Why Having Cake at the Office Kills Innovation

Latest updated March 19, 2019

...And How Electrocuting Yourself Makes You More Productive


The cognitive effort you have to put into saying no to cake can kill your ability to innovate and most probable you already experience decision fatigue because of the efforts avoiding checking your phone at work.


A few days ago I was browsing
Product Hunt
like I do every day.

I came across this product

It is a device you put around your wrist that can give you electric shocks. This device can help you change your habits by jolting you every time you think of doing the unwanted habit or if you do the habit. It can track some stuff itself, but in many cases you trigger the jolt yourself.

At first I was thinking:

I am able to control my own thoughts, I don’t need a device to control myself. What would happen if I got used to using a device every time I need some willpower?

But then I couldn’t get it out of my mind…

In the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman explains something about the effort it takes to do something we don’t really want to do e.g. changing a habit. He explains that this special brain effort is a zero-sum game. We only have a certain amount of effort or willpower in a given period of time. This effort is being spent by all sorts of stuff.

Avoid overeating, walking when you could be taking the cab, not buying the new mac you really want, going to work when you really want to sleep, and soooooo much more.

So what happens when we introduce the idea of changing a habit? Well, our brain tries to reject it because it takes way too much effort to reprogram our habitual behaviors. Therefore, we need to really keep reminding ourselves to commit to the change.

As I said willpower is a zero-sum game, which means that when you introduce a new willpower-consumer, your focus tends to drift away from other import areas.

Maybe that's why when people try to stop smoking they suddenly start to snack a little bit more. When their willpower is focused on not smoking, it becomes much harder to resist other good stuff.

Have you ever thought about why it is so much easier to do an assignment you WANT to do than one, you HAVE to do. The same goes for reading, I have many times fallen asleep at page 5 of a university book, but read several hundred pages about some startup or self-improvement book… it takes a lot of effort to understand, to stay awake and to “want” to read at the same time.

Why Having Cake at the Office Kills Innovation

Almost half of the time, half of the employees, at a given company will be trying to lose weight, as that is the trend today, for many good reasons.

Let’s make up a company called “X”.

X is a company that needs to be really innovative, so they hire the most talented employees and they try to make the best working conditions with a nice selection of food for lunch and free snacks and beverages at all times.

Innovation at its core is an extreme form of change of mindset. If you are at the center of real radical innovation, you sometimes have to change your mindset and your whole belief system. Letting go of all previous thoughts and stay open to new findings and ideas.

This kind of brainwork takes an insane amount of willpower. If you look at Theory U, which is a very famous innovation theory, one of the components is actually “open will” — letting go.

Considering this…

How do You think company X actually performs in terms of innovation, if half of the employees are trying to resist to eat all the free cake?

How Electrocuting Yourself Makes You More Productive

Using a device as mentioned before could actually eliminate some of the willpower-consumption.

My take on it is that there are two ways to stop yourself from performing a bad habit:

  1. Consciously choose to not do the habit despite really wanting to.
    Takes a lot of effort/willpower (Which you then cannot spend on something else) and it might take a very long time to actually turn it into a new habit
  2. Keep being aware of the habit and jolt yourself when you feel a craving.
    It only takes a small amount of willpower to press the button.
    It messes with your minds associations with this particular habit and reprogram you to not want this thing. It is fast and should get very lasting results.

So by reprogramming your habits using a shortcut, you can stay productive and focused on the tasks you want to.

My take on why this works…

I saw a TED Talk at some point on how our memories can be changed by time and external factors. For example, our mood affects our memories. The mood we are in when experiencing something naturally affects our memory of it. But interestingly enough every time you recall a memory it will be stored once again being affected at your new mood.

That way good memories recalled at good times will keep seeming better and better and bad memories recalled at sad times will keep seeming more and more sad.

If I consider this device, it may actually be able to change the association we have with a certain habit.

For example, when eating candy, chips, drinking a coke or something else, we often connect it with some old and cozy setting with family or friends. By jolting yourself when craving, you start associating the object with something unpleasant and eventually you would probably let go of the old associations and stop craving it.

Another angle is that it is simple Neuro Linguistic Programming (NPL). You or another person program your mind to associate certain stimuli with certain mindsets, thoughts or actions.

I really think the idea is interesting. I haven't tried the device yet and don’t know if I will buy one, but I find it really interesting how much habits can consume our brain power

Key takeaways

  1. Remove anything that can consume your willpower (or your employees willpower).
    If you have free snacks it better be fruits, they are guilt free…
  2. Be aware of what things you are trying to change in yourself and try to avoid too many at the same time.
  3. If you want to do important work e.g. make a bachelor thesis, pivot your startup, reinvent your value proposition etc. you should consider not changing many other things at the same time.

This article was originally posted on Medium

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