Almost anyone can muster enough gumption for a short burst of high-energy effort. Maybe it’s making a shining impression your first few weeks on a job, hitting the gym with fervor at the start of January, or spending a weekend on a remodeling project exhibiting all the peppiness of an HGTV star.
But what about after that initial burst? Do you still feel the same a few months or even a year into your new job, goal, or project? Have you abandoned your ambitions? Do you continue to push on while fighting signs of fatigue or burnout? Or do you wildly vacillate between hyper productivity and getting nothing done?
The key to success at work and in life isn’t really starting strong, it’s staying strong. And one of the keys to having that staying power is the idea of self-regulation. This entails operating within lower and upper boundaries of activity by predetermining the minimum and maximum amount of action you will take toward a specific goal within a certain span of time (such as a day or a week). This keeps you from getting derailed because you dropped off or lost interest, or overdoing it and finding yourself too exhausted to continue.
As a time management coach, I’ve seen that there are four steps to creating this staying power. When you follow these steps, you’ll be surprised to find that you’ll accomplish more of your goals with less effort — and give yourself drive that lasts.
Set upper and lower boundaries
The idea of goal setting is popular, especially at the start of the year. But not many individuals take the time to write out the steps that they will take to achieve their goals. And in my estimation, many fewer take the time to define their daily upper and lower boundaries for each of their goals.
In Greg McKeown’s book Effortless, he suggests the idea of making concrete boundaries for both how little and how much you will do in a given day on your important priorities — for instance, for hitting sales numbers, you may determine to never make fewer than five sales calls in a day and never more than 10 sales calls in a day.
You can extend this into any project or goal that you want to accomplish. For example, if you want to author a book, you might decide to write no less than 30 minutes per day and no more than three hours per day to avoid burning out. Or for exercise, you may decide to work out no less than three times per week and no more than five times per week, so you get a sufficient workout in and also have time for your other priorities like spending time with your family or personal tasks.
These boundaries give you some wiggle room but also give you the ability to stay on track over time. When you’re setting your own upper and lower limits, think through what’s the least you could do in a particular area to feel like you are keeping up your momentum. The goal on the low end is to not feel like you “stopped” and need to exert extra effort to break the inertia and restart again. And when you’re defining your upper limits, think about where you need to limit yourself so that your investment in this particular area doesn’t take so much of your time that other areas of your life suffer.
Understand your tendency
When facing a goal, do you tend to get into a high-drive gear and try to remain there 24/7? Do you operate at a low-drive level most of the time, often having to scurry to the finish line at the last minute? Do you find yourself vacillating between extremes where one day you compulsively work until the wee hours of the night, and the next day you crash and do next to nothing?
Depending on your tendency, you can proceed in one of the following three ways:
- For those in the first, “high drive” category, you’ll need to give yourself permission to be human, to rest, and to have real downtime. Keep a close eye on whether you’re going over your upper boundary of activity and headed for burnout.
- For those in the second, “low drive” category, keep a close eye on whether or not you’re staying above your lower bound. You want to ensure that you’re doing at least the minimum before chilling out (as tempting as that may seem).
- For those in the third, “fluctuating drive” category, you’ll need to keep an eye on both bounds. Avoiding going over your upper bound should prevent you from falling below your lower bound the next day.
As McKeown wisely writes in his book, “Do not do more today than you can completely recover from by tomorrow.”
Build in rest and recovery
As humans, we’re designed for cycles of activity and rest. That’s why we sleep at night, why weekends are an essential part of a productive workweek, and why even elite athletes can’t work out every waking hour.
If you’re a high-drive individual, you’ll need to remain especially conscious about giving yourself planned times of rest and recovery. Since I fall toward this tendency, I make sure that my personal time isn’t as jam packed as my work time. For me, that means viewing my nonwork time not only as time to complete personal tasks, but also as time for rest. For instance, two mornings a week I don’t do my normal 5:15 am wakeup for swimming. Instead, I give myself time to contemplate life, read interesting articles, or simply sleep in. I also consciously take time on the weekends and evenings to connect with people without a time limit — just going with the flow and allowing things to take as long as they take.
If you operate at a low-drive level, make sure you’ve at least hit your lower boundary of activity before taking a break. That means that you can still take ample breaks, but only after you’ve made progress on a goal.
And if your drive fluctuates, you’ll need to remember to have rest and recovery on the days when you feel on top of the world and like you can work 24/7, so that you don’t crash the next day. That could include the basics like taking time to eat, moving from your chair by stretching or walking, and not staying up crazy late — no matter how energized you feel. Force yourself to stop when it’s a reasonable time for you to go to bed, so that you can begin again fresh the next day.