Productivity and GTD

Self-Control and Personal Productivity

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“Emotional self-control is the result of hard work, not an inherent skill.” ~ Travis Bradberry
Self control

In each and every one of us two ways of thinking exist which have been differently named by psychologists throughout time. Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences due to his investigations on human judgement and its involvement in economical decision making, describes these two systems as follows:

  • System 1 operates in a fast and automatic way, with hardly no effort or voluntary control.
  • System 2 carries out mental activities that require effort in the moment they are demanded. These are activities related to subjective experience of acting, choosing and concentrating.

The existence of these two systems implies that, if we are facing a challenging cognitive task and a temptation at the same time, it’s more likely that we surrender to the temptation. System 1 influences more our behaviour whenever System 2 is busy.

Self-control, which is one of the tasks that System 2 executes, requires attention and effort. It’s been conclusively demonstrated that all variants of voluntary effort use a sort of mental energy shared fund. It isn’t just a metaphor. It seems to be that when we put effort into a mental activity our nervous system consumes more glucose than it would normally do (yes, restabilising the brain sugar levels can help you maintain an effort a longer period of time).

Making use of will or self-control implies an effort that can be exhausting (ego depletion). This is why whenever we put a lot of effort on doing something, exercising self-control becomes difficult if the next challenge is near.

There is a great variety of tasks that weaken our self-control, from making a somehow complex mathematical calculation to trying to impress someone or even inhibiting an emotional response at a given time. Moreover, when self-control starts to run out we start performing some cognitive tasks very poorly, we make the worst possible decisions, we become more irascible and we are more likely to stop a diet or buy something compulsively, for instance.

The clear conclusion is that after exercising self-control to do a task, we have less effort capacity to do the next one.

In his absorbing book Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman tells that one of the most shocking studies about the effects of the self-control depletion was carried out with some judges from Israel who spent entire days revising parole applications. The number of petitions approved was seen to significantly decrease during the two hours previous to their next meal, reaching nearly zero just before eating. However, after eating the proportion of petitions approved boosted up to 65%.

Fatigue and hunger makes us make the easiest decision, the one that requires less effort. System 1 beats System 2, that is exhausted.

Definitely, it becomes quite obvious that both self-discipline and rest are fundamental aspects that you need to know how to manage, not only in order to improve your personal productivity, but also the quality of the outcomes.

4 comments

8bb2c9a97155fbcffcc91ca918d103c7
Commented about 3 years ago Cyrus

An excellent article.

Self-discipline is, in my opinion, how self-control is maintained. "Control" is just a word we use to suggest we are able to make the most appropriate choices that keep us out of trouble and on track. Discipline is the ability to keep moving in the right direction when everything we sense, both physically, mentally, and spiritually, is suggesting otherwise. Eat a candy bar or stay on my diet? Stay up until 2 AM or go to bed and get a good night's sleep? Simple stuff, but it all depends on the moment.

This is where the GTD system comes into play for me. It is a system I trust. When I put a task in, I know what to expect when it comes back out. More to the point, I know that the past me who is using the system is thinking about the future me, and the present me can fully trust what the past me provided.

The use of routines is also very important in the system. Anything you can automate, delegate, or even do with as little energy as possible are good to record and note. Then you know what to do, when to do it, how much energy and time it will take, and what to expect when it is done. A person' level of discipline is less tested in calm waters. Anything that takes you 2 minutes to complete won't even cause a ripple. A task that is 2 or more hours long is like being in a storm at sea.

I also find "bursts" of activity followed by brief and long breaks to be very helpful. Commonly referred to as the Pomodoro Technique, it helps me get started, keep on task, and rewards me with a break to recharge and circle back in.

The measure of a person's discipline is defined by their level of control and a person's strength of control is based fully on the stable foundation of their discipline. They are one and the same, two pieces of the same puzzle we all struggle to solve.

8bb2c9a97155fbcffcc91ca918d103c7 Cyrus

An excellent article.

Self-discipline is, in my opinion, how self-control is maintained. "Control" is just a word we use to suggest we are able to make the most appropriate choices that keep us out of trouble and on track. Discipline is the ability to keep moving in the right direction when everything we sense, both physically, mentally, and spiritually, is suggesting otherwise. Eat a candy bar or stay on my diet? Stay up until 2 AM or go to bed and get a good night's sleep? Simple stuff, but it all depends on the moment.

This is where the GTD system comes into play for me. It is a system I trust. When I put a task in, I know what to expect when it comes back out. More to the point, I know that the past me who is using the system is thinking about the future me, and the present me can fully trust what the past me provided.

The use of routines is also very important in the system. Anything you can automate, delegate, or even do with as little energy as possible are good to record and note. Then you know what to do, when to do it, how much energy and time it will take, and what to expect when it is done. A person' level of discipline is less tested in calm waters. Anything that takes you 2 minutes to complete won't even cause a ripple. A task that is 2 or more hours long is like being in a storm at sea.

I also find "bursts" of activity followed by brief and long breaks to be very helpful. Commonly referred to as the Pomodoro Technique, it helps me get started, keep on task, and rewards me with a break to recharge and circle back in.

The measure of a person's discipline is defined by their level of control and a person's strength of control is based fully on the stable foundation of their discipline. They are one and the same, two pieces of the same puzzle we all struggle to solve.

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb
Commented about 3 years ago Francisco Sáez

Hi Cyrus,

I agree, GTD is a great system to help maintain self-control at bay. The good thing about routines is that they are executed by System 1, that is, without effort and energy depletion. Anything we can turn into a routine, a habit, is something we don't need to worry about any more.

Thanks for bringing the Pomodoro Technique to the surface. I use that tool daily and it's fantastic to balance work and rest, optimizing energy levels.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Cyrus.

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb Francisco Sáez

Hi Cyrus,

I agree, GTD is a great system to help maintain self-control at bay. The good thing about routines is that they are executed by System 1, that is, without effort and energy depletion. Anything we can turn into a routine, a habit, is something we don't need to worry about any more.

Thanks for bringing the Pomodoro Technique to the surface. I use that tool daily and it's fantastic to balance work and rest, optimizing energy levels.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Cyrus.

00d0a361be3efa69c937adcb1446d9cd
Commented about 3 years ago Günther

Thank you! Valuable insights, again. And another book bought, after you introduced it to me, again. This does contribute to me not having replied to your e-mail yet due to lack of time, Francisco ;-).

00d0a361be3efa69c937adcb1446d9cd Günther

Thank you! Valuable insights, again. And another book bought, after you introduced it to me, again. This does contribute to me not having replied to your e-mail yet due to lack of time, Francisco ;-).

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb
Commented about 3 years ago Francisco Sáez

No problem, Günther. That's a book worth reading ;)

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb Francisco Sáez

No problem, Günther. That's a book worth reading ;)

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