“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”. Steven R. Covey
That about nails it, doesn’t it? It succinctly describes an important challenge we all face: doing what is most vital to fulfilling our purpose while balancing the myriad requests, demands and distractions that crop up as we go about our daily lives. I sometimes think of it as getting from Point A to Point B with as little drama and as few detours as possible.
And that takes willpower. To stay on point, manage the distractions, complete the distasteful tasks and navigate the sometimes challenging social interactions included in our day.
Willpower is an all too limited resource. We tend to be overly optimistic about the quantity available to us and squander it needlessly. Often the best use of this precious resource is to establish habits that will run on autopilot, rather than using it to resist temptations.
Habits are a funny thing. Our brains love routines; they’re energy efficient. And interestingly, once a habit is in place, the brain doesn’t much care whether the end result is pleasurable or not. Good for us or not. Takes us in the direction we need to go. Or. Not. Got a habit? Just flip the switch and go.
In a habit’s infancy, it usually incorporates a pleasurable element. We are dragging a bit in the mid-afternoon so we go for a short walk. Because we’re also a little hungry, we pick up a chocolate bar on the way back to our desk. Mmmm – tastes good. It fills that hunger gap and the sugar gives us a boost of energy. That’s the pleasurable part. The following day we go through the same steps and before we know it, we’re in the habit of buying a chocolate bar every afternoon. Our pants begin to get a little tight, so now there is a negative consequence from the habit. As well, the chocolate bar isn’t as enjoyable because we’ve become inured to the taste. However, a habit has formed. We need only approach the kiosk or catch sight of the chocolate bar’s familiar wrapping to want one. Is it a good habit? Your brain doesn’t care. Just flip the switch and go.
Now we need to form a new habit to replace the old one, and that requires willpower. The new habit might be walking in a different direction and buying a cup of herbal tea. It’s not quite as satisfying as the chocolate, and our brains will kick up a small fuss the first day or so, nudging us in the direction of the well-worn path to the chocolate bar, but if we persist for a day or so the new habit will form.
How might this work in keeping our most important priorities at the forefront of our day?
- Eat the frog first. Schedule your crucial activities for the time your willpower is most abundant. For most of us, this is earlier in the day. Your highest priority tasks usually embody some energy-draining feature which makes them difficult. If that weren’t the case you would do them without procrastination. The difficult feature of the task or activity is usually one of two things:
- The task requires what Cal Newport calls “Deep Work”. It needs your full concentration, because you’re creating something that doesn’t currently exist – like writing an article or a report for a client.
- The work is what we at Authentic Impact call “distasteful work”. There is something about it that you simply don’t like for whatever reason (preparing your taxes, following up with foot-dragging co-workers, running errands).
- Limit your daily Must Dos to three or fewer. In total, those three things shouldn’t take longer than 3 hours. These may be a components of a larger project which can’t be completed in one sitting. Working towards it counts in your three things, provided you’ve given it your full concentration. Come hell or high water, get these three things done. You’ll accomplish more than three things, never fear, but these three are the Must Dos. Everything else is a bonus. It’s a fabulous feeling, knocking off your most important priorities by noon. Your entire afternoon can be spent doing things that don’t sap your energy or require a lot of willpower!
Remember, we are all works in progress. This is but one suggestion on how we can close the gap between the life we have now and a life we will enjoy even more in the future.