Self-control, willpower in the workplace: A marathon, not a sprint

July 24, 2017 | Ankita Poddar | HCI
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What is the best time of day to go for a run?

“Research suggests in terms of performing a consistent exercise habit, individuals who exercise in the morning tend to do better,” Cedric Bryant, Ph.D. says.

Bryant is Chief Science Officer of the American Council on Exercise. His answer is based on ego depletion, a concept that suggests self-control and willpower draw from a limited pool of mental resources. Ego depletion implies that the toughest tasks should be completed at the start of your day – when you have maximum self-control and willpower. Difficult jobs are less likely to get done later in the day.

Ego depletion reflects what Mark Twain once said, “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”

The good part is that self-control works like a muscle; while it can get fatigued, it can also be strengthened. As for willpower, the amount you have can be increased by maintaining drive until it no longer draws from the limited pool. Some studies show that intake of glucose, comedy movies and surprise gifts can help reverse ego-depletion. However, relative conclusions are still under debate. Exercise every day at the break of dawn can become routine, allowing saved self-control and willpower to challenges that come later in your day.

Marketers have leveraged this phenomenon for quite some time, studying the complexity that comes with consumer decisions and its impact on ego depletion. They’ve found ego depletion to be directly tied to subsequent decisions consumers must make. When consumers are depleted, they are more likely to become passive and make impulsive choices, especially when there’s a lot to choose from.  

So what are the implications of ego depletion at the workplace?

Leaders should be careful not to over-burden employees with too many choices on a daily basis, like where to sit and what to wear. The reserve is attacked every time an employee makes a choice. Management should minimize non-value add decisions for employees. Take a walk around the workplace and look at what decisions an employee is pushed to make on a daily basis that may chip away at self-control and willpower.

Help workers eat the frog by scheduling difficult decisions that need employees’ complete attention early in the day, knowing that late night decisions have a higher probability to be erroneous. Find ways to train team members to increase their willpower reserve so they have more fuel for engagement, high performance and good decisions throughout the day. Lastly, throw some sugary snacks around for when they need that extra boost, maybe even share a joke.

There’s a reason why Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same clothes on an everyday basis. It is the same reason why most great leaders choose to put on their running shoes first thing in the morning. So look around. How do you plan to beat ego depletion?