1: DO THE HARD THING reads the sign above author Steven Kotler‘s desk.
Yes, the phrase is “a great reminder to attack life’s challenges,” but that’s not the point, he writes in The Art of the Impossible.
Its “real function is much smaller: It’s to remind me to do one extra item on my to-do list before I take my first break,” he writes.
“If my day’s first task is to add 750 words to whatever book I’m writing and the second one is to practice a speech, my sign reminds me to practice that speech before I take my first break. This helps me push through my tougher tasks while I still have the maximum energy for that push.”
2: Why is Steven so focused on the first part of his day?
The short answer? Willpower.
“Willpower is self-control,” he notes. “It’s the ability to resist distraction, stay focused, and delay gratification.
“It’s also a finite resource.”
The amount of willpower we have has been linked to energy levels, as shown in research conducted by psychologist Roy Baumeister.
“Which helps explain why our willpower erodes as the day goes on,” Steven writes. “People trying to lose weight, for example, often find they can stay on their diets until nighttime, then succumb to a tempting tub of ice cream before bed.”
What else does the study explain? Decision fatigue: “When forced to solve a series of hard problems,” he notes, “the quality of our solutions deteriorates over time.”
3: Steven observes that most peak performers agree that willpower declines over the course of the day.
So, how do we fight back? Scheduling.
“If willpower degenerates over time, don’t argue. Just start our day with our hardest task and work backward—in descending order of importance and difficulty—to the easiest,” he suggests.
We can also intentionally reset our willpower at midday, with eating, naps, meditation, and exercise.
“All of these latter interventions don’t just reset our physiology,” he writes, “they shift our state and reset our neurobiology, which seems to be another critical piece in this puzzle.”
Action: Do the hard thing first today.
Reflection: Pay attention to my energy and willpower levels over the course of the day. What do I observe?