In one of the past articles on self-control titled “Pace yourself for improved performance,” I explained how energy-depleting mental tasks such as decision-making and multitasking make self-control even more difficult. This is due to the belief that we have a limited amount of energy each day, and self-control, which also consumes energy, is weakened if high amounts of energy are consumed on other tasks.
Because of the importance of self-control, we should take care to prioritize our tasks according to both their importance and their energy consumption. For example, do the highest priority tasks first, but if they are also the highest energy-consuming tasks –those that require concentration, decision-making and problem-solving – limit the amount of time spent on them at any one time. Priority tasks that require little energy, such as ordering items online or making phone calls can be done in quantity. Any high-energy tasks that are unimportant can be either deleted or delayed.
Self-control puts a burden on the prefrontal cortex, where executive skills such as self-control reside. But you can lessen the burden by organizing your home or office so that the temptation to interrupt yourself or become distracted is reduced. This will conserve energy.
For instance, the temptation to grab a coffee is less if the coffee pot is out of sight and out of reach. Peter Collins, in his book Neuro-Discipline, refers to a Cornell University study where a jar containing Hershey’s Kisses was either transparent or opaque. These jars were placed on participants’ desks, and on average they ate 7.7 kisses per day if they had a transparent jar and 4.6 per day if they had an opaque one. When the jars were also placed 6 feet away so they couldn’t be easily reached, the participants ate 5.6 kisses per day from the transparent jars and only 3.1 per day from the opaque jars.
The old expression, “Out of sight out of mind” is not just a useless bromide.
Your office or home environment does have an impact on your ability to practice self-control. If you are distracted by activity outside your window, make sure your desk faces a blank wall. If you are interrupted by your iPhone beeping every time a message arrives, set it on airplane mode. If you’re tempted to grab for your iPhone every time you think of someone to call, put it in a drawer out of reach. If you want to resist drinking sodas, replace the ones in the refrigerator with bottled water instead. And so on.
An organized environment is easier on energy consumption. When unused files, pending work and reading material are out of sight and out of reach you have less chance of being distracted. A cluttered office produces a cluttered mind, and wastes valuable mental energy that can be better used on self-control and productive work.
Marketers make it easier for you to yield to impulse by placing magazines and chocolate bars in front of you while you wait in the checkout line and casinos make it easier to yield to the impulse to gamble by placing slot machines in front of you while you wait in a line to buy tickets for a show. So why not make it easier to maintain self-control by working on difficult tasks in small chunks of time, a little at a time, and by organizing your work area and removing distractions?
Developing routines and habits will also make it easier to do the right thing. I will discuss habits and routines in the next post.