Peter F. Drucker
“Nothing can withstand the power of the human will if it is willing to stake its very existence to the extent of its purpose.”
“Life is the sum of all your choices.”
Reserve your willpower for your pursuit of mastery.
One of the best pieces of advice I received in Graduate school came from one of my committee members. I was struggling with how to write my thesis. Specifically, I was having a hard time producing more than a paragraph a day. I would write sporadically whenever I had time between experiments, or I would write late at night after I got home from a long day in the lab. After I told him how I was writing, he shook his head and said, “Here’s what you do: first thing in the morning, right after you wake up and eat breakfast, take your computer and your notes to the science library, lock yourself in one of the study rooms, write for 5 hours, and be done. Don’t write any more after that because it will all be crap. Do that every day in the exact same way and you’ll be finished in 2 weeks.”
I thought he was nuts. There was no way I could finish my thesis in 2 weeks, especially after hearing countless stories of other students taking 6 months to a year to finish their theses. But I gave it a shot. I finished my entire thesis in 13 days. After I graduated, that same committee member told me it was the best written thesis he had ever seen come out of the University of Iowa. Without knowing it at the time, I had utilized the key principles of deliberate practice and the 5-hour rule to prevent willpower depletion and be massively productive.
Willpower Depletion Theory
Willpower depletion, or ego depletion theory is the idea that the human mind has a limited reserve of willpower. Willpower can be thought of as a kind of instinctual override, a way to interrupt your brain’s automatic processing in order to do something else. For example, if you’re hiking in the woods and come upon a grizzly bear, the primitive part of your brain will process the event and scream “RUN!” and flood your body with adrenaline and other fight-or-flight chemicals. But the more advanced, decision-making part of your brain will tell you to stay calm and play dead. A more practical example would include walking by a table of free donuts when you’re hungry and not taking the bait. Willpower is simply your ability to inhibit your brain’s natural inclinations. In other words, willpower is your ability to say ‘no’ to bad decisions. And saying ‘no’ to bad decisions is critical to developing as a leader and achieving your goals.
Cognitive strain depletes willpower. Several studies have shown that each person has their own individual willpower limit and this limit is depleted by mental effort. Stanford University professor Baba Shiv performed an experiment involving two groups of students. Individuals in the first group were given a two-digit number to remember, while individuals in the second group were given a seven-digit number to remember. Both groups were instructed to remember the number, walk down a long hallway, and repeat the number to another experimenter in a room down the hall. The interesting part is that halfway down the hall, a young woman was waiting by a table with a large plate of fresh orange slices on one side and a large plate of chocolate fudge cake on the other side. She asked each participant to choose which snack they would like after completing the memorization task. The people in the second group, those laboring under the strain of remembering a seven-digit number, chose the cake far more often than those who had to recall the two-digit number. Concentration comes at a price; it can weaken your internal influences and make you more susceptible to bad decisions.
Your willpower consists of a set-number of decision-making units. These units affect your ability to not only make good decisions, but to focus and concentrate in general. Regardless of whether or not you can increase your willpower, the amount of mental strain you can put yourself through each day is limited. Once you reach your personal limit, you will lose your ability to concentrate and make good decisions. Understand: deliberate practice relies on willpower. By definition, deliberate practice requires that a person is completely engaged in a certain task, repeating the task over and over again, and constantly receiving and responding to immediate feedback. This kind of effort requires high levels of focus and constant decision-making. The practicing person has to constantly make decisions to stay engaged, to respond to feedback, and to figure out how to proceed. As a result, deliberate practice results in high levels of mental strain. This is why even top performers only spend about 5 hours daily in deliberate practice. Due to willpower depletion, any time spent practicing beyond this number is not worth the investment. After 5 hours of intense concentration, your internal influences become weak and vulnerable.
The key to breaking the 10,000-hour rule is increasing the quality of every hour you spend in deliberate practice. The only way to do this is to make each hour count for more. For example, through association, you can double, triple, or quadruple the quality of each hour you spend in deliberate practice by practicing with a small tribe of two, three, or four people. Similarly, you can converge your efforts so that each hour of deliberate practice counts towards two or more different pursuits. And through the process of metamorphosis, you can springboard off the work of other people to practice at higher levels. In other words, you can elevate the starting point of each hour you spend in deliberate practice by standing on top of the deliberate practice of others. The final 3 ways to shave hours off of the 10,000-hour rule involve restructuring the rest of your life to maximize the impact of each hour of deliberate practice. Through the processes of ritualization, automation, and adjustment, you can influence motivation and save your decision-making units for your pursuit of mastery.
Ritualization refers to the process of creating rituals, or habits. In the book, The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses a study involving mice in a cheese maze. The first time the mice are put into a particular maze, their brain activity is robust and intense. The mice sniff and claw the walls, analyzing every part of the maze as they race through it to find the cheese at the end. Here’s the interesting part: if the mice are put in the same maze day and after day, they find the cheese faster but their overall brain activity decreases. This is because the mice have ritualized the process of finding the cheese. In other words, they’ve formed a habit. During ritualization, a tiny part of your brain, called the basal ganglia, takes over a series of actions so that you no longer have to actively concentrate or make decisions. In this way, your brain conserves mental energy.
Ritualization saves willpower. Ritualization is what allows you to tie your shoe or brush you teeth without thinking about it. The more rituals you can build around your hours of deliberate practice, the more mental energy you will have available for those hours. Rituals rely on triggers, routines, and rewards. When I was writing my thesis in Graduate school, I created the ritual of waking up (the trigger), going directly to the science library to write for 5 hours (the routine), and then going for a run outside (the reward). The key is that going to the library and setting up to write was a routine, but the writing itself was not routine. The writing was deliberate practice, which, by definition, can never be ritualized. The only way to maintain a state of deliberate practice is to constantly push yourself outside of the comfort, or habit, zone.
Deliberate practice hours are non-transferrable. It is possible to increase the quality of your hours through association, or synergy, with other people. It’s also possible to use other people’s hours as a launching pad for your own hours. However, it’s not possible for other people to directly add hours to your 10,000-hour mark. For example, a computer engineer can increase the quality of the hours he spends coding by working with a core of engineers, or by using chunks of code from another superior engineer, but he can’t leave to run errands and have someone else code for him. But he could do the reverse. He could have someone run his errands while he continues to code. This is called automation.
Automate as much of your life as possible. Automation is the process of using people, machines, and control systems to perform tasks that do not require your direct engagement. You can conserve willpower and increase the quality of the hours you spend in deliberate practice by having other people take care of your daily tasks. Automation differs from ritualization in that it doesn’t involve any direct action by you. Instead of putting your own actions on autopilot, you are having other people, or machines, take action for you. I am a big fan of hiring virtual assistants or freelance assistance to take care of my accounting and other administrative tasks. Just make sure you spend time upfront training these assistants to perform their tasks properly, otherwise they can decrease the quality of your hours by creating drama. Importantly, you cannot automate your interactions with other people. Connecting with others will always require your own personal, focused engagement. Too many people and businesses learned this lesson the hard way by trying to automate or outsource their customer support, only to lose their best customers.
Adjusting your internal and external environments is a powerful way to save up willpower for your hours of deliberate practice. Experiments at Florida State University found that the ability to successfully use willpower for self-control is dependent on physiological factors, most notably your blood glucose levels. Decisions involving willpower deplete your blood glucose stores and when these stores run low, you have a hard time using willpower to inhibit your behavior. This is why you have the urge to binge or make belligerent decisions late at night or after a long workweek. The key here is to make your body less reliant on blood glucose for energy by restricting your carbohydrate intake and finding ways to eat healthy. I suggest eating a diet of mostly plants and animals. The less your insulin levels fluctuate, the less your willpower will fluctuate. This steadiness of state will keep your internal influences strong, which will help you increase happiness, improve self-confidence, and develop leadership skills.
Control your environment or it will control you. Understand: your external environment can crush your hopes and dreams. If you have a sweet tooth and are trying to lose weight, don’t keep a box of Twinkies in your house. It’s much easier to say no to a Twinkie if you never see one. Out of site, out of mind. By keeping temptations and negative influences out of your external environment, you take away the need to make a good decision. There’s no decision to be made. As a result, you save your decision-making power for your deliberate hours of practice. Similarly, if your goal is to workout every morning, start laying out your gym clothes the night before. That way, you take away the decision of what to wear and what to do when you wake up. This makes achieving your goal much easier. Restructure your environment so that it fits with your pursuit of mastery. Align every part of your life with your overall purpose in life. In my next post, I will delve more deeply into how you can maintain your pursuit of mastery.