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How Willpower Affects Your Ability to Focus

Shu Omi
Shu Omi
Hey :) How are you doing today?
I switched from Google Pixel 3 to iPhone 11 last week.
Since I love touching my new phone, I keep it on my desk while working.
But the problem is that I can’t focus! Every time I see it, I get distracted and check new emails, search interesting apps, go on Twitter etc.
Then I stumbled upon this video “Willpower is for Losers” by What I’ve Learned, which is one of my most favourite Youtube channels.
In the video, he explains why you shouldn’t rely on willpower to resist temptations.
Here are a few things I learned about willpower.
1. Resisting a temptation depletes your willpower even if you successfully resisted the temptation.
You have only certain amount of willpower a day. This is the concept of ego depletion - the idea that willpower is like a muscle you can tire it out. So, if you use lots of willpower on one thing, then you have much less willpower energy left to use later to resist temptations or to stay focused.
A famous experiment known as The Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment by Roy Baumeister confirms that ego depletion is a thing.
In this experiment, 67 people who hadn’t eaten for at least three hours walked into a room filled with the aroma of just-baked chocolate chip cookies. They sit down to a table with two bowls - one filled with warm chocolate chip cookies and the other one filled with radishes.
Half of the people were told to eat the radishes and couldn’t touch the cookies. Afterwards, they were told to work on a difficult puzzle. The puzzle was actually impossible to solve, but the point was to see how long they would try to solve it.
The radish people gave up on the puzzle almost twice as fast as the chocolate chip cookies people. It shows the radish people were tired from using their willpower on resisting cookies. So they had less willpower energy left to use on the puzzle.
The key takeaway from this experiment is this: the more desires you resisted, the more likely you are to give in to future desires.
For instance, when you’re at work, you resist many temptations such as skipping a meeting, taking a longer lunch break and going home early, all of which consume your willpower. Then when you get home, you’re more likely to give in to temptations such as watching Netflix, getting a takeaway instead of cooking, or eating sweets because you have little willpower left to resist them.
2. Productive people plan their life so that they don’t have to use willpower in the first place, rather than exerting more willpower to resist temptations
Many people, including myself, try to figure out how they can resist temptations better. But productive people remove the sources of temptations so that they don’t have to use willpower in the first place.
For example, if you love video games, you may spend a few hours trying to figure out how to resist the temptation to play the games. But productive people would just throw them away, or don’t buy them.
As shown in the chocolate-and-radish experiment, resisting a temptation still depletes your willpower even if you succeed. So, even if you successfully resisted the temptation to play the video games, it still took a bunch of willpower away from you, which means less energy you can use on staying focused and productive. This is precisely why you should just get rid of them, removing the option to play the games completely. That way, you don’t have to waste any willpower.
We shouldn’t underestimate how much of an impact temptations have on our concentration and productivity. Apparently, even the simplest temptation of an unread email in your inbox reduces your effective IQ by 10 points when you’re trying to focus on a task. A temptation to just check a shiny new email impairs your brain performance so much! This is why you should just turn your phone off or leave it somewhere you can’t see while working.
3. Having so many choices of things to do all the time can cause a persistent feeling of indecision or uncertainty
Having many choices of things to do lowers your productivity. For example, when you’re working from home, you have many options such as doing work, playing video games, taking a nap, watching Netflix…
Each action has its own reward for a cost. But the action that provides the most reward for the cost is not always clear.
This indecisiveness and uncertainty can activate the brain in a way that generates anxiety and lowers your ability to focus.
Thus, what you want to do is to remove some of the choices you have. Just like in the video games example, you want to remove the option to play them by throwing them away or locking them up.
“We always have tons of choices throughout the day, should I do this or that, or just do this for a little bit, and then do that productive thing.
A simple way to reduce that uncertainty and indecision and stop being distracted by these choices, is to make the choices that you don’t want to make harder, or simply delete them.
Use less willpower, not more.”
So, the solution for me to stay focused seems to remove the option to touch my phone while working. I decided to leave my phone in a different room during my deep work time.
As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, an effective way to break a bad habit is to make the trigger of the bad habit weaker or more obscure, which in this case was seeing my phone.
*** I added more notes to my mind garden - so check it out if you’re interested ;) - ***

My Favourites of the Week
Favourite app: Sorted
I’ve been using this app for task management and scheduling. It’s great. I always found time-blocking cumbersome, but Sorted makes it super easy.
Shu Omi
Been using @staysortedapp for a few days for task management + scheduling.

I love how it makes time blocking so easy to do with auto-scheduling🙌

I was on the fence between Sorted and Things 3 but think I’m going to stick with Sorted!
Favourite articles
Since I quit my corporate job to focus on creative work as a freelancer, this article gave me a few great ideas what to do next in my career :)
Favorite podcast
Transactional analysis - Not Overthinking by Ali and Taimur Abdaal
Ali and Taimur made 3 episodes about transactional analysis, which is something I’d love to learn more about. It’s a really interesting model to understand human behaviours.
Finally, if you like this newsletter, please share it with your friends and share it on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram. I’d be very grateful!
Have a fantastic week!
This Week's Videos - Finding your niche + Consistency
How to Find Your Niche
How to Find Your Niche
How to Be Consistent | Creating a Successful Blog and a Youtube Channel
How to Be Consistent | Creating a Successful Blog and a Youtube Channel
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Shu Omi
Shu Omi @ShuOmi3

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