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If You Want To Focus More, Never Try Harder, Science Says

If You Want To Focus More, Never Try Harder, Science Says

Often when we try to focus on a task or avoid temptation we try to use all our willpower. We invest all our energy into concentrating on one thing or not thinking about the temptation. However, a study has shown that when we do this we deplete our willpower. The harder we try the more we end up fatigued and out of strength, just like the participants in the experiment.

The Study

In 1996, Roy Baumeister together with his Case Western Reserve University colleagues examined the workings of willpower. To do so they created an experiment that was somewhat cruel. They engaged participants in a food challenge that aimed to deplete the participants’ will power.

The experiment involved 67 study participants. The participants were led into a room that had the aroma of freshly baked chocolate cookies. The actual cookies and other chocolate-flavored confectionary were then brought into the room.

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Some of the participants were given permission to eat the chocolate sweets while the participants who formed the experimental condition group were told to eat radishes instead.

Many of the people who were left to eat radishes “exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them,” the scientists wrote in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper.

The Experimental Results

After the cookie and radish part of the experiment Baumeister’s team gave the participants another test that was seemingly unrelated. This test involved solving a persistence-testing puzzle. The participants were led to believe that they were undertaking an intelligence test but the real test was to see how long the students would persist before giving up.

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The participants who had been allowed to eat the chocolate treats worked on the puzzle for an average of 20 minutes. The radish eaters didn’t last nearly this long. On average they gave up after only 8 minutes.

Thus, those people who had to resist the confectionary and eat the plain vegetables could not engage in a second demanding task. Their willpower was already drained and they were too tired.

Interpretation Of The Results

For most of history it was commonly believed that willpower is a virtue that you either possess or lack. This however, is not the case as some days we have more willpower to, say for example do a good job at work.

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The central finding of this study was a breakthrough.

It was learnt that: “self-control is a general strength that’s used across different sorts of tasks  — and it could be depleted. This proved that self-regulation is not a skill to be mastered or a rote function that can be performed with little consequence. It’s like using a muscle: After exercising it, it loses its strength, gets fatigued, and becomes ineffectual, at least in the short-term.”

In other words, willpower isn’t a skill at all. It is actually more like a muscle. And like other muscles in the body, willpower gets exhausted from overuse.

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How To Improve Your Willpower

The good news is that willpower can be strengthened with practice.

In his article Colin Robertson writes: “The key is to focus on simply taking it one goal at a time. When you focus on one goal at a time, you actually strengthen your willpower!”

If we try to do too much, like, for example go on a diet and try to focus intensely on our work we end up depleting our willpower. We are like the radish eaters we took too much on ourselves and ended up getting fatigued.

It is like going to the gym and trying to bench press an enormous weight; you will end up failing. If, however, you start slowly with a smaller weight you can gradually build up muscle strength and in the end you will be bench pressing heavy weights.

Summation

So next time you want to focus on a task or avoid temptation try starting small. Give yourself bit size manageable goals and by achieving them over time you will strengthen your willpower and in the end you will have the power to accomplish more.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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