"How can I get 7-8 hours of sleep when I'm with my kids from the moment I arrive home, and I need some time for myself before bed?"
"How can I find time to exercise when I have to get up early in the morning and I'm exhausted by the time I get home in the evening?"
"How can I possibly keep up when I get 200 emails a day?"
"When is there time to think reflectively and strategically?"
These are the sorts of plaintive questions I'm asked over and over again when I give talks these days, whether they're at companies, conferences, schools, hospitals or government agencies.
Most everyone I meet feels pulled in more directions than ever, expected to work longer hours, and asked to get more done, often with fewer resources. But in these same audiences, there are also, invariably, a handful of people who are getting things done, including the important stuff, and somehow still managing to have a life.
What have they figured out that the rest of their colleagues have not?
The answer, surprisingly, is not that they have more will or discipline than you do. The counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy.
It turns out we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it gets progressively depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation. In other words, if you spend energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie, you'll have less energy left over to solve a difficult problem. Will and discipline decline inexorably as the day wears on.
"Acts of choice," the brilliant researcher Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have concluded, "draw on the same limited resource used for self-control." That's especially so in a world filled more than ever with potential temptations, distractions and sources of immediate gratification.
At the Energy Project, we help our clients develop something we call rituals — highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, so they eventually become automatic and no longer require conscious will or discipline.
The proper role for your pre-frontal cortex is to decide what behavior you want to change, design the ritual you'll undertake, and then get out of the way. "It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing," the philosopher A.N. Whitehead explained back in 1911. "The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them."
Indeed many great performers aren't even consciously aware that's what they've done. They've built their rituals intuitively.
Over the past decade, I've built a series of rituals into my everyday life, in order to assure that I get to the things that are most important to me — and that I don't get derailed by the endlessly alluring trivia of everyday life.
Here are the five rituals that have made the biggest difference to me:
- Abiding by a specific bedtime to ensure that I get 8 hours of sleep. Nothing is more critical to the way I feel every day. If I'm flying somewhere and know I'll arrive too late to get my 8 hours, I make it a priority to make up the hours I need on the plane.
- Work out as soon as I wake up. I've long since learned it has a huge impact all day long on how I feel, even if I don't initially feel like doing it.
- Launching my work day by focusing first on whatever I've decided the night before is the most important activity I can do that day. Then taking a break after 90 minutes to refuel. Today — which happens to be a Sunday — this blog was my priority. My break was playing tennis for an hour. During the week it might be just to breathe for five minutes, or get something to eat.
- Immediately writing down on a list any idea or task that occurs to me over the course of the day. Once it's on paper, it means I don't walk around feeling preoccupied by it — or risk forgetting it.
- Asking myself the following question any time I feel triggered by someone or something,: "What's the story I'm telling myself here and how could I tell a more hopeful and empowering story about this same set of facts?"
Obviously, I'm human and fallible, so I don't succeed at every one of these, every day. But when I do miss one, I pay the price, and I feel even more pulled to it the next day.
A ritual, consciously created, is an expression of fierce intentionality. Nothing less will do, if you're truly determined to take control of your life.
The good news is that once you've got a ritual in place, it truly takes on a life of its own.
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review
Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony's most recent book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.