On December 21 of this past year, Netflix released its original horror movie Bird Box. Over the next seven days, 26 million American households (20 percent of the country) watched the movie. While this may have been a record-breaking debut for the streaming service, it is far from an isolated event. Over half of adults 18 to 44 binge-watch (watch at least two consecutive episodes in one sitting) several times a week.
Why does this matter to businesses?
Businesses are built on the backs of hard and unmotivating work. As a founder myself, I have written the content for our performance-enhancing platform four times in two years-- the equivalent of three 200-page books. While that work was motivating most of the time, there are few things I have liked less than staying on top of the company's tax obligations. Novelist Toni Morrison was right when she said, "All important things are hard."
Doing hard things requires motivation and willpower-- and not all tasks will be motivating. You need willpower to do the important work that drives your business, career, and life forward. Yet most people's willpower levels are at an all-time low and getting worse.
Entertainment options today are so compelling and easily accessible that almost everything else seems too hard in comparison. For example, a quarter of adults have canceled social plans in order to binge-watch (for those under 30, it's 45 percent). Young men are working 8-12 percent fewer hours than they did in 2000, largely because they are "substituting video games for work."
Willpower deterioration will have far-reaching consequences for the modern workplace, including:
- The continued rise of chronic procrastination (it has already increased from five to 26 percent in the past 40 years)
- Diminished creative problem-solving (creativity requires persistence)
- Skipped difficult conversations and giving of constructive feedback (people already avoid in-person interactions: "Anytime we're in silence, we look at our phones.")
To battle entertainment that has gotten too good, many have recommended setting usage limits and blocking certain websites or apps. This should be done, but these tactics alone will not reverse the willpower depletion many are experiencing.
To rebuild your or your employees' willpower, put these three actions into practice:
Do something unpleasant consistently.
Exercising willpower anywhere in your life empowers your willpower everywhere. For example, study participants who engaged in exercise regimens or attended money management classes increased their willpower, drank less alcohol, consumed less caffeine, and watched less television. The more consistent they were in exercising or attending classes, the better their results.
To reap these same gains, pick an activity that is good for you but that you don't love to do (e.g., waking up early, reading nonfiction books) and do it consistently. Companies can develop standard practices to cultivate consistency, like scheduling office lunches every Friday or having all employees take regular turns cleaning up the office kitchen.
Do something near impossible periodically.
You can build willpower by tapping it consistently or stretching it to new heights. I recently climbed all 14,180 feet of Mount Shasta. I wanted to give up many times, but I willed myself to keep going, increasing what I'm capable of making myself do. Your stretch activity can be in any domain as long as it's hard enough you'll want to quit.
Companies can stretch their people's willpower by hosting periodic challenges, such as hackathons or ideas labs in which teams have 24 to 48 hours to develop a working prototype or come up with a solution to a key business problem.
Focus for increasingly long durations.
Focus is powered by willpower, so increases in focal ability are indicative of increases in willpower. Focus benefits from high-intensity interval training: focus on a single task for a sustained period of time, break briefly, then reengage in the single task. This training is the Pomodoro Technique with a twist. Rather than focusing for fixed intervals of 25 minutes, start with whatever length of time your focus can last and then gradually increase it until you can focus for at least 90 minutes.
Companies can support their people's quest for increased focus by scheduling "quiet hours," in which employees are not allowed to talk with each other in the open office space, or by assigning teams a weekly rotation in the office's library or quiet area.
Some of these recommendations may seem extreme or unnecessary, but if people are skipping time with friends for TV, what chance does challenging work have to hold their attention? Productivity and happiness always come from doing things you don't want to do. If you lose your willpower to Game of Thrones or Orange is the New Black, more will suffer than your social life. Start building now, before it gets too hard.