Many internal blocks to business or career success go deep. It can take some serious detective work to root out the causes of some blocks, like: a persistent pattern of sabotaging your own performance after you’ve made a strong start in a new job; failing to close customers despite catching their interest; freezing up when asked to speak in public…and the list goes on.

Fortunately there are some blocks most of us face at one time or another that you can get around with just a simple change or two to your routine. Today’s tip focuses on the first of three easy changes you can make to get around these blocks. I’ll cover the other changes in the next few weeks. (If you just can’t wait that long to find out what they are, you can read about them in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.)

Each change, if implemented alone, will help get you moving. If you put them all together, you can set yourself up in the easiest—and most scientifically proven—way to make that big change in your work or business that you just haven’t gotten around to despite all your good intentions.

The first change: make time wasters more difficult to waste time with

Adding extra steps makes it harder to get distracted.
It’s counterintuitive, but adding extra steps to a distraction makes it harder to get distracted.

The first change is all about how to get rid of those persistent time wasters we all face at some time or another. Say you’ve decided to get right to work on that report as soon as you sit down at your desk. But you find yourself sidetracked into “just checking” email, Google news, Facebook, or stock prices once you turn on your computer. Before you realize it, you’ve lost hours weeding out your inbox, following up on interesting articles—anything other than finishing that report. Alternatively, you might limit yourself to just a few minutes at a time on these distractors, but you keep coming back to them throughout the day, losing time and focus over and over. What happened to all your good intentions?

If this sounds like you, you’ve probably chalked it up to being a terrible procrastinator, not motivated enough, lazy, or some such character flaw. In fact, it is more likely due to the way we all are made. Humans are hardwired to choose activities that take the least amount of effort. As Shawn Achor puts it, we default to those activities that are “easy, convenient, and habitual.” So when you fire up your computer, if it’s easier to click on a news site than to get out your research, start analyzing the data, open up your draft,and start writing, then you are more likely to choose the news. We default to doing what is easiest and most convenient.

Just as there is a simple explanation for why we procrastinate in this way, there is a simple way to correct it. You just need to add steps to anything that’s distracting you.

For example, if looking at Facebook is a problem for you, take the site out of your bookmarks so you have to either search for it or type it into the browser. If that doesn’t dissuade you from going to Facebook as often, then sign out after you do visit it so that the next time you go there you have to enter your password again. If that’s still not enough to limit your Facebook time, change your password to one that is not memorable (a string of gibberish words and letters), then write it down on a piece of paper and put the password somewhere you would have to walk to, like your coat pocket hanging on the back of your office door or another room entirely. The more steps you have to take, literally and figuratively, the less you will choose to “just check” what’s on Facebook and the easier it will be to start and continue focusing on that report. So keep adding steps until that time-waster is not easier to start up than what you need to be doing.

How about something that you need to use for work, like your email? The answer is the same. Take out the shortcuts and add steps so it is harder to check. You will still be able to open it up when you need to, but you can break the habit of mindlessly checking email over and over throughout the day. Then it will be easier to schedule specific, limited times to check your email during the day and stick to that schedule.

Now I’m no tech wiz, but I do know there are some things you can do to make it harder to get to your email, like:

  • Taking email off your toolbar so you have to search for it;
  • Burying the email application in a set of nested folders so that it takes several clicks of the mouse to open it;
  • Adding a password to access it, or asking your resident techie to do so;
  • Asking said techie to suggest other ways to make it take more steps to get to your email (he or she will look at you strangely since part of their job is to make everything quicker and easier for you, but do it anyway); and
  • Closing it again after using it for a scheduled interval so it doesn’t distract you when you move on to your next task.

I know it is counter-intuitive to save time by adding time and steps to daily activities, but you will actually save yourself much more time than you lose when you limit those time wasters. It may seem silly to resort to adding steps when, as a fully capable adult, you should be able to limit your time wasters simply by telling yourself to stop. But there are actually scientifically identified reasons why just telling yourself to stop doesn’t work for most people. If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing this approach hasn’t been working so well for you, either. So stop trying to force yourself to stop through willpower. Try adding steps instead. Do it as an experiment for two weeks. If you don’t notice any difference in how much you get done, you can always go back to your current system.

This tip tells you how to avoid the time wasters by adding steps to doing them. What about if you need to do something but you just can’t seem to be bothered to get around to it? Turns out there’s a simple way to change that behavior, too. Tune in next week!

Update—the next post in this series has been published: The Easy Way to End Procrastination.

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