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Could Your Willpower Be Destroying Your Productivity?

New research shows that the more you try to exercise self-control, the more your productivity takes a hit.

Could Your Willpower Be Destroying Your Productivity?
[Photo: doble.d/Getty Images]

Discipline and willpower are admirable traits. A classic 1960s study, now commonly known as the Marshmallow Test, found that kids who were able to resist the temptation of a sweet treat placed within reach (with the promise of more treats to come) were more successful later in life.

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More recent research indicates that self-control contributes to happiness, greater financial security, and a better predictor of academic performance than an IQ test. As Kim Gorgens, a clinical associate professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, told Fast Company recently, “It keeps people out of jail and keeps them employed, so it’s the ‘all upside, all the time’ variable.”

Unless you’re talking about attention and memory. New research out of Duke found that the more we exercise self-control (I will not watch that cat video, I will stay focused on work), the bigger the drain on brain structures that support recall and, consequently, productivity.

The new results, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, came from a series of five small group experiments that offer insight into how the ability to inhibit an action–an essential tool for getting through the most regular of days–affects these important brain functions.

The first one had participants complete a computer-based task in which they were asked to press a button if they saw a male face but withhold a response if they saw a female face. Some were directed to do the reverse. Though the pictures were grey scale, each of the 120 images had distinct features. Then they had to turn their attention to another task with no connection to the face exercise. After five minutes, the participants were given a pop quiz to test whether they could remember the faces they’d seen in the previous task.

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Tobias Egner, one of the researchers and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, said, “You could argue quite easily that canceling a response to a stimulus might actually make that stimulus more memorable.” Except that it didn’t. The faces that required respondents to inhibit their action (not pressing a button depending on the gender) were less memorable.

Another study with a new set of participants looking at and responding to 120 different faces were told to press “N” for female and “V” for male. This time, though, they were instructed not to do anything if they heard a beep. After completing another filler task, the participants in this experiment did just as poorly at recall as the first group.

Photos: Flickr users Jo Christian Oterhals, Big D2112

To find out why, the researchers hooked the participants up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to study their brain activity as they completed the tasks. They discovered that when participants had to restrain their responses, their memory suffered. The researchers saw brain function reduced in the area called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for visual processing and memory. They theorize it is because their attention was being redirected towards maintaining self-control–and in the case of these experiments, by not pushing buttons.

In the workplace, it could look like this: You are working on a task that is somewhat rote. You might have a column of budget numbers to analyze, or you are sorting a list of potential contacts to meet at a networking event. The act of assigning some, but not all, to a specific category (I want to be sure to introduce myself to this person during cocktail hour) could inhibit your recall of those specifics. Is it better to wing it? The research doesn’t offer a definitive solution, but the findings indicate that the act of holding off on an action within a larger task (I’m not adding this person to my to-meet list) might make them that much less memorable down the road.

The researchers point out that while this exercise in self-control suggests a direct effect on memory, it doesn’t work the same way in the control process of detecting and resolving conflict. That, they say, has been found to enhance subsequent memory. “We argue that these differential effects arise from the fact that conflict resolution involves the reinforcement of top-down attention toward target stimuli, thus facilitating their encoding into memory,” they write.

In other words, your brain is on high alert when a conflict is brewing in the workplace. A bully boss or toxic coworker creating drama becomes the target stimuli. Your own self control, in this case, requires you to rein in the impulse to instigate or fight back. “We exert a profound influence on interactions with what we don’t say, type, or forward,” author Geoffrey Tumlin told Fast Company.

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Previous studies cited by this team suggest that we are not just influencing others by our self control, but we may be enhancing our memory and its ability to assist when future conflicts such as these arise.

The upshot is that self-control works great in some cases, but in others, it’s just another distraction.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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