After we’d cleared out some major blocks, “Sam” told me his energy levels were back to where they were seven years ago when he started his business, and he could power through all sorts of projects fast. He was feeling really motivated to go out and get those new clients he’d been talking about for the last couple of years. The one thing standing in the way of his moving forward on the next growth phase of his business were the piles of “stuff” on his desk.
“Stuff?” I asked. “Oh, billing and other paperwork. The stuff I have to do. But I don’t like it. I know I’ve gotta do it to keep my business running, but I would rather do anything else. It’s so boring.” We talked about a few different time management tricks he could use to make time for the stuff and just get it done, but it quickly became clear that this wasn’t a simple question of fitting it into an already busy schedule. Just the thought of working on the “stuff” was turning Sam into a rebellious teen, shaking his head and saying “You can’t make me.”
That rebellious attitude was the tip off to me that we were dealing with an internal block that was tripping him up. We had already uncovered and cleared some of Sam’s other issues with authority. Turns out this was another aspect of his automatic refusal to do what someone tells him to do. Only he was the one who was telling himself to do the work!
While sitting in a long line of traffic, I started thinking of a block that creeps into many people’s decision-making: they try to avoid spending money, but wind up losing opportunities that would have earned them more than they would have spent.
That day, the toll bridge in Seattle had been shut down, so all of us were shunted on to the other, non-toll, bridge. For $3.69, you can usually get across the toll-bridge quickly and easily. The other bridge has become a stop-and-go nightmare as so many drivers choose that route to save money. While I was experiencing the waste of time that many people willingly choose, I was thinking about how gladly I would have paid the toll so I could get back to my office an hour earlier and make some money. Instead, I was spending more time driving, NOT getting work done.
Fooled by a veneer of rationality?
Usually, a quick way to test whether you have an internal block is to look at whether your actions are rational or irrational. If, rationally speaking, you know it makes more sense to get your report into your boss early, or finish your billing on time, or hold your temper around a client, and yet you consistently do the opposite, it’s a fair bet that you have an internal block that is keeping you from acting rationally. Yet when saving money is part of the equation, our actions can sometimes appear rational on the surface even when a closer look shows us they are not. This veneer of rationality surrounding saving money can keep us from recognizing—and challenging—our own block.
Take that pesky toll. For most people reading this, $3.69 is a trivial amount of money. Pay the toll, if it will buy you upwards of half an hour of time, and you can put that half hour into things like completing projects early, getting more work done, or networking—any number of ways to impress your boss or lay the groundwork for a new job, either of which can lead to a lot more money in your pocket than the outlay for the toll. What is a half hour of your time worth, if you had to reach into you wallet and pay for it? If you own your own business, you can use the time to put your efforts into bringing in more clients, creating a new service or product your customers need, or other efforts to make your company more valuable. Finally, at the very least you could use that half hour for some real downtime (going for a walk in the park, playing with your kids, canoodling with your significant other) that will improve your mood, creativity, and/or quality of life. All for the low, low price of $3.69.
Saving Money Can Cost You
But so often, instead of looking at what an outlay brings us, we immediately think “I can’t afford it,” or “I don’t need that.” A lifelong habit of being careful with money—or a lesson painfully learned from a sudden loss of income—leads to an automatic rejection of any expenditure that we are not forced to make. And that can paradoxically lead to a loss of opportunities and therefore a loss of money.
There are a lot of things we “make do” with in order to save money that may in fact be losing us money. Anything that saves you time that you could better use to improve your business or advance your career can fall into this category. This includes everything from buying new software to having an expert prepare your taxes to picking up dinner at the deli counter on the way home. In fact, anything that you do that is not central to your business or career that could be outsourced is something to consider as a trade off for the dollar value of your time, like bookkeeping, chauffeuring the kids around, rotating the tires on your car, or cleaning your home or office.
Ooooh, that last one is an especially big bug-a-boo for a lot of people. Somewhere along the line they learned that it is morally wrong to pay someone else to clean for them when they are able-bodied enough to scrub their own toilets. But look what you lose when you take the time yourself to do that. You take time away from building up your business in ways that only you can. Just about anyone can vacuum; only you can do the rainmaking, or provide your professional services, or do whatever your customers come to you and not the other guy for. And if you work for someone else, taking time to clean your own home means you don’t have that time to get the certification you need for the next step in your career, or to meet someone in your field who could help you get into that great company you’ve had your eye on, or any of the other things that might move you up.
How To Determine Whether to Spend the Money or Not
To find out if you have a block around spending money that is preventing you from actually making money, try this exercise. Take a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle. On the left-hand side, write down something you have been avoiding and what it would cost you to buy it. On the right-hand side, write down what it would buy you (e.g., “time to work on presentation” or “time to take on one more client”). Estimate what that could be worth to you. Yes, I mean a dollar amount (“a $5000 bonus” or “$30,000 for one additional client relationship over the next five year”). Now, come up with a percentage likelihood that you will achieve that benefit. (e.g., “15% likelihood that it will lead to the bonus” or “100% ability to work with potential client off my waitlist”). Multiply the potential worth by the percentage likelihood. If the resulting number is greater than what you wrote down on the left-hand side of the page, you have just shown yourself that the rational choice is to spend the money here.
Yes, I know your calculation is not really a hard and fast number, but it is a fairly rational way of estimating what the expenditure is likely worth to you. It is certainly better than a knee-jerk reaction of “spending any money is bad.” Then, if the upside looks like it is more valuable to you than what you have to pay to get it, it is time to spend the money. If it is just too speculative, don’t do it.
Got the Money Block?
Now, if the upside is more valuable than what you would pay and you still can’t bring yourself to do it, you’ve got yourself a money block. Do what you can to stay in your head, being rational, about the expenditure instead of just listening to your feelings that are screaming “Don’t waste money!” You’ve already calculated that it wouldn’t be a waste of money. So take a deep breath and make the commitment to doing the rational thing.
Of course, if you are currently working on a shoestring and you really have to pinch every penny, then you will have to trade some of your time for money, at least until you get some leeway into your system. Then, once you have more money that you can use to “buy” time, you will be able to shift your efforts from money-saving to more money-making efforts. For now, do what you have to. But keep doing those calculations. At some point, sooner than you expect, the upside of spending the money will outweigh the downside.
Today I want to give you a way to figure out whether your have a common block which can completely derail your progress. I’ll also give you a way to defuse it.
Although this block is common, it often manages to go unrecognized in most people since it only shows up when they start to make—and actually see—real progress towards their goals. That’s when it starts driving them to sabotage the progress they are making, which can be completely confusing as well as frustrating.
Why would anyone sabotage their own efforts just when they are starting to see some success?
Actually, it makes perfect sense that someone would sabotage themselves when they are starting to see improvement if the block they have is a fear of letting go of how they think of themselves. Take my client “Dominic,” an independent consultant who has a history of cycling back and forth between periods of expanding his client list and backing off from his business and letting it shrivel. He’s even been known to take a job in an entirely different field during a period where he is stepping away from his business. He truly loves what he does and wants to build a thriving practice, so we’ve been knocking down the internal blocks that get him off track.
After making some initial progress on his blocks, we decided to tackle his backlog of paperwork. Dominic had been letting his billing slide, which was doing a number on his cash flow. We made a plan, breaking down the project into several steps, then putting the steps on his calendar. We also made a plan for him get the billing done on a weekly basis going forward. What had seemed an insurmountable problem turned into something he could catch up on within a few days, then easily take care of after that. Dominic must have felt great, right?
Wrong. When I asked him how he was feeling, Dominic said with surprise in his voice that he was feeling “a little anxious.” As I asked more questions, he admitted that he didn’t know what it would be like to have his business running smoothly. He was a “flake.” Everybody knew that, including him. Who would he be when his business was thriving? He wouldn’t be that flake anymore. So who would he be?
Fear of losing…everything
When we have been holding a picture in our mind for a long time of who we are, anything that threatens to replace that picture can feel dangerous, even if on the surface we really want the change. It can seem to us, on some deeper level, that who we are will die if we change too much—even if we think the change is for the good. That’s extreme language, I know, but that’s how this block makes us feel. Then we will do anything, even sabotage what we want most in life, to avoid that frightening feeling.
Of course, we know that becoming more successful in our business or job will not make us die. But simply knowing that on an intellectual level does not change the emotional reaction we have to the “threat” to our self-image. And those emotions get triggered if we take a significant step towards change.
So if you notice that you start out full of good intentions on a new effort to move forward in your job or business, but pull back whenever you start to make progress, you may have this emotional block. If you have a pattern of doing something to screw up what had been off to a good start, you may have this block. Perhaps you just have a feeling that this might be a problem for you. If you have any of these indications, try this experiment.
What do you see when you visualize change, in detail?
Close your eyes. See yourself as more successful than you already are—maybe you are one more rung up the corporate ladder, or your business has a wait list of clients clamoring to hire you. Whatever you’ve been telling yourself is your next big goal, imagine you have achieved it and it’s effortless now. What do you look like? What does your workplace look like? Picture what you do during the day. Are you busy in important meetings? Traveling and giving presentations? Do you have more direct reports or people working for you? Who do you talk with and how do you interact with each other?
I assume that you will have more income. What are you doing with it? Imagine what it feels like to have more than you need to pay the bills, pay off all your debts, be able to go on more exotic vacations, pay for education, move to a bigger house, or donate more to your favorite charities—whatever you would do with the increase.
Now hear in your mind what the important people in your life are saying to you about your newfound success, whether that is your spouse, family members, clients, co-workers, bosses, or friends. Include important people from your past (your soccer coach, first wife, and brother you haven’t talked to in years). Don’t forget to “talk” to people who have died. Next, imagine what those same people are really thinking. Some of their thoughts will be the same as what they say to you, but some will be different.
If I’ve missed anything, be sure you put it into your picture. The goal is to really imagine all the aspects of your success. When you’ve spent some time getting a complete picture of this success and what it will change in your life, check out how you are feeling about it. You might expect to feel happy, excited, hopeful, even relieved, and you probably will feel some of those emotions. But if anything negative came up—like nervousness, worry, fear, heaviness, sadness, or overwhelm—some part of you is probably trying to avoid the loss of the “old” you.
Getting a negative feeling from inside yourself while visualizing your dreams coming true? Yep, you’ve got the block we’re talking about here.
Three simple steps to end the self-sabotage
One way to get around this block is to set aside time every day to do exactly what you just did. Visualize yourself as this more successful you, going through your day with all the perks of the success. You really only need to do this a few minutes at a time. But to make this work, you need to do three other things:
First, if negative things come into your visualization, like your boss yells at you, or you screw up and tick off your clients, or you are working too many hours, correct that part of the visualization. Visualize it again, but this time visualize the way you really want it to turn out (even if you have your boss acting out of character). After all, this is supposed to be the success you want, so see it that way.
Second, while visualizing, put each of your thumbs on the side of the index finger next to it and rub gently in slow circles near the base of the fingernail. This is a relaxation technique that will help you let go of the negative emotions that come up when you are visualizing your own success. This is key, since those negative emotions are the ones that are driving you to sabotage yourself when success starts to loom on the horizon.
Keep doing this exercise for a few minutes each day until the new you feels comfortable, and there are no more negative emotions connected to seeing yourself as successful.
We usually think that, to change how we think of ourselves, first we have to change what we do. It’s counterintuitive to think we have to change how we think of ourselves in order to change what we do, but that is exactly how you will get past this particular block.
So if you’ve discovered you have this block—you’re thinking of yourself as less successful than you want to be—it’s time to get started changing your thoughts. Until you do, it’s going to be nearly impossible to change what you are doing.
I confess that today’s tip is not for everyone. But before you dismiss it as not being right for you, be sure to really try it on for size. You may discover that you can make this change. If you can, it will make a huge difference in your work.
“Mark” has blocks to growing his business. He came to me knowing that he procrastinates and misses deadlines. As we delved further, he identified a pattern of starting out on a project for a client with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He would analyze the client’s problem, identify what they needed to be doing, create a new process, and then implement it. Those first few months were glorious as Mark delivered just what his client needed.
Then the tedium would set in. Maintaining his great process was boring. Newer, more exciting projects would take precedence and he would start to put off doing the first client’s work. Now the client wasn’t so happy with him anymore. And, truth be told, he wasn’t happy with himself, but he couldn’t seem to knuckle down and just do the work.
So, what’s the answer for Mark? Well, there are actually two possibilities. First, we could look for an internal block that is keeping him from simply getting the work done on time. Is there a downside to succeeding — loss of friends, fear of becoming too busy to play with his kids, worry that he will outshine siblings? Does he have “old programming” that kicks in whenever he is doing too well, telling him that only greedy people make a lot of money or that he is too artistic to succeed in business? Once we identify the internal block, we can get rid of it, leaving him free to carry on with the mundane (but still lucrative) part of his business.
Before we did that, though, I wanted to check out the second approach. What if his reluctance to do the more mundane work was simply an acknowledgement by some part of him that such work was not his strength. Perhaps he is “a fixer” through and through and the daily work should be turned over to a “doer.” If that were the case, he could turn that block into a strength by building his business around his strength of “fixing.” He could be the one who goes into a client from the outside, puts his new processes in place, then hands the new system back to the client for continued maintenance by one of its employees. Alternatively, if he really wanted to keep the maintenance part of the business, Mark could hire someone himself to do that work while he monitored his employee and personally kept in touch with his client on a regular, but less onerous, basis.
Either approach would allow him to keep doing the analyzing and fixing he truly enjoyed and skip the dull work he hated. His clients would be happier. And he would be seen as the hero instead of the one with a follow-through problem.
Now think of your own business or job. What are your strengths? What do you love to do? What do clients (or bosses) rave about? Now think about ways for you to focus on those strengths while delegating the work you dislike — your “blocks” — to someone else.
In our culture, we usually get hung up at this “handoff” stage on three different things. One, we grew up believing that we have to improve those parts of our work that are weaker. Remember that comment on elementary school report cards, “Needs Work”? We are not taught to think, “I’m not very good at spelling so I’ll give it to Johnny across the table and he’ll give me his multiplication tables.” No, we are told to focus on our weaknesses to improve them. So, first up, remember that you are not in school anymore. You do not have to do everything and do it well. You just need to make sure that someone is doing what needs to be done.
Second, many of us are worried that if we delegate something, it won’t get done right. We want to control everything, and we can’t control what someone else does. This is true. It is also entirely beside the point. You want to make the most of your strengths, so give away something you are weaker at. By definition you aren’t the best person for that job. There are plenty of other people who are better at it. In addition, you can get better results by delegating even when you delegate something you are good at. The art of effective delegation is a topic for another time, but for now just remember the old adage: two heads are better than one. Someone else will have different experiences, viewpoints and ideas to bring to a problem. Their plan and execution could be better than yours. Alternatively, together you can create something better than either of you alone.
Finally, entrepreneurs often get trapped into thinking they have to do everything in their business from answering the phones to changing the light bulbs. Yes, that may save you money when you are starting out, but if you don’t get away from it quickly it will stunt your growth. How can you add a new product or client if you are already working flat out? How can you impress your existing and potential clients if you are completely exhausted from wordprocessing, bookkeeping and filing every night and cleaning the office and filling orders on weekends? The short answer is you can’t. Don’t try. Figure out what your clients come to you for and do that. Everything else is fair game to be delegated.
There are a lot of ways to delegate. For business owners who simply have too much to do, you can contract out tasks (think bookkeeping, virtual office assistance, cleaning services). You could also hire part-time or full-time employees for specific areas of work. If you feel like you are missing something key to making your business grow — say, you love to learn everything you can and stay on the cutting edge of your field but aren’t good at networking and bringing in new clients — you can join with a partner who has that skill.
If you are not a business owner, this approach may be harder to implement but you may still be able to make it work. If you are in a position to hire direct reports to “fill in the gaps” for you, do it. You will probably need to understand what they do, but it will still be better to have someone do the detailed work. If you can’t delegate to a direct report, see if you can develop your strengths to the extent that you become a “star” at what you do and can expect your employer to find others to do what you are not good at. I once worked in a law firm with a partner who excelled at writing appellate briefs. She was one of the few attorneys who was not expected to go out on golf courses and bring in new clients.
What about Mark? He is intrigued by the idea of turning his blocks into strengths, but nevertheless wants to root them out. I’m happy to help him do that since I know, once they are gone, he can still choose to focus on his strengths in his business.
So think about how you might be able to turn your blocks into strengths. It could be a much simpler solution to your problems!
In the last couple of weeks three of my clients admitted that they had been avoiding looking for a new job because they were afraid of going on interviews. These clients had significant reasons to go after new jobs (e.g., financial distress, an unsupportive boss, being in the wrong industry) which they recognized, yet they were allowing their unexamined fears stop them. So we examined their fears.
Simple Interviewing Fears
“Adele” has been out of work for several years. At first it was a choice, but after her husband died it became harder to continue her same lifestyle. Lately she has found herself really pinched with unexpected health problems. She realizes she would do much better if she went back to work, she enjoys her profession, and she knows she is good at what she used to do. But in spite of all that she hasn’t been able to bring herself to look for a job.
When I asked why, she said it was because she was afraid of going on interviews. I got her to relax and think about being in an interview. Then I had her finish the sentence “The worst thing about an interview is . . . .” She surprised us both by answering “none of my clothes fit.” We had a good laugh, she said there was an easy fix to this problem and that she was ready to get started.
That wasn’t the end to the problem, though. It turns out that Adele is also afraid that she will perform badly in any tests she is given during the interview. Why? She keeps thinking of an interview she went on a few years back where she was out of practice and got so flustered when asked to perform that she couldn’t do what she had done for years. The pain and embarrassment she felt was intense. She has convinced herself that this will happen again so she avoids putting herself in any situation (such as an interview) where it might.
So what to do? First, Adele has to address the deficit in her closet by buying an outfit that feels comfortable and appropriate. Second, together we will work on that memory to take away the emotional sting. Third, Adele will look for volunteer work at an organization she respects that will allow her to practice her old skills until she feels she is ready for that interview (or gets hired by someone who observes her in action).
Fear of Failure In an Interview
Meanwhile, “Brynne” was feeling stifled by her current situation. Her boss wasn’t giving her any of the stretch projects she was seeking to grow and move up in their company. On top of that, the boss’s personal style was to mention only the mistakes, never giving recognition for Brynne’s many accomplishments. Brynne needed to move to a new position with a more compatible manager. Brynne had realized a year ago she needed that change, yet here she was with an out-of-date resume and all the excuses in the world why she couldn’t start her search now.
When pressed, she admitted the real reason she was avoiding her job search was that she was afraid of going on any interviews. So I got her to relax, then asked her to finish the same sentence I asked Adele: “The worst thing about an interview is . . . .” She thought about it and answered “I won’t be good enough and the interviewer will judge me.”
While this sounds logical, look at it more closely. Why should she care what the interviewer thinks, really? The interviewer is not going to report back to Brynne’s family, friends, or even her boss on her performance in the interview. They are not going to decide who Brynne marries, what college her children go to, or whether she gets into heaven. At most, all they do is decide whether to hire Brynne for the job or not. Big deal. Even if she really wants the offer, it will not be the end of the world if she doesn’t get it. There are other jobs out there, and Brynne (if she’s smart) wants one where they want her and she wants them. Figuring out whether there is that kind of fit is really what the interview is about. If the interviewer doesn’t want her, then — HURRAY — they’ve figured out there isn’t a fit before any harm is done.
With a little thought, Brynne agreed that it wasn’t about whether the interviewer would judge her as not good enough but whether she will judge herself as wanting. Brynne is a perfectionist, and the fear of not being perfect has been a stumbling block we’ve worked on before. Half an hour later, we’d eliminated that block to interviewing and Brynne was smiling at the thought of finding her next job. (If you have that perfectionism block, check out my earlier post on how to get past it.)
Fear of Succeeding and Getting the Job
“Clarice” was in a panic. She had done the unthinkable, applying for her dream job on a lark and suddenly finding herself scheduled to fly out for an interview. If she had thought she would actually get that far she never would have applied. What would she do if she got the job?!
First things first. We had to get her to calm down so she could actually think. I had her tap on acupressure points that work as a powerful relaxation technique. (If you want to know what they are, you can see them in this post.)
When Clarice was breathing again, I got her talking about what was so alarming. While she continued to tap, I had her start with “The worst thing about the interview is . . . ,“ and it all came out. What if she got the job? She’d have to move to a city where she didn’t know anyone, leaving behind the friends she’d made and groups she belonged to (not to mention a certain ex she still had feelings for.) And she’d have to stop playing small, doing a job that was easy and safe. She would no longer be a big fish in a small pond. She’d have to stretch and prove herself to the hiring manager, someone whose accomplishments she really admired. What if she couldn’t do the new job? And ultimately, she would have to find out if the dream she had been holding onto for so long was really what she wanted. What if she hated the work after all?
By relaxing her body while getting out all the fears she had about this job, Clarice was able to start thinking about them rationally, putting them in perspective. She didn’t completely lose her fears, but they became much more rational. She left looking calm, thoughtful, and — yes — a bit excited.
How to Lower Your Interviewing Fear
So what do you do if fear of going on an interview is stopping you from going after a new job? First of all, relax. Remember, just thinking about interviewing cannot hurt you! If you are having trouble relaxing, try the tapping exercise above or one of the techniques from this post.
When you are relaxed, finish this sentence “The worst thing about an interview is . . . .” What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Write it down. Relax again and fill in the blank again. Keep going until nothing else comes to mind. Next, go through your list one by one, keeping your body relaxed throughout.
You should notice a few things. First, usually just getting clear on what it is you are afraid of can bring your overall fear down. Second, some of those fears just won’t bother you anymore when looked at in the light of day. (Remember Adele and her interview outfit?) Finally, just staying relaxed while thinking about your fears may allow your mind to come up with ways to fix the problem. (Adele could work as a volunteer to practice her skills. Brynne doesn’t really care about the interviewer’s opinion. And Clarice can make plans to join groups where she’ll get to know people in her new town.)
So there you have it — a simple way to bring down your fear of interviewing so you can go after a job you really want.
Nancy Linnerooth has been helping professionals, executives and business owners for well over a decade to get rid of their internal blocks so they can meet their career and business goals.
These internal blocks often show up as repeating patterns of behavior that undercut what they’re trying to accomplish, like procrastinating; avoiding public speaking, cold calling and networking; choking in interviews; and becoming overwhelmed and losing focus.
Nancy comes to the world of coaching with a diverse background as a practicing psychotherapist of many years and a recovering attorney who got her JD from Harvard Law School. So she understands the demands of working in a high-pressured, high-stakes world.
Using any of those techniques alone can get you moving on things you have been avoiding, but when you combine them you can create a new habit fairly easily, which is a great way to become more productive. I’ve had clients use these steps to do everything from finishing projects they hated to exercising regularly. Feel free to try them on anything you want to make a regular part of your day.
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.
I love helping clients uncover and get rid of those internal blocks to their success that go very deep. It isn’t always easy, but it can be pure joy to start with, say, what they have been doing to sabotage themselves, follow it back all the way to its source and get rid of it. However, not all blocks are complicated issues that need serious detective work with a coach to untangle. Some blocks to doing what we need to in our career or business are simply “reflex reactions” built into all of us that can be avoided with some easy techniques—when you know the techniques.
In the past two weeks I’ve described two ways to get around those kinds of blocks, first, by making it a little bit harder to procrastinate and second, by making it that much easier to start the activity you want to be doing. Today’s tip is another way to get yourself going on something that you just haven’t been getting around to in spite of all your good intentions. (All three of these techniques and the research behind them are explained in detail in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I highly recommend reading or listening to it on your commute.)
Making choices can be exhausting
Science tells us that making choices lowers our physical stamina, our persistence, and our overall focus, and it lowers them a lot. (Each choice also lowers our ability to do math problems, if that is relevant to you). Each choice doesn’t have to be complicated or have enormous consequences resting on it to have those effects, either. As Shawn Achor puts it, it can be as simple as “chocolate or vanilla.” When we’ve used up our “choice energy,” we start making the easiest choices that take the least amount of effort, whether or not they lead to the results we want. Then it just takes time and rest to replenish our choice energy.
I recently read about a study that showed this choice energy being used up. The study looked at the parole system in an Israeli prison and found that the earlier in the day a prisoner’s parole hearing came up, the more likely he was to get released. The researchers concluded that because it was easier and safer for the members of the parole board to deny parole than to grant it, they were more likely to make the hard choice—to grant parole—early in the day before they had made many choices, and more likely to make the easy choice—denying parole—later on after they had already made a number of choices. The only exception was for the hearings that happened right after the board’s lunch, when there was an increase in paroles granted. Apparently eating can replenish your “choice reserves” somewhat, too.
Just this week a client gave me another example of what happens when you use up your choice energy. A few years ago she took a standardized test to get into professional school and didn’t do very well. The test takes over five hours to complete, with five multiple choice sections. The questions are tricky, designed to weed out those who don’t think the way that is required in school. By the time my client got to the fifth section, she was exhausted. She couldn’t keep her focus on the questions long enough to reason them through, so she just started filling in the bubbles randomly. Her stamina, focus and persistence were gone because of all the choices she had already made in the previous sections.
Granted, one of the reasons she got to this exhausted stage was a deep-seated fear of taking tests, which dragged her down and made the first four sections of the test that much harder for her than for others taking it. But even after we finish rooting out her test anxiety, when she re-takes the exam she will still have to contend with using up her choice energy. So we’ve made a plan. To make sure she has as much “choice energy” as possible going into the test, which is on a Saturday, she is going to limit the choices that she has to make for at least twenty-four hours prior to that. She’ll do things like lay out her clothes for Friday and Saturday on Thursday night. She has already picked out what she will order at lunch with her co-workers on Friday. She will ask her partner to choose Friday’s dinner without her input. He will drive her to the test site. Any choice she can make before that twenty-four hours, or give to someone else, she will.
Save choice energy by getting rid of choices—prepare in advance and make rules
You can use a similar strategy for any project that you haven’t been able to get going on. Let’s say you’ve been meaning to make some cold calls but never get around to actually doing them. Instead of just saying to yourself, “I’m going to make some calls tomorrow, without fail” and relying on your willpower to make it happen, make all the decisions you can the night before. Write them down and leave the plan on your desk. How many calls will you make? When will you make the first call? Who will you call, and in what order? Don’t leave anything to decide on the day you make the calls that you could decide the night before. Then, when you arrive in your office the next day, there is your plan sitting right in front of you. The decisions are already made. You just have to implement them.
Another way to get around draining your choice energy—and therefore your stamina, focus and persistence—is to make rules for yourself. When you’ve made a rule, you’ve already made your choice in advance so you aren’t drawing on your choice energy when it is time to act.
Example: Jessie’s big slump at work
A good illustration of these techniques was the situation faced by my client, “Jessie,” who wanted to get more productive at work. She liked her job and her boss, but she found she was doing less and less each day, coasting on her reputation from past successes. She knew she couldn’t keep going this way much longer.
Jessie recognized that a big obstacle to her getting anything done these days was her conversations with her co-workers over coffee when she first got to work. They had turned into b- . . . er, kvetch sessions about all that was wrong with the co-workers’ managers and their jobs. By the time she got to her desk, she was unmotivated and looking for the easiest thing she could do to make it seem like she was working. The problem was compounded at lunchtime when she would join these same friends for another complaint-filled conversation that would sap her energy for the afternoon. Making herself choose anything challenging from her To Do list under those circumstances was just too much.
The answer Jessie and I came up with was to implement three rules. The first was not to have coffee with her co-workers until after 10:30 am. That way, she had at least two hours to get some work done at the beginning of the day. The second was to do first the one thing on her To Do list that she least wanted to do that day. (Of course, she picked that item out the night before.) The third rule was to turn the conversation to something more positive whenever a co-worker started in on a complaint, like what they could do next to find a better job, or where each was going to go on vacation. (Again, she picked out what the topic would be the night before.)
Two weeks after she implemented these three rules, the change was dramatic. Jessie reported that she was getting a lot more done throughout her workday, not just those first couple of hours. She had already finished two of the projects she had been dreading and avoiding. And her co-workers were also enjoying the change in their conversations. Apparently they were tired of the never-ending complaints, too.
Pick out a project and try it!
You can use this technique on anything you have been avoiding. The day before you plan to work on it, write out your plan—what you are going to work on, when, in what order, anything that you will have to decide. Put your plan front and center on your desk so that the next day you can just do it. If your problem is long-standing, or, like Jessie’s, it seems to cover a lot of activities, then come up with a rule today that you can follow tomorrow, and the next day and the next. That way the decision is already made and you won’t have to whittle away at your stamina, focus and persistence by making choices each day before starting on your project or projects.
Next week, I’ll put this technique together with the two previous techniques to show you how to implement a new, more productive habit. Until then, enjoy the extra stamina, focus and persistence you’ve recovered!
Sometimes the reason someone procrastinates is a deep-seated block that takes serious effort to root out. This is where I earn my nickel with clients who come to me to get past blocks. But sometimes we procrastinate because our brains are hardwired to choose activities that are easy and convenient over those that take more effort. When that is the kind of block getting in your way, there are three simple techniques you can take to get around it. Each technique will work individually, but when combined they can be almost unstoppable.
Willpower has its limits (and when it’s gone it’s gone)
It turns out we only have a certain amount of willpower to work with over a period of time. The more we use it, the less we have, and when it’s gone it’s gone. That’s why crash diets so often end in a huge binge of the foods the dieters have been denying themselves. The dieters kept using up their willpower each time they told themselves “no” until they had none left.
The limit to willpower reserves is also why it can be hard to get started and keep going on a project —you have to make yourself go work on it. Every time you do that, you draw on your willpower reserves. When the reserves are used up, you can’t make yourself work on it anymore. So what do you do?
The short answer is to take willpower out of the equation by making it easier to work on your project than to do anything else. You’ve already made a start on this if you followed last week’s tip and made it harder to access the time-wasters in your day. Now you want to do the opposite and make it easier and more convenient to access your project, whatever it is.
Remove the easy-to-eliminate obstacles ahead of time
Let’s say you are a small business owner with an opportunity to submit an article to a publication that is read by a lot of potential customers. It could really showcase what you do. Not only would that make your cold calls easier since those potential customers would have heard of you, it might even lead to a few of them calling you up to hire you, no cold calls required. The upside is huge. And you just can’t seem to get around to writing the article.
You can call yourself a lazy good-for-nothing (which still won’t get that article written), or you can simply make it easier to get started on the article than do anything else.
If the file of research you need to write it is sitting in the file cabinet ten steps from your desk, move the file to the middle of your desk before you go home. That way when you sit down tomorrow you won’t have to take those ten steps to get started. What’s more, you won’t be able to do anything else unless you physically move the file out of your way. That extra effort to move the file out of the way may be enough to tip your brain into thinking that it is easier to just work on the article than do something else.
Of course this isn’t logical, but logic isn’t the issue here. If logic worked, you would have written and submitted that article months ago. Instead, we’re dealing with a different part of the brain, and that part just looks at initial efforts. That’s why lowering the amount of effort it takes to start up the project can get you moving, even though the overall effort—the “real” work of writing that article—remains the same.
Now if moving the file to your desk isn’t enough to get you going on the article, look at other ways to make working on the article easier. Does the thought of toggling back and forth on your computer between the document with your notes in it and the one you are planning to fill with your brilliant article make you sigh? Then print out your notes and put them on your keyboard the night before you plan to work on the article. Again, you will have removed activities that added effort to your project (opening the notes document and toggling back and forth). In addition, you will have to physically move the notes out of your way to do anything else on your computer, adding a step to working on any other project. Working on the article will become that much easier and more convenient than other projects.
You’ll notice that I suggest you move pieces of your project to a more convenient location the night before. When you do that, you allow your willpower reserves to replenish before starting to work on the actual project. This is in addition to lowering the willpower it takes to get started because the pieces of your project are more convenient. So setting yourself up the night before gives you double the benefit for your effort.
Prove it to yourself—pick a project right now
This approach sounds simple and it is. You actually have to do it, however. So pick something you have been avoiding and put it right in front of you, either physically on your desk or virtually on your computer, so that you have to move it to get to anything else tomorrow. If you trip over your project whenever you try to do anything else, you are on the right track. If you manage to avoid your project anyway, make another simple change that makes it even easier and more convenient to get started on the next day.
Eventually, you will have made enough changes that your brain will decide that you might as well work on your project since it’s right there. Then you’ll “just do it” like you’ve been telling yourself for the past three months. In this way you will see how powerful this technique is, you’ll be more likely to remember how to do it the next time you find yourself procrastinating, and—who knows—you may finally get that project off your To Do list.
If this tip plus last week’s tip aren’t quite enough to get you started on a project you’ve been putting off, there is one more technique you can add to end your procrastination easily. I’ll tell you all about it next week!
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
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!
One way to recognize that you have a block is to notice when you do the same thing that gets you in trouble over and over again. Such a repeating pattern can take many forms. One person starts off projects with great enthusiasm, then loses momentum and ends up turning in work that is less than they are capable of. Another always gets into a fight with their boss or client after a “honeymoon period,” then needs to find a new job or client. A third might procrastinate whenever there is a deadline, only getting serious when it gets down to the wire. The pattern repeats no matter how mad the person gets at themselves for “doing it again” and how strongly they vow to change their ways.
There is even a philosophical term for this kind of behavior that goes back to Socrates: akrasia, or acting against what you know to be your own best interests. It seems so illogical that Socrates apparently claimed that it didn’t happen, since “No one goes willingly toward the bad.” According to Socrates, anyone who does this must simply be ignorant of facts or knowledge. Later philosophers, who recognized that people do in fact act against their better judgment, equated it with a weakness of will. Edmund Spenser even included a temptress in The Faerie Queene, Acrasia, who was the embodiment of “intemperance.” So all these great thinkers have deemed anyone who doesn’t do what he knows would be best for them either stupid or morally wrong.
That kind of thinking shows up all the time to this day. It seems like we in the US blame people especially harshly for not following through on their better judgment. Just call to mind what you’ve heard, or thought, about someone with lung cancer who still smokes. “Weak-willed” is probably the least harsh of the descriptions we use. We find it very difficult to understand such a problem as anything other than some sort of moral failing.