Note: This post was made on a separate blog that I kept for a short while, deliberately low profile and marked as “notes”, in order to give myself permission to write. That was helpful and I’m now feeling more comfortable, so I’m merging those posts into Procrastination Paramedic. – Chris Waterguy, 2 Jan 2019.
When I find myself resisting work on a goal, it’s useful to remove obstacles and lower the bar to actually starting.
One of mybarriers to blogging, for example, is the feeling that a post isn’t ready. So for several weeks I’ve been writing for myself, using a journal app on my phone. This has been easier because it’s not public and it doesn’t have to be perfect at all.
At the same time, it’s motivating me to start writing publicly, because I have so much that I want to share, these journal posts are close to what I want to share, And I know will be a value to someone.
So now that I have higher confidence and higher motivation, I reassess: I’m happy to share these writings, but still uneasy about associating them with my “brand”. So away around this is to create this separate blog for journaling and experiments. I promise that it will be imperfect, and that gives me space to create.
When we feel pressure, a common instinct is to flee. Sometimes fleeting is wise (e.g. from an abusive relationship) but oftentimes it is not.
There is no universal law here. Facing the pressure and taking it on (yet again taking on more responsibility, and complaining about it) may be terrible advice. On the other hand, you may know yourself as one who has avoided responsibility, who has failed to follow through, who has allowed opportunities to slip away. If so, then consciously and choosing to take responsibility is likely to give you power in your life.
Not taking responsibility randomly, for the first thing that pops into your worried brain, or that someone asks you to do. Not for something that you’ve had guilt feelings about since childhood. Rather, for something that will turn you into a better person, something that might involve uncomfortable changes, that you’ve been avoiding for months or years. No universal law and no simple rule for choosing when to face and went to flee, but these may be signs of a responsibility that will give you freedom.
Freedom is the ability to set your schedule, to decide on the work you do, to make decisions. …When in doubt, when you’re stuck, when you’re seeking more freedom, the surest long-term route is to take more responsibility to make something happen may be your wisest option.
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.)
Today we look at the common traps that prevent people from forming new habits and keeping resolutions. While we are focusing on exercise goals here, the lessons apply in all aspects of your life.
There is a time to push yourself hard – if you’re working on your fitness, that’s likely to be when you’ve been in training, you’re in good condition and you know you can do it safely. A trained athlete has to deal with psychological limits, the brain screaming “Stop! Fatigue! You’re going to break! There are no more resources!” – long before you’re actually in danger of injury or running out of resources.
But here is the key: what is true for the trained athlete may be bad advice for the novice, risking both injury and failed goals.
Three kinds of over-exertion can defeat your commitment to a resolution. From doing zero exercise, you start exercising 30 minutes a day. Your body isn’t ready, and then you’ve got:
1. Physical overexertion. By the time you recover from the strain, life has happened, and your resolution has become a vague intention. Vague intentions don’t achieve goals.
2. Psychological overexertion. Maybe your body held up, but it was an unpleasant experience. Your subconscious mind will offer endless distractions to avoid repeating the ordeal.
3. Planning overexertion. It takes mental effort to plan and make time. The more time you commit upfront, the bigger the impact on your schedule.
Start Small. Persist.
For most people and most new resolutions, I advise starting small and being consistent. Push yourself within your own safe limits, and enjoy the energy you get from your new exertions. Build from there.
Want to start running? Perhaps a 5 minute walk mixed with gentle jogging is the right way to start.
Want to lift weights? Start with your own weight – do some pushups and bodyweight squats – a small enough number that you can maintain good form throughout.
The key to follow through is to make planning easy. Your first goal can be a small habit, done consistently. Just 5 minutes – even 2 minutes – but every day. When that’s strong, slowly build on it – exercise more intensely, and go a little longer. And by the way, if you’re unfit and just starting, skipping for 2 minutes is a good workout.
Apply these principles to any resolution, for a new year, or a new month.
And of course, take your own needs into account, and talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program… for your own sake, of course, but your doctor might also appreciate the inspiration.
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.
What are the warning signs when making resolutions? And how can you do it better? We’re talking New Year resolutions or any decision to change for the better.
A strategy that consists of “I mean it this time!”
Any strategy that is based more on willpower than on triggers and routines. (A milder form of point 1.)
A goal that sounds good – when I think “I really should do this” rather than really thinking through the most likely paths to achieve my goal.
A vague goal, without a clear target, such as like “eat healthier”, “exercise more” or “blog”.
What can work better? First, let me emphasise: Find what works for you, and be willing to experiment.
Below are some insights which have helped me to create good habits: – Expect that you’ll need to improve your strategy, as you find things that aren’t working, and try new approaches, until you have it working just right. – Goals to “get X done” haven’t been the most effective for me. Goals to “Make it easier for myself to do X”, or “Work out a routine to do X” have given better results. – Make it easy. Put effort into minimising any obstacles. – If what I need for my habit is within reach and within sight, so I can start on my habit in seconds, it’s much more likely that I’ll do it. E.g. my yoga/exercise mat lives on my bedroom floor. It’s not the only place I exercise, but it makes starting that much easier. – A good routine is awesomely powerful, making your new habit easier and much more consistent. – The energy I have for life determines the energy I have for achieving my goals. For this reason, exercise and good sleep are key for me, and I’ve persisted in getting these right. (These habits are much improved, and my energy levels are better for it.) – If your new habit requires focus, create time when you won’t be distracted. E.g. getting up early is by far the best way for me to write. (Staying up late to write can work for me in the short term, but ruins my energy and productivity in following days.)
What are you doing to make success more likely in 2015?
Procrastination is our bias towards the present, controlling our behaviour. A small pain or loss now looms more than a much more serious gain, pain or loss in the future. Understanding how this works can let us turn procrastination around.
Procrastination is basically a simple term for a deep problem with human nature and the problem has to do with time. We live in the here and now but what’s good for us is often long in the future. And we have plans in the future. We will save money, and we would eat healthily, and we would exercise and we would do this and we would do that and we will do all that. Today I just don’t feel like it. Today the chocolate cake is tempting, and the gym is far away, it’s oh too humid outside, and I really saw a new bike and I don’t feel like saving.
As a student, Dan Ariely faced a powerful reason for procrastination – a far away loss versus a short-term, intense pain. He contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. Without proper treatment the disease could be deadly, but not for perhaps 30 years. (A very serious loss, very far away.) The treatment was to inject himself three times a week for 18 months. The medication made him feel terribly ill for hours, with vomiting and fever, beginning within an hour of the injection. (Immediate pain.) He followed the regimen without fail for the full period – but according to his doctors, he was their only patient to do so.
Amazing self-control? More self-control than other patients? No, he has the same struggles as the rest of us. Instead, he created a connection in his mind between the task and something he loved and wanted: movies. He did this in a very deliberate, planned way. Three days per week, he rented videos in the morning and carried them all day in his backpack, anticipating them. When he came home, he got everything he needed to watch the movies, gave himself the injection, and began watching.
His strategy imported new benefits for the present, making them even more immediate than the suffering. Rather than bemoan his lack of foresight, he subverted it.
What about us? Look for ways to use this principle to turn your own procrastination challenges around. This might be through a reward. It might be through creating a strong, “gut-level” association between the action you need to take and the results you want. This is something you can work on yourself, as well as something I do in my coaching, using reframing and NLP; I also use another approach called “propagating urges”, taught in the excellent CFAR workshops.
In this short video, Ariely tells his story. If you want more detail and some introductory neuroscience, skip to the second video, further down the page.
I love social media, and I’m connected with lots of smart, interesting people. I enjoy the interactions and I like that they make me think (and feel). Some of these people I count as real friends – not just Facebook friends. But needless to say, Facebook is an enormous time suck – even looking at intelligent, insightful posts is no comparison to working on my goals, creating, and carrying through on my vision.
I’m also somewhat addicted to email. Like a laboratory pigeon pecking at a lever hoping for a reward, like a gambler putting dollar in the machine, part of my brain is hoping for the reward: the news, interesting tidbit, opportunity or idea that occasionally comes in email form. But whether or not I act on it now it’s a distraction from anything else. Once I open an email in the morning, the ideas are in my head, pushing aside my work, my top priorities, the things most important to me, which become much more difficult to focus on. Perhaps you find the same thing. The solution? The single best thing I’ve done for my productivity in the 10 years: I ignore my email until afternoon, giving email its own focused time later in the day.
I have one more morning distraction: an idea pops into my head, I look it up online and start reading. I may tell myself it’ll be a 5 minute search, but I’m a compulsive reader and it’s always more. And though there’s always something valuable to read on the web, generally it won’t change my life or world the way that meeting my commitments and exercising my vision will do.
All of these distractions have value, but they mean making a passive choice to not do something else. The alternative that works powerfully for me is to make an active choice, to defer these things and give myself time now for what’s important. I hold myself to this commitment by making it publicly – on Facebook, here on this blog, and/or to those close to me in real life. This is the commitment:
Between now and the end of February, 2014:
Email only between 3pm and 9pm each day, other than than the starred messages view, or searching for a work-related email. (I use an email filters to add stars to emails from colleagues and family – anything else can wait a few hours. A search shortcut in my browser lets me search directly, without seeing other emails that could distract me.)
Facebook only between 3pm and 9pm each day. (I also use this time for other things, so I might miss Facebook altogether most days, which is great. If I want to share something outside the 3-9pm window, I’ll use the share on Facebook bookmarklet or add it to my-do list for later. It goes without saying that I don’t have Facebook notifications or email notifications on my phone – I don’t even have the app installed.)
No Facebook stream or checking the Facebook notification icon from Monday to Thursday. That means I can only check my own page, private messages and events, and only during the allowed times. From Friday to Sunday I may check what I wish between 3pm and 9pm.
No internet searches or reading web articles before 1pm, Monday to Friday, unless it’s related to something I’m working on.
At the end of February, I will reassess, either keeping these guidelines or adjusting them. I’ll report back in a later blog post.
I’m looking forward to getting awesome things done with this increased focus.
What works for you?
You may have your own focus secrets. If it works for you, keep doing it.