A Sneaky Kind of Procrastination

A sneaky kind of procrastination might be holding you back. This kind of procrastination shows up as a repeating pattern of almost—but not quite—getting what you want.

How is this procrastination? Well, if you don’t get what you want, you don’t move forward on your goals. Then you’re stuck, just like with “traditional” procrastination.

More than one client has faced this problem of coming close to achieving an important goal and then falling short. The first time or two we don’t get the job offer, or take advantage of a business idea, or finish an offer on time, it could just be life. But when it’s a pattern that happens over and over again, it shows that there is something happening below the surface that we’re not aware of.

Watch to find out what can cause this sneaky kind of procrastination and what you can do to get rid of it.

If you recognize a pattern in your own life of not achieving your important goals and want to stop procrastinating once and for all 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.

A Way to Make Your Resolutions Work

If you don’t really expect much from your New Year’s resolutions—or you’ve given up making them entirely—try this technique. It whittles away at what’s going on below the surface that’s keeping you stuck.

There’s a reason your resolutions usually don’t work, and it has nothing to do with how motivated you are to make a change. When you try to make a big change, something gets triggered subconsciously, like:
•  a fear,
•  a belief, or
•  a competing need.

When that reaction is too powerful for willpower alone to overcome, you eventually give up on your resolution. And that’s why the resolution never seems to last much longer than February. Year after year.

Tapping is a great way to let go of those kinds of fears, beliefs and needs. The easy 3-step technique in this video is one way to try out some simple Tapping on your own on any resolution you’ve struggled with. It whittles away at what’s going on below the surface that’s holding you back.

So watch the video to get started making that resolution work for you. And you don’t have to wait for January 1st. You can use it anytime you want to make a change!

If you want to stop procrastinating once and for all and start living the life you are meant to, email me. We’ll set up a call to talk about what’s going on with you and see if I can help.

Stop Procrastinating. Go Out and Play!

As kids we’re all taught to get our work done first before . . .
• playing with friends
• watching TV
• having dessert
• really, doing anything fun.
It’s called delayed gratification, and it’s not only a sign of maturity, it’s a skill that’s essential to accomplishing most anything that is important in life.

Most of us have learned to use this approach as an incentive to get ourselves to finish those things we would rather avoid. It makes sense. But, when taken too far, it can actually cause us to procrastinate.

This happened to a client of mine who had been trying very hard to be a good, mature adult who did her chores before going out to play. It backfired and ended up causing her to procrastinate on the very thing she was trying to get herself motivated to do.

Watch the video to see why that happened and how to know when you should chuck delayed gratification in the trash and just Go Out and Play!

If you would like some help figuring out what’s causing your procrastination, email me. We’ll set up a call to talk about what’s going on with you and see if I can help.

Cutting The Gordian Knot of Your Toughest Problem

Two women were struggling in different ways to get past their blocks to doing what they wanted. Their difficulties were insurmountable—to them. When I looked at their situations, however, their problems seemed self-imposed, and quite easy to change. Even without tapping.

“Angie” has a job she hates. She has been working toward getting certified so she can start looking for a bookkeeping job she will enjoy. But she has two more classes to take and won’t be finished for at least six more months. So she won’t be able to make a change for at least that long. And she can’t quit because she is the sole provider for herself and her ten-year-old daughter. She is frustrated that she can’t make a change now. Except maybe she can.

gordian knotShe is already doing bookkeeping for her current employer. And she assures me that she doesn’t need to be certified to provide bookkeeping services in her city. So I floated an idea. Why not start Continue reading “Cutting The Gordian Knot of Your Toughest Problem”

Get More Done—Take a Break!

Time for a confession: I get blocked, too. In fact, I had some serious internal blocks to marketing my business in the past, and I had to work very hard to figure out what they were and root them out. As I worked on my own blocks, I found it easier and easier to do things like write my newsletter, talk to others about what I do, take on more clients—all the things I had been planning to do but dragging my feet on.

Since getting rid of these blocks, I even thought of a plan to share what I do to help clients with sleep problems with a lot more people. I was very excited about creating my manual with supporting video and audio aids. I got off to a good start outlining what would go where and making a start on the manual. Then I stalled out. Whenever I thought, “I should do another section for the manual,” I would find myself doing something, anything else. What was going on? I thought I’d taken care of all my blocks already!

Hey, I’m a coach who specializes in helping people get rid of what is holding them back. Surely I should be able to figure this one out. Was I holding myself back by trying to be perfect? No, that didn’t match what was going on. Did I need to get rid of the usual timewasters? Well, I tried and that didn’t work. I just found other, more creative ways to waste time. I wasn’t even wasting time, really. I was just working on things that weren’t as important. What if I cleared out some of the impediments to working on the manual? Nope, that wasn’t it.

I tried everything I could think of. Nothing worked. So I gave up and asked my coach. Yes, I have a coach. Two, actually. We coaches have realized that, no matter how good we are at helping our clients, it can be impossible sometimes to figure out our own problem. It’s like that old adage, you can’t see the forest for the trees. So when I really want to get moving I call one of my coaches. I called.

In about twenty minutes, Rebecca showed me that I was falling into a trap that many, many people are falling into these days. There is so much to do. If we aren’t working all the time, we feel like we’re falling behind. So we work later, eat lunch at our desks, stop taking breaks, start working on weekends, anything we can do to get more work done. But the reality is we get less done, not more when we do this.

taking a breakWhy should this be? Rebecca has done the research and tells me it’s because the adult brain cannot work for more than ninety minutes at a time. After ninety minutes, it just can’t take in any more information. It needs to take a break for something like twenty minutes before it can get back into high gear. That’s why my schedule of trying to get it all done without coming up for air was backfiring. I would hit my ninety-minute limit, then go into mental puttering mode, doing things that didn’t take much thought. The more I pushed, the less I could think clearly. I wasn’t taking any breaks, so my brain wasn’t coming back online. As Rebecca pointed out, I was being neither strategic nor smart by working constantly.

I spent a bit of time arguing with Rebecca. Well, sure, that’s true for other people, but I should be able to work through the pain. I have too much to do to be weak like that. I can take a break in a few months, after I’ve finished my project. Rebecca listened patiently to me rant, only smiling a little at my efforts to avoid physiology. We both knew that trying to ignore reality wasn’t working and wasn’t going to work. I needed to change my approach if I wanted to get more done. I had to take breaks every ninety minutes or so. Everyone does.

Once I caved and admitted that I was human, we got to work figuring out what the most effective way for me to work was so that I could get more done with the less clock time I would be using. Rebecca reminded me of the Pareto Principle. You’ve probably come across this at some time or other. The Pareto Principle holds that around 80% of results come from around 20% of efforts. To get the best results, then, I needed to schedule my most important “efforts” into the 20% of my time when I was most productive.

For me, this means scheduling ninety minutes to work on my sleep manual at the beginning of the day, when I have the most energy and focus. No more “clearing out the easy stuff,” like emails, when I sit down at my computer. That can wait. I have something important to do, and that is going to get done in my most productive time.

And, yes, I have to actually schedule breaks every ninety minutes or so throughout my day. The funny thing is, I’ve advised clients that they need to take breaks to be able to do their job better. I even wrote a post about taking a break when you are stressed so you can think better.

I knew this. Now you know it, too.

So your tip for this week is to figure out the times you are most productive. First thing in the morning? Right after lunch? The last hour of the day when everyone leaves you alone? Schedule your important projects for those times. And, yes, schedule breaks every ninety minutes or so. Run up and down in the stairwell a few times. Go get coffee with a co-worker and talk shop. Go for a walk. Take a real break so you can get some real work done.

I want to give a shout out to my friend and coach, Rebecca Kane. Thanks for pointing out the forest, Rebecca. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Don’t Wait Until You’re Perfectly Ready—Leap Before You Look!

Last week I described why demanding perfection from yourself can sabotage your work or business. You can waste enormous amounts of time and energy feeling bad that you don’t do your job exactly the way you think you should, or perform better than everybody else, or get more done. You may put off taking action—speaking up at a meeting, taking on a new project at work, or telling others about your business—and so miss out on opportunities that could come your way. So while working to improve your skills is an important part of growth and development, perfectionism is a major block to anyone hoping to advance in their career or grow their business.

If you recognize yourself as a perfectionist who is blocking your own success, then the technique I detailed last week of changing your internal message from “I’m not good enough” to “I am good enough” is a valuable approach to changing your perfectionist mindset. By all means, use it. But don’t stop there. To get even more powerful results, and get them quicker, try the opposite extreme for while. Start taking immediate action. Do things before you feel completely ready to act, before your plan is perfectly formed.

Leap First, Ask Questions Later

In bungee jumping, it's all about taking the leapWhen you see an opportunity, step up and take it. If your boss says she needs someone to take on a new project, open your mouth and say “I’ll do it” before you have time to think of all the reasons you’re not the best qualified. If someone at the next table at lunch is talking about having a problem that your business handles, lean over, apologize for interrupting, and hand them your card instead of thinking of the other people out there who must know more than you do. Go ask your boss for something new to work on. In other words, leap before you look.

For the next month, try this as an experiment. Do not analyze all the pros and cons of doing things before doing them. You’ve already been doing that and it hasn’t worked for you —you fell into the perfectionist trap. So it’s time to try a new approach. Instead, act first then figure out how to do the best you reasonably can with the opportunity you now have.

If you are a true perfectionist, you are probably going into conniptions right about now, thinking “I can’t do that, what if I get it wrong? What if I don’t do it as well as the other guy? I’m just not ready. There’s not enough time.” Do it anyway. It is a fast way to get out of your old rut. The more you do it, the more successes you will have and the more you will realize that your old way of thinking (that you aren’t good enough at what you do and need to do everything better to be valuable) is wrong.

How to Leap First, In Two Easy Steps

If you follow a couple of steps, it will be easier to do this experiment.

First, talk and think about your goals for everything you do in a different way. Whatever your project is, whether it is fixing a process in your department that is too slow, editing an internal manual, or training your client’s employees in the use of new software, your job is to improve the situation and make it better than it was—not to make everything perfect. Remind yourself of this at every chance you get. When you realize that your goal is to improve things for your company or your client, then you will realize that every improvement you make gives value. In this way, every improvement you make is a success. Remember, perfection isn’t achievable. Improvement is.

Second, plan from the start to make changes to your project, whatever it is, as you go along. This is actually a deliberate approach taken by many companies because it often gets them better results than waiting to start work on a project until it is all planned out. That way they, and you, can make changes as they go along to meet the needs that become apparent only after they’ve been working on it for a time.

Case in Point: How Cal Built Momentum

For example, take a client of mine who realized he should be out networking for a new job but was having trouble getting moving. “Cal” had all sorts of excuses. He hadn’t updated his old resume. He needed to optimize it for the type of job he wanted to get. He needed to create a plan for who to contact in what order to get the type of job he wanted to get. Heck, he needed to figure out what kind of job he wanted to get! Every way he looked, he saw ways he could do it wrong, and that had him stymied.

To cut the Gordian Knot, he emailed an acquaintance, asking for coffee and the opportunity to talk about what kinds of jobs were out there. No, he hadn’t perfected his resume, his plan of attack or even his goal. But he was moving, and things started to fall into place. The acquaintance had heard of a couple of jobs that might do. They didn’t, but they got Cal thinking of some other places to look for job postings. Another friend offered to make suggestions for his resume and came up with changes that were far better than Cal would have made on his own. Soon he was clarifying what he wanted in his next job as well as getting a better idea of what was available. He was also sending out better and better resumes. None of these things would have happened if he waited until he had everything perfectly ready to go.

Your Assignment: Do This for 30 Days

If you are a perfectionist, here is your assignment. For the next month, whenever you get that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that you’re not ready, or not good enough, to take on a project, whether big or small, step forward and do it. (Okay, start with just a small project first if you need to, but as soon as it is complete do another.) Next, set a limited goal only to improve the situation you are working on, whatever it is, not to make it perfect. Finally, get started on it, knowing that you can and will adjust what you are doing as new information comes in.

(By the way, if you know that this is what you need to do to get out of your own perfectionist trap but you just can’t bring yourself to start the experiment, a coach might be able to help you dismantle the trap so you can move forward.)

Some part of all perfectionists knows that they can do more than they are allowing themselves to do. If that’s you, try this experiment and see how quickly you can strengthen that part of you and really start succeeding the way you know you can.

A Simple Way to Escape the Perfectionism Trap

Perfectionism is a block many people have that masquerades as a positive attribute. We often think that the drive to be perfect in what we do and who we are pushes us to achieve more in our work. It does, to a certain extent. More often, though, it slows us down or even keeps us from starting something that has the potential to really propel us forward. Let me give you two examples of what this block can look like.

The Professional Perfectionist

Shoelaces tied togetherThere is a particular breed of independent professional who never seems to be satisfied with their abilities. They are always getting one more training, learning one more technique, acquiring one more string of letters to put behind their name. I support being a lifelong learner and seeking more knowledge in our professions when done for the right reasons. But consider one perfectionist professional, let’s call him Carl, who isn’t using the pursuit of knowledge to improve his work, he is using it to hide from his work.

Instead of bringing what he already has into the world to help people, Carl holds himself back with thoughts that he isn’t ready. He not only delays things like marketing to prospective clients and referrers, he even avoids printing up business cards and talks down his own abilities to friends and acquaintances. He keeps telling himself things like, “I’m not good enough yet. I’ll just get one more certification. Then I’ll be good enough at what I do to offer it to people.” But since he always sees one more something-or-other that he can learn, he keeps his availability under wraps. His business just limps along with too few clients. And people Carl could help go elsewhere, or do without.

The Corporate Perfectionist

Perfectionism blocks people in the corporate world, too. A client I’ve been working with recently, “Jen,” would go into a tailspin whenever anything went wrong—if her code broke, the boss told her to change something she had been working on, or a co-worker was recognized for his work when she was not. Any time her work was less than perfect, or even just less impressive in some respect than a colleague’s, she would tell herself “I’m not good enough,” and her work would suffer because of it. For several days she would go into a funk, not just feeling down but unable to think clearly and get her work done.

That message, “I’m not good enough,” is what I call an emotional belief. It is a statement that we can argue with logically, and even know in our heads to be wrong, but deep down it just feels true. It turns out that Jen’s emotional belief came from growing up with a father who taught her that everything she did had to be done absolutely correctly or it was a failure. Getting 97% on an exam was not enough. Why did she get that one question wrong? She worked very hard to get his approval, which was always out of reach. That drive to be perfect worked for a time. She got great grades, went to impressive schools, and got a good job, but ultimately it held her back.

Jen and I have been working, memory by memory, on defusing the times her father’s disapproval trained her to believe “I’m not good enough.” As each memory loses its punch. Jen finds she can bounce back from things that go wrong that much quicker. What used to take her days to recover from now takes a few hours or less. This is a huge improvement, and it shows not just in her mood but in her work, too.

A Quick Test: Are You A Perfectionist?

High achievers often have a touch of perfectionism in them. It pushes them to do better than others. But when it becomes a block, it can seem insurmountable. Look around at your own life. Do you have any examples of acting like Carl or Jen? Do you put off moving on an opportunity because “other people are better than me” or “I’m not ready yet,” even though what you have to offer right now is valuable and would help people? Do you beat yourself up (metaphorically speaking) whenever things don’t go exactly the way you imagined they should?

Here’s a quick way to determine if you have a perfectionism block. Say out loud “I’m not good enough.” How true did that feel to you emotionally on a scale of 0 to 100 percent? If your number is anything greater than 0, you could benefit from making a deceptively simple change.

Your Quick Escape from the Perfectionist Trap

Whenever you notice that you are holding yourself to a standard of perfection—whether you are putting off something that you know you could do now because you don’t feel ready, or you are feeling bad because you have not done something quite as well as you hoped—think to yourself “It’s good enough.” For added punch, say it out loud. If  you actually catch yourself thinking something like “I’m not good enough,” then think or say “I am good enough.”

You may have to say it several times if your feelings drown the statement out. And you will have to keep changing your negative message to the positive one for some time to come, probably months, to break the old habit of perfectionism.

At first, you won’t notice much change. In fact, you’ll probably notice that you “talk back” to yourself, thinking things like “Still, I could have done it better” or “But I don’t have the training that so-and-so has” or even simply a sarcastic “Yeah, right.”

Keep going. Say it again. “It’s good enough, and I’m good enough.”

If you need to, write down the objective evidence that what you did (or who you are) is indeed “good enough.” (For more on how to use this approach, see my article on changing your negative self-talk.)

Make It Stick!

This is so simple it might seem too good to be true, but it works—if you stick with it—by challenging your negative mindset and re-writing a new message. (If your belief that you’re not good enough doesn’t budge after you’ve been challenging it for a while, it’s probably time to see a coach.)

Each time you remind yourself that you are good enough you will be taking a step forward on the road to changing the old message that has been holding you back. You will start to notice that it gets easier to bounce back from mistakes and take chances. And when finally you no longer hold yourself back by demanding perfection, you will discover that your “good enough” takes you very, very far indeed!

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!