Entrepreneurship is a tough gig.
When I started my business in 2005, I was full of energy. I was so excited to finally be on a path that felt right. I’d always known I was meant to do more than sit in a cubicle farm and make someone else rich. Those early days were full of long, caffeine fuelled nights, completing projects for clients before I got up and went to my day job.
I had my first breakdown in 2010. I was exhausted. I’d been working 120 hour (minimum) weeks for 5 years. Funnily enough, the breakdown happened at the height of things going really well. We were in a good place financially. So I relaxed … and found I couldn’t get out of bed for a week.
Being a normally highly motivated person, I beat myself up daily for this.
I called myself lazy and stupid. I gave myself lectures about how being weak wasn’t going to get me my outcome. I tried to force myself to sit in front of the computer and do something … only to have my husband and business partner usher me back to bed.
“It’s pointless,” he’d say. “You’re not doing anything – you’re like a black hole sucking up all of the good vibes … you need to rest.”
It took me a few weeks to really recover from that meltdown. And I didn’t want to go through it again. So I started looking into ways that I could be less weak and lazy … ways to turn myself into a creature made of steel who could work 24 hours a day with no adverse effects.
The REAL Reason You’re
Going To Eat That Ice Cream After
Not Going To The Gym Tonight …
In 1998 a group of social psychologists, lead by Roy Baumesiter performed an experiment. (1)
They created a tempting experience for participants and had them resist it. They then asked the participants to complete a complex puzzle task. They found that those who had resisted the temptation in the first instance, subsequently found the task more difficult and persisted with it for a shorter amount of time.
Think of Willpower like a battery.
Everyone starts off with a different amount of charge – some people are more highly charged, some less. This basic charge is highly dependent on your ego level – those who have a strong sense of self and self-esteem in any area of their lives typically have a far higher charge than those with low self-esteem. Either way, though, the basic charge is always limited.
Every time you engage in an activity that requires willpower, you drain the battery in line with the amount of willpower that was required to complete it.
The scientific term for this is “Ego Depletion” – which I love. Ego’s gotten a pretty bad wrap over the last few decades. But the actual definition of Ego is “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”.
Willpower and discipline require ego. They require you to have high enough self-esteem to believe that it’s important that you follow through on the promises you make. They require you to feel as though you are important enough to keep a promise to.
That’s why people with depression can come across as “lazy” – because their sense of self and self-esteem are so low that they physically have no willpower. Getting off the couch is literally beyond them. And of course, because their self-esteem is low, they’re likely to blame themselves for not doing better, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of ego-depletion.
What’s interesting about Ego Depletion is that it gives context to a whole range of motivational techniques that professionals have been advising us to use for years. It also provides context as to why those motivational techniques don’t always work.
Ego Depletion is not a get out of jail free card. It’s not an excuse to do no work,
“Ahhh well. I worked out today and that depleted my ego, so I’m not going to make any sales calls!”
It is, however, a real and physical issue that you need to take into account. You can’t work forever with no break. It’s just not possible. You can’t just do all of the horrible things you hate without doing some of the stuff you’re good at and enjoy – no matter how much or a martyr you are, it’s too depleting.
Of course, remember also that self-esteem comes from facing difficult tasks and overcoming them. So keeping a good balance of doing things that are hard and easy is key.
1. Eat the Frog. You’ve probably heard Personal Trainers banging on about how you have to be organised … or business mentors talking about “eating the frog”. Ego Depletion gives us scientific evidence as to why this is important.Start by mapping your day out – list everything that needs doing.Then, organize that list in the order of things you least want to do. Do one of these things first – but then balance it out with a recharging activity. For instance, you might start with a 30 minute jog along the beach, but then go to a café for a coffee. Get back to the office and make sales calls for an hour – but then shoot and edit a marketing video. It’s all about knowing what depletes and charges you.
2. Rewards are more powerful than punishments. Studies found that recharging your willpower battery happens faster when your mood is high(2) – so, after completing a willpower task reward yourself by playing a high energy song, watching a funny movie, doing something that makes you smile, or buying yourself a present. Not only does this work as a reward system to encourage you to continue completing those tasks, the very act of making yourself happy will renew your energy much faster than if your energy was to remain low.Of course the other side to this is not beating yourself up for needing a break or not getting things done. The negative associated emotions will create a situation in which it takes even longer to recover.
3. Mindset is EVERYTHING. I know you know that. But it really is. The thing about the requirement of willpower is that it’s all in your mind … that’s why you might find it difficult to go to the gym – but have absolutely no problems doing an hour long dance class. One thing feels like work – the other feels like fun.With this in mind, the ability to reprogram ourselves becomes crucial. Find a way to make the thing you don’t want to do fun!Hate exercising? Join a dance class, go roller skating or do a martial art. Hate making sales calls? Pour yourself a glass of wine and jump in the pool (or bath!). Find a way to look forward to the thing you don’t want to do.
Personally, I hate flying. 14 hours cooped up with strangers in a metal box is basically my idea of hell. That is, until I reframed myself – now, 14 hour flights are my sanctuary. I’m not available by email or phone. I can take a book and actually get the chance to read, or write – these are the times I get to catch up on things I’m normally too busy to do.
4. Know when you need a break. As a highly motivated entrepreneur, it’s very easy to beat yourself up for not being super-human. It’s easy to see your ego depletion and exhaustion as weakness – as though it’s a failing.The fact is you’re human … and pushing yourself to burnout shouldn’t be a badge of pride.Be in touch with your own energy levels, perform a check-in multiple times a day. And if you’re honestly tired, if your energy is low and your ego depleted, take a break.This whole“I sleep 4 hours a night and work until my eyes bleed!”culture we’ve created in our society isn’t healthy. You literally, physically can’t continue like this forever (and that’s from someone who tried to!).
5. Maintaining high self-esteem is key. Your willpower battery can only hold charge in line with your self-esteem – so you need to ensure that you feel good about yourself. When planning out your day, make sure you include at least one activity that increases your self-esteem.What are self-esteem increasing activities? Typically, things you KNOW you’re good at. Whether that’s a particular sport, shooting a video, playing guitar, writing an article – it doesn’t matter.
Just choose something that makes you feel confident because you KNOW you’ve got this.
1. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muarven and Tice (1998) “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/584/baumeisteretal1998.pdf
2. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muarven and Tice (1998) “Restoring the self: Positive effect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43 (3), pages 379-384