I always imagined that, as I grew older, more and more freedoms would open up to me. When I turned 16, I was granted the freedom to drive a car, and the possibilities seemed endless. When I turned 21, I hopped from bar to bar, exhilarated by this newfound freedom to pursue fun.
I expected this pattern to continue into adulthood but was surprised when I found the opposite to be true. My personal freedoms have not only stagnated, they have contracted. My responsibilities have expanded, leaving little time for myself and little opportunity to dictate the unfolding events in my life. I thought to myself, is this a common theme for modern working adults, or is this my unique burden? Patrick Henry’s impassioned quote, “Give me liberty or give me death,” was ringing in my ears and felt more relevant than ever.
In the context of human evolution, having the personal freedom to do what we think is best has always been central to our success and dominance as a species. The decision to migrate North, East, South, and West has led us to new challenges in frost-bitten landscapes and lush, tropical rainforests. This fundamental desire to choose our destiny is an essential tenet of humankind. Could this be the reason that I felt so forlorn about giving up control in exchange for the responsibilities of adulthood?
Quite possibly. According to a study from Rutgers University called “The Inherent Reward of Choice,” the desire to choose is written into our neurological reward systems. Lauren Leotti and Mauricio Delgado designed an experiment in which participants were randomly assigned one of two scenarios: choice or no-choice. In the choice scenario, the participants could choose between two options, the left and the right, each of which would randomly award them $0, $50, or $100 (which would be exchanged for a monetary bonus at the end of the experiment). In the no-choice scenario, the participants watched as one of the two key-strokes was chosen for them, which again randomly awarded them a prize of $0, $50, or $100. These scenarios alternated randomly while the scientists recorded MRI neuroimaging data. What the scientists found was that the choice scenarios were associated with increased activity in brain regions linked to reward processing. These results indicated that choice, or even just the opportunity for choice, is inherently rewarding to us.
It was no wonder that I felt anxious about the shrinking opportunities to control my life. I needed to find a way to regain control of the day-to-day routine that had imprisoned me with duty, rather than choice.
As a result of my work in the productivity and leadership fields in the last decade, I recently designed the “Perfect 15-Minute Day Method” (PDM), that infuses choice and deliberation into the typical workday. I spent the last 9 months testing it with business professionals of all walks of life and the results were remarkable. The PDM works by allowing you to make a choice of how you will spend the next 15 minutes of your time - every 15 minutes. You record your chosen task in a journal to solidify your decision, and set a timer to follow through. When the timer goes off 15 minutes later, you make another choice - you can continue, move to another task, or take a break. Thus in small 15 minute increments you consciously decide how you spend each moment of your day.
Users of the PDM confirmed that this method holds great promise for increasing focus and productivity, while simultaneously providing its users with greater autonomy over their time and effort. Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter and productivity expert, says in a Freakonomics Podcast, “We trigger self-motivation by making choices that make us feel in control. The act of asserting ourselves and taking control helps trigger the parts of our neurology where self-motivation resides.” In other words, giving ourselves a choice, no matter how big or small, increases our motivation to execute the choice. That may be why the method has been shown to be effective for many working professionals from all walks of life. Generally speaking, all animals possess the desire to choose. The Perfect Day Method taps into this desire and fulfills one of our most fundamental needs.
Summer is here, which means family trips, barbecues, and summer vacation. Meanwhile, you still have deadlines and work and chores to do at home. Give yourself the freedom of choice and when you begin feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated, opt to deploy the Perfect 15-Minute Day Method. All you need is a journal, a timer, and a method.
What can you do to give yourself more autonomy at home and work? And how might more autonomy increase your productivity? Make yourself CEO of your life and follow a path that you choose. Let me know how it goes in the comments below!