In the past three weeks I’ve described three techniques you can use to get past garden-variety procrastination that is holding you back. The first is to make it more difficult to do your usual time-wasters. The second is to make it physically easier to start working on a project you have been avoiding. And the third is to make choices regarding a project the day before you plan to work on it. (If you want more details about the science behind these techniques, check out The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.)
Willpower Is Rarely Enough
The rule of thumb I’ve heard is that to turn a behavior into a habit you need to think about the behavior and actually do it every day for three to four weeks. If you are trying to change a bad habit into a good one, say diving right into working on your current deliverables instead of your usual habit of reading the news for an hour when you get to work, it is going to take three times that, or two to three months. And since you only have a limited amount of willpower, you usually use that up long before you’ve established a new habit, let alone replaced an old one.
So the trick is to get yourself to do your new behavior consistently without having to draw much on your willpower. The way to do that is to use the human default setting we all have of doing what we perceive to be easiest in a way that is to your advantage
That’s where the three techniques come in.
Let’s say you are a service professional running your own business. You want to create a marketing campaign based on different bundles of your services. Every day you say “I’m going to work on that campaign today,” and at the end of every day you find that you were too busy with other things to get around to working on it. Having a good idea and trying to motivate yourself through willpower is not enough to put in all the work to make it happen. You need to create a habit of working on your project every day instead. Here’s how.
Step 1. Find the Time-wasters and Make Them More Difficult
First, as I explained in the first post in this series, figure out what you are currently spending your time on. Is it browsing your usual web sites? Or checking, reading and answering your email every ten minutes? Whatever it is you are spending too much time on, you need to make it more difficult to do those things. The key to this step is to add to the level of effort you will have to put in to start in on a time-waster. It doesn’t have to be a lot of effort, either. A few extra clicks of the mouse can be enough to keep you from automatically falling into the old habit of wasting time.
If you realized that you check your email about twenty times a day, you would need to make that harder to do. This is a really big time sink as not only does it take more time overall to check your email numerous times rather than going through your email once or twice per day, each time you check your email you lose the thread of what you had been working on. It takes additional time to get back into the flow of what you were working on before the email interruption. If you could just stop checking email all those times, you would have far more time to work on your system.
So put in extra steps you’ll need to get through before you can access your email, such as closing it every time after you use it, putting the application inside a folder several folders deep on your desktop, all of which you would have to open to get to it, and/or making it require a password from you before it will open. Keep adding steps until it is more of a pain to open the email than it is worth. At this point, you will easily choose to do something else rather than mindlessly check your email over and over. (Of course, since you probably do need to check and respond to your email, put it on your calendar for specific times during the day so that you only check it once in the morning and once at the end of the day, or once an hour, or whatever schedule makes sense for your business while minimizing distraction.)
Step 2. Make It As Easy As Possible to Do the Behavior You Want to Make a Habit
This step (which I described in the second post in this series) is the opposite of the first one. Since we tend to default to doing whatever is easiest to do, make your new “habit” as easy as you possibly can to start.
Say you’ve jotted down some notes about the different things you do with your clients, which you need to sort through to figure out the steps of your new marketing campaign. You keep the file with the notes in your file drawer, which you have to get up from your desk and walk seven steps to get to. If you are having an issue with procrastination, that’s seven steps too many! Flip it around. Put the file in the middle of your desk as you leave the night before you are going to work on it. That way, to do anything the next day you will have to physically move the file. That way the part of your brain that defaults to doing the easiest thing just might decide that it’s easier to work on your system than do anything else.
If that is not enough to get you started, look for other things you can do to make getting started on your project easier. For example, if you leave your computer on overnight then open up the draft of your important project before you leave the night before and leave it in front of everything else on your screen so you don’t have to do a thing to get started on it other than wake up your computer. Remember, an extra step doesn’t have to be difficult in any way to persuade your brain to look for something easier. It just needs to take a tiny amount of additional effort and time. So get rid of those steps.
Step 3. Establish Rules For Yourself—Make All Your Choices Beforehand
Finally, because every time we make a choice—even a simple one—our focus and persistence go down, make all the choices you can about how you will work on your project the day before. (I described this “choice energy” brain drain problem in more detail in the third post in this series.) When will you work on it? For how long? Will you begin with the big picture or get into the details? What will you do first? Second? You don’t need to plan everything out for the entire project, just what you will do the next day. As you make your choices, write them down. Leave the plan in front of you on your desk or desktop for the next day. That way, all you need to do is implement your plan tomorrow.
Your plan for working on your system might look something like:
i. Start at 10 am.
ii. Read through notes.
iii. Create outline of steps in order.
iv. If there is additional time, start writing description of first step.
v. End at noon.
Now when you get into your office the next day, you don’t have to make so many choices about how to work on your system that you give up and go to something simpler on your To Do list before you’ve even started.
A really powerful way to make a choice in advance is to set a rule like “I will write five pages every day” or “ On Friday I will block out one hour on my calendar every day of the next week to work on my project.” When you set a rule, you only have to make the choice the one time you make it rather than every day.
There are two tips I’ve come across that may make your rules more effective. The first is that doing something at the same time every day will make it easier to establish the behavior as a habit. A rule using this tip might look like “Every workday I will work on my system from ten to noon.” The second tip is to only allow yourself to do something you always do (e.g., get a cup of coffee, or check email) after you’ve done the behavior you want to establish as a habit.
After you’ve established your habit (whether that takes three weeks or twelve) you can start to ease up on your rule. Of course, if your habit starts to slip, go back to the rule, but it is more likely that you will just carry on with your activity because that behavior will have become the easy, default action.
So it’s time. Decide what you want to establish as a habit. Add steps to the time-wasters that might get in your way. Take away the steps it takes to start your new habit every day. Make a written plan the day before setting out what you will do. Make a rule for how you will work, if that will help. These steps should lower the amount of willpower it takes to do what you want to so that you are much more likely to actually follow through on your activity every day until it becomes a real habit.
If you do all of these steps and you still find yourself avoiding what you know you want and need to do, you may have a more deep-seated reason for your procrastination. If you think that may be the case, give me a call. We can talk about what we might do together to get you past your block.