Human beings generally don't make the best decisions when under a great amount of stress. Sure, you have your Chelsey Sullenberger's of the world who seem to do something amazing in the most stressful situations, but I don't think that's typical. For most of us, landing a plane on a river falls outside the scope of our job responsibilities but that doesn't mean we aren't faced with daily stress that can seriously impinge on our decision making.
Case #1: Me Being an Idiot
Take this observation from my own life, for example. For a couple months I felt like I was being slowly ground down by the incessant pressure of a more-than-full-time PhD course load, trying to grow two businesses, and organizing a TEDx conference. My stress level was high and in order to free up more time to (in my mind) successfully complete these duties I cut out the two things I could most ill afford to cut out -- regular exercise and enough sleep.
In hindsight it's easy to look back and kick myself in the head for making this decision. When pressed for time and attention it's easiest to cut out the things that appear to be indulgences in the name of being more productive. If I'm not sitting in front of my computer and trying to make things happen then I'm obviously not being productive or using my time wisely, right? Wrong. By cutting out the two things that allow me to have enough energy to do good work, that keep me in good physical shape, and help my mental well-being more than anything else I was actually just digging a deeper hole. I would get tired quicker, I would be shorter tempered, and I felt worse about myself as I became unhealthier. There may be nothing that saps motivational energy more than kind of hating yourself for what you're allowing to happen.
Why do we view things like exercise and sleep as indulgences? Maybe I'm the only one?
Improvement #1: Find Other Gaps In Your Day
I finally started to turn the corner with this issue when I worked to change my mindset about these activities. It wasn't like I was able to flip a switch and suddenly feel like I had time to sleep more and exercise more. It was more of a steady shift over time.
The first thing I did was start tracking how I used my time throughout the day. By tracking my various projects and responsibilities I could see areas where I could make better decisions throughout the day. The trick to this was that I wasn't tracking the time I was goofing off. When I would go back and look at the data for the previous week I could see big holes in the day and more than likely those were periods of time that were being used inefficiently. This exercise helped me realize that it's not like I was operating at 100% capacity and that the only way to find more time in my day was to cut into sleep and exercise. Hell no -- there were all sorts of spaces in my day where I could optimize how I worked!
Improvement #2: Conceptualize Sleep and Exercise as Productivity
The second thing I did was start thinking of sleep and exercise as truly productive time. I tried to start thinking of it as just as important as reading for class or conducting a coaching session. I tried to erase that division in my mind (and in how I track my time) between the obviously productive stuff I had to do and the seemingly unproductive but actually super-productive stuff I should be doing (sleep and exercise).
Does this mean I have the problem completely fixed? Of course not. But I'm definitely making steps in the right direction. I'm slowly training myself away from the snap decision to make more time in my day by cutting out the things that are actually foundational to my ability to be a pleasant and effective human being. Sitting down for a block of deliberate practice after having slept well and gone for a run means I'm much more likely to be productive, even if I have a shorter overall session, than if I cut those out and power through a longer practice session.
It's kind of obvious when I put it that way but since when does common sense and obviousness always win out when it comes to responding to stressful situations?
Photo by Tambako the Jaguar