Because Willpower is Finite

This past school year, I frequently started my workday feeling frazzled and worn out from wrangling my toddler and kindergartener for three hours in the morning before they went off to daycare and school. (My husband is a high school teacher and leaves the house early, so mornings are periods that I’m on solo kid duty.) Instead of getting down to work right away, I’d often steal “just a few minutes for myself” when I got back from kid drop-off. Inevitably, I’d want to do something easy and stimulating—reading the news or scrolling through social media. These few minutes would not infrequently turn into an hour, cutting into my precious daycare hours and leaving me feeling icky about the start to my workday.

Cal Newport’s advice in Deep Work to schedule internet time (and stay away from the internet the rest of the time) made a lot of sense to me, and I hated the fact that I struggled to implement this advice.

And so I found it reassuring when I read explanations of ego depletion and decision fatigue in the book Triggers by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. I had read before that willpower decreases over the course of the day, but had never understood why. Goldsmith summarizes research showing that self-control is finite and is depleted with steady use; the more decisions we need to make, the more run-down we are when we make decisions later in the day. Goldsmith’s solution is structure: specifically, creating structure for ourselves, so that we don’t need to deplete our self-control by constantly disciplining ourselves or having to make decisions about how to spend our time.

Some days are more depleting than others. In my case, I realized that when I spent 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. wrangling the kids, I was already in a somewhat depleted state when I started my workday. And so I needed to make settling down to work both easy and automatic.

The key external piece of structure that I set up for myself was setting my internet blocker to automatically kick in at a set time, so that I didn’t need to resist the temptation of the internet every morning. (I leave a small number of useful websites whitelisted and cut off access to the rest for my core work hours.) I also worked on creating routines that give me a small buffer between the morning wrangle and my work day, but that don’t easily lead to self-sabotage. At the end of the school year, I was still giving myself a “few minutes to myself” when I got home from morning dropoff—but I’d spend the time with a snack and my bullet journal, or just doing some stretches.

Rituals have also become a part of my structure. For each focused work session, I set two timers, an old-school egg timer and one on my computer. My husband tells me that the tick-tick-tick of the egg timer would drive him crazy, but it helps me focus. I also turn on a rain & coffee shop noise mix that I find weirdly calming.

And so, readers, I’m curious. During the summer, have you found ways to shape your days and do the work you most care about? What sorts of strategies have you figured out for making it easy and automatic to buckle down to work? Have specific routines and rituals been helpful?

Ellen Tilton-Cantrell