I love helping clients uncover and get rid of those internal blocks to their success that go very deep. It isn’t always easy, but it can be pure joy to start with, say, what they have been doing to sabotage themselves, follow it back all the way to its source and get rid of it. However, not all blocks are complicated issues that need serious detective work with a coach to untangle. Some blocks to doing what we need to in our career or business are simply “reflex reactions” built into all of us that can be avoided with some easy techniques—when you know the techniques.

In the past two weeks I’ve described two ways to get around those kinds of blocks, first, by making it a little bit harder to procrastinate and second, by making it that much easier to start the activity you want to be doing. Today’s tip is another way to get yourself going on something that you just haven’t been getting around to in spite of all your good intentions. (All three of these techniques and the research behind them are explained in detail in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I highly recommend reading or listening to it on your commute.)

The Labyrinth

Making choices can be exhausting

Science tells us that making choices lowers our physical stamina, our persistence, and our overall focus, and it lowers them a lot. (Each choice also lowers our ability to do math problems, if that is relevant to you). Each choice doesn’t have to be complicated or have enormous consequences resting on it to have those effects, either. As Shawn Achor puts it, it can be as simple as “chocolate or vanilla.” When we’ve used up our “choice energy,” we start making the easiest choices that take the least amount of effort, whether or not they lead to the results we want. Then it just takes time and rest to replenish our choice energy.

I recently read about a study that showed this choice energy being used up. The study looked at the parole system in an Israeli prison and found that the earlier in the day a prisoner’s parole hearing came up, the more likely he was to get released. The researchers concluded that because it was easier and safer for the members of the parole board to deny parole than to grant it, they were more likely to make the hard choice—to grant parole—early in the day before they had made many choices, and more likely to make the easy choice—denying parole—later on after they had already made a number of choices. The only exception was for the hearings that happened right after the board’s lunch, when there was an increase in paroles granted. Apparently eating can replenish your “choice reserves” somewhat, too.

Just this week a client gave me another example of what happens when you use up your choice energy. A few years ago she took a standardized test to get into professional school and didn’t do very well. The test takes over five hours to complete, with five multiple choice sections. The questions are tricky, designed to weed out those who don’t think the way that is required in school. By the time my client got to the fifth section, she was exhausted. She couldn’t keep her focus on the questions long enough to reason them through, so she just started filling in the bubbles randomly. Her stamina, focus and persistence were gone because of all the choices she had already made in the previous sections.

Granted, one of the reasons she got to this exhausted stage was a deep-seated fear of taking tests, which dragged her down and made the first four sections of the test that much harder for her than for others taking it. But even after we finish rooting out her test anxiety, when she re-takes the exam she will still have to contend with using up her choice energy. So we’ve made a plan. To make sure she has as much “choice energy” as possible going into the test, which is on a Saturday, she is going to limit the choices that she has to make for at least twenty-four hours prior to that. She’ll do things like lay out her clothes for Friday and Saturday on Thursday night. She has already picked out what she will order at lunch with her co-workers on Friday. She will ask her partner to choose Friday’s dinner without her input. He will drive her to the test site. Any choice she can make before that twenty-four hours, or give to someone else, she will.

Save choice energy by getting rid of choices—prepare in advance and make rules

You can use a similar strategy for any project that you haven’t been able to get going on. Let’s say you’ve been meaning to make some cold calls but never get around to actually doing them. Instead of just saying to yourself, “I’m going to make some calls tomorrow, without fail” and relying on your willpower to make it happen, make all the decisions you can the night before. Write them down and leave the plan on your desk. How many calls will you make? When will you make the first call? Who will you call, and in what order? Don’t leave anything to decide on the day you make the calls that you could decide the night before. Then, when you arrive in your office the next day, there is your plan sitting right in front of you. The decisions are already made. You just have to implement them.

Another way to get around draining your choice energy—and therefore your stamina, focus and persistence—is to make rules for yourself. When you’ve made a rule, you’ve already made your choice in advance so you aren’t drawing on your choice energy when it is time to act.

Example: Jessie’s big slump at work

A good illustration of these techniques was the situation faced by my client, “Jessie,” who wanted to get more productive at work. She liked her job and her boss, but she found she was doing less and less each day, coasting on her reputation from past successes. She knew she couldn’t keep going this way much longer.

Jessie recognized that a big obstacle to her getting anything done these days was her conversations with her co-workers over coffee when she first got to work. They had turned into b- . . . er, kvetch sessions about all that was wrong with the co-workers’ managers and their jobs. By the time she got to her desk, she was unmotivated and looking for the easiest thing she could do to make it seem like she was working. The problem was compounded at lunchtime when she would join these same friends for another complaint-filled conversation that would sap her energy for the afternoon. Making herself choose anything challenging from her To Do list under those circumstances was just too much.

The answer Jessie and I came up with was to implement three rules. The first was not to have coffee with her co-workers until after 10:30 am. That way, she had at least two hours to get some work done at the beginning of the day. The second was to do first the one thing on her To Do list that she least wanted to do that day. (Of course, she picked that item out the night before.) The third rule was to turn the conversation to something more positive whenever a co-worker started in on a complaint, like what they could do next to find a better job, or where each was going to go on vacation. (Again, she picked out what the topic would be the night before.)

Two weeks after she implemented these three rules, the change was dramatic. Jessie reported that she was getting a lot more done throughout her workday, not just those first couple of hours. She had already finished two of the projects she had been dreading and avoiding. And her co-workers were also enjoying the change in their conversations. Apparently they were tired of the never-ending complaints, too.

Pick out a project and try it!

You can use this technique on anything you have been avoiding. The day before you plan to work on it, write out your plan—what you are going to work on, when, in what order, anything that you will have to decide. Put your plan front and center on your desk so that the next day you can just do it. If your problem is long-standing, or, like Jessie’s, it seems to cover a lot of activities, then come up with a rule today that you can follow tomorrow, and the next day and the next. That way the decision is already made and you won’t have to whittle away at your stamina, focus and persistence by making choices each day before starting on your project or projects.

Next week, I’ll put this technique together with the two previous techniques to show you how to implement a new, more productive habit. Until then, enjoy the extra stamina, focus and persistence you’ve recovered!

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