Don’t will yourself to succeed; adjust your situation and environment

by | Sep 2, 2014 | Blog | 0 comments

cake and ice cream biteThe behavior of two employees has become both a blessing and a curse to their leaders.

As one of the leaders explained, the two employees admitted that they’re working outside of the office as much as they can because they don’t like being around another employee in their work area.

They find this other employee to be grouchy, whiny and short-tempered—an energy vampire.

By avoiding this employee as much as possible, the other two employees are more than likely enjoying positive benefits. For example, they’re probably reducing their stress, their chances of lashing out, and feeling positive rather than undesirable emotions.

These employees are also probably improving their productivity.

Because they’re out of sight and able to keep the energy vampire out of mind, they’re enjoying peace of mind and greater effectiveness.

That’s the blessing for their leaders, which their leaders did not fully appreciate.

The leaders have recognized the curse.

With the two employees out of the office so much, all the employees have fewer opportunities to interact with one another formally and informally. The lack of contact is leading to less face-to-face collaboration, which may hinder the organization’s creativity and innovation.

Yet, requiring the two employees to spend more time in the office without taking any other actions probably would backfire.

The leaders need to acknowledge that it’s hard to be creative and collaborative when you’re expending significant amounts of energy trying to regulate your behavior, especially if it could involve suppressing your emotions.

You see, these two “out-of-office” employees are practicing what the social psychologists and neuroscientists call “situation selection and modification.”

Situation selection and modification are two of the healthiest ways to practice self-control, as I’ve been learning in my applied neuroscience class through the NeuroLeadership Institute.

When you take the initiative to avoid putting yourself in what could be bad situations for yourself—as these two individuals do—you’re better able to regulate your emotions. You minimize the risk of becoming angry, annoyed, irritated, impatient, stressed, etc.

You set yourself up for success. You also can modify your physical environment to accomplish similar positive results.

For example, when you work at the office do you get upset about succumbing to distractions, which means you’re working longer and harder?

To work smarter, change your work environment, namely how you use your computer when you need to focus on important projects. For example, try closing your email. Or, even better, use one of the many computer programs that will keep you on track and out of email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other fun, but time-suck diversions.

When you shape your physical space or remove yourself, you can manage how you react without having to count on willpower.

Willpower as a tool for self-control is highly overrated.

Even if you are blessed with strong willpower, it’s still a limited resource that can run out when you most need it.

Willpower is very much like a muscle. The more you rely on willpower for whatever task you do, the more drained and tired you become.

You can replenish your willpower only through rest.

As a result, you may find your willpower depleted when you most need it—especially since most of us overestimate the amount of willpower we have and its strength.

Everywhere we turn these days, we encounter events that tax and exhaust our willpower.

Consider the driver who cuts you off. The missing password that locks you out of an important document. The individual who calls to chat when you’re running late to a meeting. The cookie you pass up at lunch.

By evening, you’re tempted to eat at least one bite of cake and ice cream even though you’re full and still are craving the cookie from lunch.

For background about the groundbreaking 1998 research on self-control, check out the article The Chocolate and Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern Conception of Willpower.

The lesson? The more you can avoid or adjust situations that remove or restrict stimuli that you know can trigger behavior you could regret later, the better you can maintain your self-control.

Now, what do the leaders do about the employees who have mastered their self-control and are staying far away from the “obnoxious” employee and the office?

Besides commending the employees for not blowing up at the office and avoiding other bad behavior, the leaders need to deal with the unintended consequences of reduced interaction, collaboration and teamwork. That will require some careful interventions.

Those interventions are a topic for another day as my willpower is running on low, and yours probably is too.

However, I will leave you with this question. What are your most effective ways to take control to maintain your self-control?


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