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.
You develop a good habit of meditating for 3 minutes a day. Moving up to 5 minutes a day, you start to feel like there is a benefit from it. Reducing anxiety, improving focus, this is really worth the time! So you decide, “I’m going to do 15 minutes every day.”
And maybe that will work and maybe it won’t, depending on what is in your life already and what habits of mind and action you’ve already developed.
It may be that you find yourself putting off the meditation, leaving it until later and then not actually getting back to it. Intending to do it tomorrow, but never finding it compelling enough to do today.
This is a helpful frame. Anything that helps me get started for a matter of minutes, even seconds, or that makes starting just a little more pleasant, gives me a chance of continuing and possibly finding flow.
(I’ll be posting more on this topic, including micro-pomodoros, preparing the workspace and first physical actions, and you’ll find these with the getting started tag.)
An exercise I use with clients, for a power boost to achieve their goals, is the Decision Diary. After we identify a specific goal where greater willpower will help them to succeed, I ask them to keep track of each choice they make related to that goal, for one day or more.
One way is to keep a pen and paper handy and jot down (super briefly) the two choices, and place a tick next to the option that they chose – that’s an ideal approach. Another way is simply to mentally notice each decision.
The self-awareness you gain is valuable, but there is more. As one client reported, “I did the diary today but by some miracle I’m happy with all my decisions! I was quite productive today!” By being more aware of you decisions, you are more likely to make decisions that you’re happy with.
To have more self-control, you first need to develop more self-awareness. A good first step is to notice when you are making choices related to your willpower challenge. Some will be more obvious, such as, “Do I go to the gym after work?” The impact of other decisions might not be clear until later in the day, when you see their full consequences. For example, did you choose to pack your gym bag so you wouldn’t have to go home first? (Smart! You’ll be less likely to make excuses.) Did you get caught up in a phone call until you were too hungry to go straight to the gym? (Oops! You’ll be less likely to exercise if you have to stop for dinner first.) For at least one day , track your choices. At the end of the day, look back and try to analyze when decisions were made that either supported or undermined your goals. Trying to keep track of your choices will also reduce the number of decisions you make while distracted – a guaranteed way to boost your willpower.
(One important note: Willpower is a valuable resource, but when you set up your goals, it’s best to assume you won’t have any. Create default behaviours that minimise any need for willpower while taking you closer to your goal, and they’ll become easy as you do them day after day. That way, even when you’re tired, emotional or busy, you can still be working towards your goal.)
When you came to a point where you suffered for your procrastination, you may have told yourself “Next time will be different!”
Like me in the past, you may have come to this point many times, making the same declaration each time. Perhaps you added, or at least felt, “This time I mean it!”
This can be a turning point, or it can be a warning of failure to come, and here is the difference: If your whole strategy consists of “This time I mean it!” that is a major red flag. If you’re blaming yourself, and thinking that you must stop being bad (lazy, disorganised) and start being good (hard-working, well-organised), that is also a red flag. Which is a great start, because once you’ve identified what hasn’t worked for you, you can look for something that does work.
If your “Next time will be different!” involves taking an entirely different approach, then we’re getting somewhere. If you’ve decided it’s time to understand the psychology of procrastination and effectiveness, and look for strategies that work for you, excellent. If you’re ready to try things, ready to fail as well as succeed, and happy to try and fail before you succeed, we’re on the same path.
Blame and guilt aren’t needed where we’re going. We’ll be looking at solutions to procrastination that are right for you, where you are now.
Credit: some of the perspective and phrasing in this post come from a discussion with CFAR staff and alumni. Their approaches to overcoming procrastination will feature in future posts.