executive summary and, like anyone who’s learned to survive in an office, confidently act like you know what’s going on. Your opinion is superficial at best. You know this but rationalize that everyone else put the same 5-minute effort into it that you did, so you carry on. Getting back to your desk, you find 5 missed calls. You call the first person back and immediately realize that you’re late for your meeting and haven’t read any of the preparation material.

This isn’t an abnormal day. This is a reality for a lot of people in large organizations. From the moment we arrive until the moment we leave we’re pulled in all directions. The unwritten arrangement is that you have to do these things in order to justify your job. If you’re not pushing paper, firing up hundreds of emails, calling and attending meetings, and chasing something down … just what the heck are you doing to justify your salary. The environment is about politics and signaling, not about putting people in a position to succeed.

Now picture Warren Buffett sitting at his desk with his feet up reading. He has no computer in his office. He’s not distracted every few minutes by that little annoying ding that signals a new email has arrived. His day isn’t full of meetings. He doesn’t have an annoying boss that comes around and asks him for something tangible that’s he’s working on. He just reads and thinks. No wonder he’s so good at it.

He knows that it’s hard to say no to ideas by smart people. That’s part of the problem: It’s hard to think clearly for yourself when there is always someone in your ear. So he moved to Omaha from New York.

“In some places it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha,” Buffett says.

It’s very easy to think clearly here. You’re undisturbed by irrelevant factors and the noise generally of business investments. If you can’t think clearly in Omaha, you’re not going to think clearly anyplace.

Putting Buffett is a modern office is like giving Superman kryptonite. His superpowers would disappear. He wouldn’t be able to think and concentrate. Luckily, he intentionally set up his environment in a way that makes it easier to behave rationally.

The (Super) Power of Environment

We influence our environments but we forget they influence us too.

We like to believe that we are in charge, that our brains are only influenced by our conscious thoughts. That sounds amazing but it’s wrong.

Our conscious brain is much smaller than our subconscious brain. And yet when it comes to getting better at thinking and making decisions we place all the emphasis on the conscious brain, learning mental models and methods of thinking that improve outcomes.  In so doing we improve the raw horsepower of our brain. Yet, there is no point having a 400 horsepower engine if you can only get 25 horsepower out of it.

Designing an Effective Environment

There is no one environment that works for everyone. We all respond differently to different stimuli. A corner office on the 100th floor in New York might provide inspiration to some and distraction to others. What works for me might not work for you.

Here are three things I’ve found work for a lot of different people in a lot of different situations.

First, structure your day to maximize your energy. Most people do the tasks requiring the least amount of thought (answering emails, checking voicemails, catching up with people) in the morning when they are most productive. Meetings and decisions get pushed to the afternoon when our brains are not working as well. Switch your day around. Do the most important thing first.

Second, use chunks of time and be conscious when interrupting other people. Block chunks of time in your calendar for your own projects. I don’t mean like 20 minutes, I mean like hours. I have every morning blocked off from 9-12. It’s not easy to get into a state of flow but once you’re there, you’re focused on one thing. It could be thinking about a problem in a three dimensional way or refining a report that you’re writing for work. If you interrupt this time it’s expensive to get back to where you were, often taking 25 minutes or more to recover. Keep that in mind when you interrupt others.

Third, make effective behaviors easy. If there is chocolate in my office you can be sure I’ll eat it. That’s why I lock the good stuff in a safe. Literally. This makes it harder to get to and I eat less of it. OK, you probably want a better example than chocolate. Here’s one I used to use at work. On the first page of my notebook at the intelligence agency, I listed some general thinking tools that I could fall back on for tough decisions. This prompted me to think through problems in a structured way and saved me from more than one mess.

Your Environment Matters More Than You Think

We intuitively know that environment matters.

During my first-year calculus finals, there was construction next door. I couldn’t concentrate. I walked out of the exam wondering how much better I would have done if only I could have focused. When I got my grade back, I wasn’t surprised. I could have done better.

You don’t control everything in your environment but you control enough to make a huge difference. Think about what you control and how you can change it to get more horsepower out of your brain.