You Have to Meet Julie!

If lack of self-confidence is keeping you from going after the life you want, you have to meet Julie. She’s a smart woman with a mission to change the world.

When she began working with me, Julie was just starting her business providing Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) to children on the Autism Spectrum and their families. RDI helps children on the spectrum form personal relationships, develop the ability to think flexibly and improve their quality of life.

Julie was just finishing intensive training to be certified in using RDI. She knew it worked. She knew she could improve the lives of children and their families enormously. But she wasn’t getting her business out into the world. She was questioning herself, afraid to ask for money, and allowing herself to be stopped by fear. She was holding herself back.

So we got to work. Now she is able to speak about what she does much more naturally, without the fear. She is making connections that will help her reach more people. And she has clients starting with her.

As we worked together, the changes in her were so noticeable they even turned her husband from a skeptic about this weird EFT stuff I do into a fan who was happy to take over childcare whenever she had a session with me!

Julie gives a lot of credit for all these changes to doing EFT/Tapping with me. In fact, I’ll toot my own horn here and quote Julie, who said: “You have to work with Nancy to get past the blocks that have been holding you back. I think where I am now would not be possible without my work with Nancy.”

Watch the video to hear from Julie herself.

I’m so impressed by Julie. She has worked so hard and is finally poised to make a huge difference for so many people. You Go Girl!

When you’re ready to stop procrastinating and create the life you are meant to live, email me. We’ll set up a call to talk about what’s going on with you and see if I can help.

When It’s Not Procrastination

Over the last two months I’ve only done things that were essential, like taking care of my eleven year old and meeting with current clients. I haven’t done much of anything else in my business like marketing, networking, or creating these videos, even though those things are very important to me. Instead, I’ve rested, puttered about, and cleaned up the kitchen.

But it wasn’t procrastination.

Watch the video to find out what it was, and when it’s right to step away from your To Do list entirely.

You’ll find there are times in life when you need to stop what you’re doing to celebrate, grieve, or put all your focus on an emergency. When that happens, don’t try to guilt yourself into working anyway. Just promise yourself you will get back to your goals when you’re ready. And be gentle on yourself until then.

Watch the video to find out more.

Of course, if you really are procrastinating and you’re ready to stop so you can create the life you are meant to live, email me. We’ll set up a call to talk about what’s going on with you and see if I can help.

What If Your Life Were Easy?

Over the past year I’ve noticed an interesting cause of procrastination in both my clients and myself.

Sometimes we procrastinate because it has become soooo hard to do something to reach a goal that we subconsciously decide it’s not worth trying.

And because we feel that it’s too hard to achieve our goal, we find ourselves putting off actions that could achieve that goal. Then we wonder why we’re procrastinating.

I’ve discovered a way to help both my clients and myself make things easier so we can reverse our procrastination. It’s a little woowoo, but it works!

Watch the video to find out the simple trick we’ve been using to make our goals—and even our lives—easier.

If you’re ready to stop struggling so hard to create the life you are meant to live, email me. We’ll set up a call to talk about what’s going on with you and see if I can help.

The Done List

Sometimes all it takes to break the logjam of procrastination is to stop using your To Do list.

Yes, it sounds crazy, but when I had my client replace her To Do list with this one action, she started having more energy and accomplishing a lot more of what she wanted to get done.

Watch the video to find out what I had my client do that really worked for her.

Stop Sabotaging Your Own Success; Change How You Think of Yourself

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?

tree trunkActually, 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.

For two other ways to improve how you see yourself, check out my articles on visualizing yourself tackling things you have been avoiding and on dressing for success.

What Optimism Will Get You

I’m back! I took a few weeks off to follow Stephen Covey’s advice to “sharpen the saw” (and maybe get a little downtime in to increase my creativity), and now I feel ready to get back to work in a big way. While I was away, I spent some time re-reading an oldie but goodie, Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism. In his book, Seligman points to research that shows that, for the most part, pessimists get bad results and optimists get good results in their achievements, mood, health, and (possibly) longer life.

The book is full of great information that you can use to improve many areas of your life. I’m just going to focus here on how you can use his research to improve your work, but feel free to get your own copy of his book to get all the benefits his approach offers. Since this is important, and Seligman has a lot to say, I’m going to describe it over several articles.

Is the glass half full, or half empty?In this post we’ll look at what optimism can do for you, when you should use an optimistic approach and when you should choose a more cautious, pessimistic style. Optimism can be very powerful and overcome a lot of self-imposed blocks to your success, but you wouldn’t want to use it in every situation. Sometimes a touch of pessimism is called for.

First, What an Optimistic Approach Can Do For You

When a negative event happens, big or small—maybe the boss frowns at you, a client ends the relationship, you get fired—everyone feels at least momentarily helpless. For someone with an optimistic explanatory style, it hurts, but the feeling goes away relatively quickly and they can get on with creating the life and work they want. For someone with a more pessimistic explanatory style, that helpless feeling can go on a long time, leaving them stuck right where they are. So how we  explain what happens to us determines how helpless or energized we become, which affects what we do, which in turn affects what we achieve.

Let’s see how this works. Imagine your boss tells you that your work on that last report was not up to her expectations. If you are a pessimist, you think things like “I’m no good at this,” or “Bosses always shoot you down,” or “I never get anything right.” This way of thinking saps your energy, leaving you with a feeling of Why Bother. If you are no good, you never get anything right, and your boss will always shoot down your efforts, there is no point to even trying. So you lose motivation, put in less effort at work and the next thing you know your reviews go downhill and you’re stuck in a dead-end job (or are out of work!).

Now let’s look at what happens if you use a more optimistic explanation for what happened. You feel bad, of course, but soon you start telling yourself things like “I’ve been worrying about Mom’s health lately, so I probably wasn’t as focused as I could have been,” or “This project was really rushed and I just didn’t have time to do it right,” or “I really didn’t understand what my role was and so I screwed it up.” With explanations like that, you shake off the pain of the moment and start making plans to do better next time, tell your boss what you need to fix the situation, or find a new job that is a better fit for you. You don’t feel helpless for long, and you have the energy you need to take action to succeed.

So the optimists go on to clear things up with their bosses, do better on the next project, learn new skills, apply for that interesting job, and get promoted. The pessimists sit back and tell themselves there’s no point, so those positive career moves elude them. Another way of saying this is that the optimist persists in the face of challenges; the pessimist doesn’t. This means that pessimists fail more often, even when they could have succeeded.

You can see how an optimistic style could also propel a small business owner beyond her more pessimistic competitor. Say they both lose an important customer. Ms. Optimist thinks “I didn’t give him enough attention over the past month,” or  “The local economy took a hit that made it hard for him to buy from me now, but I just have to find a way to hang on until the upswing happens and clients like him can come back,” or “Sometimes I lose one for reasons I can’t control, but what I provide is useful so I can always bring in more customers.”

Compare her motivation and energy level after the loss of her customer to Mr. Pessimist, who says “I’m such a loser,” or “The economy is in the tank and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Ms. O looks for ways to improve what she offers and how she gets the message out to potential customers; Mr. P hunkers down and waits for the ax to fall. Who’s going to succeed?

The Value of Pessimism

This is not to say that pessimism doesn’t have it’s place. There are definitely advantages to using pessimism in certain situations. It would seem that pessimists tend to have a better grasp on reality. Optimists see what could be; pessimists see what is. Therefore, pessimists are by and large more accurate, particularly in situations where there are unexpected and frequent disasters.

Pessimists also tend to be more cautious. While an optimist thinks that things will work out, the pessimist buys insurance just in case. Pessimists save more money for a rainy day. They avoid danger.

So a touch of pessimism belongs in every career and every life at times. The trick is figuring out when to use a pessimistic approach and when to use an optimistic one.

When to Use Optimism versus Pessimism

Here are some guidelines for when to use an optimistic approach and when to be more pessimistic in your work.

Choose optimism:

  • In a situation where you want to achieve, like selling, getting a promotion, or being chosen to work on a high profile project.
  • If you need to keep up your morale, like cold calling or networking.
  • Where you want to lead or inspire people.
  • Where creativity is needed.
  • Where the cost of failure is low, like applying for a job.

Choose pessimism:

  • If you are planning for a risky or uncertain future.
  • When counseling others whose future is not rosy, say, in a yearly review with an underperformer.
  • Where physical safety is at issue.
  • Where the cost of failure is high.

Let’s look at that last bullet-point more closely, because it is really the crux of your decision. If the cost of failure is high, you should use a pessimistic approach. Seligman gives examples of the pilot deciding whether to de-ice the plane again or the partygoer who needs to decide whether to drive or take a taxi home. Accidents and death are high costs to pay for failure. Choose caution and pessimism in those situations.

There are many situations where the costs of failure may feel high, but in fact are quite low. Consider the salesman who has to decide whether to make another call where he may be rejected; the independent professional who is considering offering a new service; the executive who has hit a ceiling at her current employer who is thinking about using (or building) her network to look for a new position. While rejection feels bad, it doesn’t really kill you. For that reason, all of the people in these and similar situations should choose an optimistic approach.

Seligman also lists jobs that require an optimistic approach and those that need a more pessimistic one. Here they are. Only optimists need apply for:

  • Sales
  • Brokering
  • Public relations
  • Presenting and Acting
  • Fund-raising
  • Creative jobs
  • Highly competitive jobs
  • High-burnout jobs.

Mild pessimists, or cautious types with a keen sense of reality, do well in “‘low-defeat jobs, jobs with low turnover, jobs that call for specific technical skills in low-pressure settings.” Seligman’s examples are:

  • Design and safety engineering
  • Technical and cost estimating
  • Contract negotiation
  • Financial control and accounting
  • Law (but not litigation)
  • Business administration
  • Statistics
  • Technical writing
  • Quality control
  • Personnel and industrial-relations management.

Of course, even a job that calls for a realistic approach will have times where an optimistic approach is called for. Think of an accountant. He needs to be a realist with the numbers but use a positive approach when motivating his team. Or when he needs to bring in new clients. So even if your career falls squarely into the pessimist camp, realize that there are times to be optimistic. Flexibility will be your friend.

Here’s the best news of all. You don’t have to be born an optimist to get the benefits of an optimistic approach. You can learn how to use an optimistic explanatory style, then apply it whenever you choose.

In my next article I’ll detail the elements that go into an optimistic explanatory style. It’s not just putting on rose-colored glasses! There are three specific ways of looking at events, particularly negative events, that help you move forward with energy and motivation. Next week I’ll explain what those three ways are. After that I’ll show you Seligman’s specific techniques for changing a pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic style.

Nancy Linnerooth

About Nancy

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.

Contact Nancy at nancy@unblockresults.com.

Subscribe to the Unblock Results Newsletter, which comes out every week or two.

Putting It All Together—Three Easy Steps to Create a Good Habit

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.)

getting organized - making a listUsing 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.

Get Started!

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.

Make Fewer Choices, Get More Results

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.)

The Labyrinth

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!

The Easy Way to End Procrastination

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.

Last week I described the first technique, in which you identify your time-wasters then get rid of them by making them less easy and convenient. This week I’m going to outline an important technique to get you started on something you know you need to do but haven’t gotten around to yet. (By the way, each of these techniques—and the science behind them—is explained in much more detail in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. So feel free to pick up and read a copy for extra credit. It’s good!)

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?

How you arrange your desk at your desk
Where you put your work affects your willingness to do it.

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!

Avoid Procrastination: Make It Harder To Waste Time

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.