Surf the urge
Much as I appreciate you reading this post, did you open it intentionally, or did you find yourself clicking into it on impulse?
As I write this, it’s just after 8am in the morning. Even though I meant to get straight down to writing when I got to my desk, I’m embarrassed to say I have spent at least 5 minutes installing the Bing wallpaper function and checking my Outlook for email before dragging myself to this page.
The “too hard” box
My conversations with my coaching clients are often about how they can focus on what matters. Only yesterday, I was talking to a leader who had an important presentation to prepare for, yet whenever she thought about it, she found herself diverting to another priority on her to-do-list.
Another leader has done a great job of scheduling an hour every morning for thinking and planning, yet, when the time comes, is tempted to check their email and, before they know it, they’re sucked into firefighting.
For both me and these leaders, it’s as though we’re being tempted away from what I call the “too hard” box by something which feels easier to achieve.
So why do we find it so difficult to focus on what’s important?
As with all our behaviour, evolution has a lot to answer for. For our ancestors, survival was at the top of the list. That meant finding food, reproducing, and avoiding danger, the latter likely in the form of man-eating wild animals.
However, as Kelly McgGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct puts it, if you lived in a closely knit tribe and depended on other homo sapiens for your survival, you also had to learn not to “piss anyone off in the process” which meant, “Cooperate when your neighbour needs shelter, share your dinner even if you’re still hungry, and think twice before saying “That loincloth makes you look fat.”
In other words, we needed a bit of self-control.
A dodgy upgrade
The good news is that our brain, specifically our prefrontal cortex, developed to provide us with the capacity for willpower, essentially helping us manage our impulses and prioritise long-term goals.
The bad news is that this brain upgrade is overlaid on top of our old operating system which gets a dopamine hit when it even thinks of a possible reward or opportunity.
In the old days, this was food or sex. In the modern world, we have a buffet of temptations in the shape of email, social media, the internet – all within the touch of a smartphone. And once you’ve dived into the buffet, it’s difficult to tear yourself away because the more dopamine hits you get, the more you crave.
Surf the urge
I wish I could say I came up with the title of this blog, but I didn’t. Urge-surfing is a mindfulness-based technique proven to help people with addictions, like smokers, to kick their habit by helping them to stop acting on their cravings.
You know that moment when everything in your body is saying you have to check your phone/email/eat cake? Urge-surfing is about paying attention to the intense physical sensations your experience in these moments without acting on them, riding the wave of craving knowing that it will pass.
The Ten Minute Rule
One strategy for practising this is the Ten Minute Rule. As McGonigal explains, neuroscientists have found that when immediate gratification comes with a mandatory ten-minute delay, the promise-of-reward system is less activated, taking away our powerful biological impulse to give in to temptation.
When you have the urge to do something which is taking you away from what you intended – for example, reaching for your phone when you’re wading through a board report or answering an unimportant email when you should be doing some blue-sky thinking, set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes. If you still want to satisfy that craving after 10 minutes have passed, then do it. However, my own experience is that usually by then the urge has passed.
The other way of using this technique is to help you tackle something which feels hard. Commit to doing The Thing That Feels Hard for 10 minutes – you can set a timer. If you want to stop when the timer sounds, that’s fine, but you might find that you just want to keep going!
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.