What regrets will you have on your deathbed? It almost certainly won’t be “I wish I’d caught the last two seasons of Brooklyn 99!” If you have goals that don’t involve sitting on the couch watching endless television and films, limiting your Netflix time is important.
This post has a bunch of obvious suggestions like that – and oftentimes the message we need is the obvious message. If you’re managing your viewing habits just fine, move along to the next article.
Decide that it’s okay to watch part of a movie or show. If you find yourself thinking “Ugh, I shouldn’t have started, but I’m already 5 minutes in so I have to finish”, don’t believe your thoughts. You don’t have to do anything. Netflix will keep your place.
Act in the moment – if you have the impulse to get up, follow that impulse.
Set a simple “implementation intention” for the end of the episode, to help transition. (For me it might be “Make a cup of peppermint tea.”)
Use the 10 minute rule. If you have the impulse to watch another episode, wait 10 minutes. Use the time to exercise or do a household chore. After that, decide whether you actually want to watch – but either way, you’ve strengthened part of your prefrontal cortex in your brain that’s associated with willpower, given yourself more control over your own life, and done something constructive during those 10 minutes.
Or go deeper. How much do you care about your actual goal – the thing you want but keep procrastinating on? Your book, your side hustle, your reading or online course. Given the choice, would you achieve your goal rather than watching a bunch of television?
To go to the next level, don’t start watching in the first place. There are few great shows in the world, and they’ll be here next week or next year. And there are very few that compare to actually achieving the thing you want. So let’s get specific:
Put the remote in another room. In a drawer. With the batteries removed. Use whatever degree of barrier you need to avoid habitual “let’s see what’s on” behaviour.
Decide never to watch a show unless it’s been recommended to you by multiple people. This means no time wasted searching through an index of shows.
Pull out the plug. To watch the TV you’ve got to physically plug it in again.
Pack the TV away. Turn it to face the wall, put it against the corner in your spare room. These last two depend on others that you live with.
Turn a sofa away from the TV and place your reading material next to it. That’s now your chair. You or the person watching the television can use headphones as needed.
The “pull out the plug” strategy worked for me in my last years of high school in 1987-88. It worked because I was living with my father, who rarely watched television. I would walk into the lounge room, flick the TV on out of habit, and when nothing happened, I would (a) remember why I’d unplugged it, and (b) ask myself whether there was anything on that I really wanted to watch, or if it was just a habit. The impulse weakened as I refused to reward it, meaning my brain was rewiring, and the changed habit has served me well to this day.
I hadn’t heard back from a client in several weeks, so I sent another message.
When they responded a short while later, they let me know that my messages had been encouraging and helpful in a busy time. And I got to thinking that many of you, the readers of this blog, are in similar circumstances and in need of encouragement. So this message is for you, dear reader. It’s a gentle check-in and a nudge towards the change they (you) want to create – even in the midst of busy, demanding life. It is an obvious message, perhaps, but the magic is in actually acting on the suggestion.
Here it is. (Only the greeting has been changed.)
Dear reader, hope you’re doing well. I don’t know your exact circumstances and this may or may not be relevant to you, but I just wanted to suggest that even in a busy time it’s helpful to take time out, take stock, and decide what the most important 2 or 3 things are that you need to make progress on in the coming week. Then focus on getting those done before other things. It’s a weight off the mind to get those done, and it’s a great way to find clarity amidst chaos.
I have spent much of my life with a sense of having so much to do, so much that I want to do, but little sense of what to do next.
And this is fundamental. Dreams, plans and todo lists are only effective when they direct our actual actions at a specific point in time. To turn something from a hope or general intention into a reality, it must translate to an actual physical action, something that I do in the world.
You may be different from me. Knowing what you’re doing and when comes naturally to some – to the sort of person who isn’t likely to be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder. And that’s great. To me that’s like a superpower, so use your superpower and do great things.
For those of us who don’t do this naturally (and this could include your child, partner or colleague), be patient and understand that we need a good strategy rather than judgement, supportive reminders rather than impatience, and affordable questions to identify our true priorities, rather than words like “just try harder”.
And a good strategy is key for people like us. At the core of that strategy, for me at least and for many clients seeking anti-procrastination coaching, is this:
Know what comes next.
Put down your next few actions (or otherwise reminding yourself) in a way that you’ll definitely see. For me that can be achieved several ways.
Writing my next 3 tasks on a sticky note, ideally a coloured sticky note with a felt tip pen for boldness. Or…
Having them in a short list that’s super easy to access on my phone (not buried in a notes app, but accessible on one tap). Or…
Putting a physical reminder in my way. E.g. if I need to take something with me when I leave the house, I put it on my “launch pad” by the door that I’ve learnt to always check. (My first version of a launch pad was the doorway of my bedroom – I just knew that it worked for me, long before I had any concept of ADD/ADHD.) Or…
For a simple sequence of actions, deciding on the next three items and committing them to memory. This only works for me when the actions are straightforward and each can be represented by a short word or two.
One or more of those might work for you. Maybe they’re all terrible for you. Doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
When you want to get things done, decide what you’re doing next and make sure you have a way to stay focused on it.
Here’s a video I made a while back about learning, which is a passion for me. (Now, I’m more skilled in study technique than in making videos, so please excuse the video quality, and send me constructive feedback!)
I talk about the value of self-testing, of increasing the challenge to the right level, and weird mnemonic visualisations for language learning. Particular techniques mentioned include spaced repetition (e.g. Anki, but I first did it in 1995 with vocab lists on strips of paper) and interleaving (incorporating older material with your newer study content in order to strengthen those memories).
The main thing to remember is this: Keep your brain engaged and exercise your memories by testing them, and you’ll get better results.