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Executive function junction: hooking up work and motivation

Updated: Oct 18

Executive function is an essential piece of the productivity puzzle. Think of the collection of "executive functions" as the CEO of the brain, supporting us to plan, get stuff done and stay on track related to our goals. One key executive function is 'inhibitory control', or the ability to ignore distractions and control oneself.

Willpower or self-control is particularly challenged these days in our 'always-on' reality, with our phones in our hands like Linus' security blanket.


The marshmallow test

A classic example of a study testing willpower in children is the marshmallow test: kids are given a choice between having one marshmallow right away, or two marshmallows if they can wait. It's entertaining to watch the kids as they comment that "it smells really good", tentatively touch it, pretend to bite it, and poke at it! There are many factors that influence the outcomes of these experiments, and it's not a perfect science, but it does tell us that waiting is really hard. We prefer instant gratification!


Executive function and positive peer pressure

Adding a twist to this experiment, Sabine Doebel, a cognitive scientist, discovered that a sense of belonging plays a role in willpower. She gave marshmallow-anticpating participants coloured t-shirts and told them that they were part of a particular group, like the green group. Then, she told them that other members of their group had waited for two marshmallows, while the 'other' group had not waited.


Doebel found that children who were told that other members of their group had waited for two marshmallows were themselves more likely to wait, and concluded that

“They were influenced by a peer group that they’d never even met.”

We often think of peer pressure as a negative thing, but it can be positive as well.


Using positive peer pressure to your productivity advantage

Doebel also concluded that successful executive function can be dependent on context or setting. Putting yourself into an environment that, by design, supports self-control or discipline makes it easier to stick to your guns and avoid whatever temptations might be calling you - Twitter, the fridge, or marshmallows! Doebel used the example of learning a new language: spending time with other people who also want to learn that language will help you be more motivated, especially if you like those people.


Focus Bubbles are a great example of putting yourself in a context for achieving success. Meeting and interacting with other people who are motivated, driven, and ambitious will inspire you to demonstrate those qualities, and seeing your peers doing their own work will influence you to use your time in the Bubble wisely and keep your focus. If that sounds good to you, join a Bubble or contact Dawn to learn more.


Don't forget that Monday, September 13 is the day of the Bigger, Better Bubble! Use this link to sign up for this amazing event and use positive peer pressure to find your focus.



Dawn O’Connor

I have over 30 years of experience working with more than 10,000 clients in helping people unlock their productivity potential. Personal productivity is my passion! Every day I am curious and excited to learn what people are working on. I can’t wait to see you in a Bubble!

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