The Money Block

While sitting in a long line of traffic, I started thinking of a block that creeps into many people’s decision-making: they try to avoid spending money, but wind up losing opportunities that would have earned them more than they would have spent.

That day, the toll bridge in Seattle had been shut down, so all of us were shunted on to the other, non-toll, bridge. For $3.69, you can usually get across the toll-bridge quickly and easily. The other bridge has become a stop-and-go nightmare as so many drivers choose that route to save money. While I was experiencing the waste of time that many people willingly choose, I was thinking about how gladly I would have paid the toll so I could get back to my office an hour earlier and make some money. Instead, I was spending more time driving, NOT getting work done.

Traffic Jam!

Fooled by a veneer of rationality?

Usually, a quick way to test whether you have an internal block is to look at whether your actions are rational or irrational. If, rationally speaking, you know it makes more sense to get your report into your boss early, or finish your billing on time, or hold your temper around a client, and yet you consistently do the opposite, it’s a fair bet that you have an internal block that is keeping you from acting rationally. Yet when saving money is part of the equation, our actions can sometimes appear rational on the surface even when a closer look shows us they are not. This veneer of rationality surrounding saving money can keep us from recognizing—and challenging—our own block.

Take that pesky toll. For most people reading this, $3.69 is a trivial amount of money. Pay the toll, if it will buy you upwards of half an hour of time, and you can put that half hour into things like completing projects early, getting more work done, or networking—any number of ways to impress your boss or lay the groundwork for a new job, either of which can lead to a lot more money in your pocket than the outlay for the toll. What is a half hour of your time worth, if you had to reach into you wallet and pay for it? If you own your own business, you can use the time to put your efforts into bringing in more clients, creating a new service or product your customers need, or other efforts to make your company more valuable. Finally, at the very least you could use that half hour for some real downtime (going for a walk in the park, playing with your kids, canoodling with your significant other) that will improve your mood, creativity, and/or quality of life. All for the low, low price of $3.69.

Saving Money Can Cost You

But so often, instead of looking at what an outlay brings us, we immediately think “I can’t afford it,” or “I don’t need that.” A lifelong habit of being careful with money—or a lesson painfully learned from a sudden loss of income—leads to an automatic rejection of any expenditure that we are not forced to make. And that can paradoxically lead to a loss of opportunities and therefore a loss of money.

There are a lot of things we “make do” with in order to save money that may in fact be losing us money. Anything that saves you time that you could better use to improve your business or advance your career can fall into this category. This includes everything from buying new software to having an expert prepare your taxes to picking up dinner at the deli counter on the way home. In fact, anything that you do that is not central to your business or career that could be outsourced is something to consider as a trade off for the dollar value of your time, like bookkeeping, chauffeuring the kids around, rotating the tires on your car, or cleaning your home or office.

Ooooh, that last one is an especially big bug-a-boo for a lot of people. Somewhere along the line they learned that it is morally wrong to pay someone else to clean for them when they are able-bodied enough to scrub their own toilets. But look what you lose when you take the time yourself to do that. You take time away from building up your business in ways that only you can. Just about anyone can vacuum; only you can do the rainmaking, or provide your professional services, or do whatever your customers come to you and not the other guy for. And if you work for someone else, taking time to clean your own home means you don’t have that time to get the certification you need for the next step in your career, or to meet someone in your field who could help you get into that great company you’ve had your eye on, or any of the other things that might move you up.

How To Determine Whether to Spend the Money or Not

To find out if you have a block around spending money that is preventing you from actually making money, try this exercise. Take a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle. On the left-hand side, write down something you have been avoiding and what it would cost you to buy it. On the right-hand side, write down what it would buy you (e.g., “time to work on presentation” or “time to take on one more client”). Estimate what that could be worth to you. Yes, I mean a dollar amount (“a $5000 bonus” or “$30,000 for one additional client relationship over the next five year”). Now, come up with a percentage likelihood that you will achieve that benefit. (e.g., “15% likelihood that it will lead to the bonus” or “100% ability to work with potential client off my waitlist”). Multiply the potential worth by the percentage likelihood. If the resulting number is greater than what you wrote down on the left-hand side of the page, you have just shown yourself that the rational choice is to spend the money here.

Yes, I know your calculation is not really a hard and fast number, but it is a fairly rational way of estimating what the expenditure is likely worth to you. It is certainly better than a knee-jerk reaction of “spending any money is bad.” Then, if the upside looks like it is more valuable to you than what you have to pay to get it, it is time to spend the money. If it is just too speculative, don’t do it.

Got the Money Block?

Now, if the upside is more valuable than what you would pay and you still can’t bring yourself to do it, you’ve got yourself a money block. Do what you can to stay in your head, being rational, about the expenditure instead of just listening to your feelings that are screaming “Don’t waste money!” You’ve already calculated that it wouldn’t be a waste of money. So take a deep breath and make the commitment to doing the rational thing.

Of course, if you are currently working on a shoestring and you really have to pinch every penny, then you will have to trade some of your time for money, at least until you get some leeway into your system. Then, once you have more money that you can use to “buy” time, you will be able to shift your efforts from money-saving to more money-making efforts. For now, do what you have to. But keep doing those calculations. At some point, sooner than you expect, the upside of spending the money will outweigh the downside.

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.

3 Simple Ways to Build Up The Businessperson Inside You

Are you the same businessperson on the outside as you are on the inside?
Are you the same businessperson on the outside as you are on the inside?

When you think about yourself in your work, do you see yourself as successful, competent, professional, just the way you want others to see you? If your answer is “yes,” then this tip is not for you. But if you see yourself in any other way—e.g., as a little kid in the corporate grown-up’s world, or as an arty type who’s floundering as a businessperson, or as a small-time player only pretending to do what you’re claiming to do and hoping no one sees through you—then read on.

I’ve found with many of my clients that one of the biggest internal blocks they have is that they don’t believe they are the person they are trying to be. They focus on what they are doing, thinking that if they just do what they are supposed to in their role, they will grow into it and finally be, and feel, successful. While there is no denying that you have to do what your boss, clients or customers need, how you see yourself—whether that is as a respected VP or successful business owner or, conversely, as the complete opposite—will also have a big impact on how well you succeed.

Take for example the solopreneur who knows she has a great service that other people need. She’s knows the marketing steps she needs to take to get the word out so customers who need her can find her. But she sees herself as someone who just isn’t a “real” businessperson, just someone who’s dabbling in her business. When she considers going to networking events, or giving presentations, or fielding calls from prospective customers, that internal view of herself is not only going to block her from doing things she needs to do (“oh well, maybe I’ll skip this networking event since I’m not likely to impress any potential customers”), it’s going to leak out when she does get out there and talk with people (like mumbling her words when she asks if they would like to buy her service).

When you feel like you’re faking it, it’s almost impossible to keep all of the discomfort you’re feeling from showing up in the subtle ways you hold yourself and act. Even those who are able to “stop up all the leaks” still aren’t presenting themselves as powerfully as they could if they weren’t using so much energy to combat the negative image they have of themselves.

Of course, there is some power in the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it.” You will get more confident the more you do something, but it takes time and that can lead to lost opportunities. So I recommend taking a shortcut to get that confidence more quickly: start doing things to see yourself as the successful person you want to become.

Dress for the part you’re playing.

First, be sure you look the part. There is a truism in career coaching that, instead of dressing for the job you have, you should dress for the job at least one step above you on the corporate ladder. The reason given is usually that you are more likely to get noticed and thought of as being capable of handling that role. This is true and not to be sneezed at, but there is an even more powerful reason in my book. When you dress a certain way, you start to act that way.

I once heard that when judges put on their black robes, something changes inside of them. They feel like a judge and start to act more authoritatively than before. Similarly, military people keep their uniforms carefully tended. Think of the sergeant yelling “Tuck in that shirt. Shine those shoes. You’re a Soldier now!” or words like it to the new recruits at bootcamp. Dressing that way helps the recruits start to act with the conviction that they are soldiers.

So consider how the person you want to be dresses. This is especially important for small business owners. Maybe you think you can get away with wearing old T-shirts and jeans, or even a robe and fuzzy slippers, since most days you don’t see customers. Don’t do it! You need to change the way you see yourself. Dress every day as if you were going to meet a potential customer. The more you dress the part, the more you’ll believe in the “new you.” (Plus, you never know when you’ll meet a potential client at the local cafe.)

For the same reason, keep your grooming up. Successful business professionals typically don’t let their hair get shaggy, or pour on the goth eyeliner of their rebellious youth. You want to catch sight of your reflection in store windows and wonder who that successful person is, not reinforce the idea that you’re somehow not good enough.

Gather photographic proof that you are the person you want to be.

You can get a regular boost from seeing pictures of yourself looking the way you want to look. Perhaps you have a photo of you with an expression of complete determination as you are going down the rapids on your last vacation. Or one from your sister’s wedding where you are holding your head up with great confidence. Maybe you have an easy smile in a candid shot from your last training. Gather up as many photos like this as you can find. Put together a collage of them and hang it on the back of your door. Use them as rotating wallpaper on your laptop. Or put them around your home where you’ll notice them every day.

If you have trouble coming up with photos that speak to you of the success you want, get a good headshot. A lot of people try to save money by hunting around for a decent candid shot from the last company retreat, or use a photo from ten years ago that is “good enough” on their websites, business cards or announcements. That won’t accomplish what you want. You need a headshot that shows the parts of you that are capable, confident, professional—whatever it is you are trying to grow into. Just know that you have those abilities already, even if you haven’t exercised them as much as you’d like. A good photographer can capture the moments when those expressions shine through. You’ll probably have to wade through a lot of mediocre shots, but that’s normal. Don’t get discouraged. There will be a few that make you say “Wow” when you see them.

Don’t skimp on this. Ask around for referrals to a photographer who has a good reputation for getting great shots of businesspeople and go with them. You’re looking for someone who can capture the sparkle in the eye of people who don’t spend their lives in front of a camera. (Not everyone offers this service. I know of a small business owner who went to a photographer who worked with models and actors. She was shocked when she found out he hadn’t been practicing his smile for their shoot. And neither of them liked any of the pics she took.) A good headshot can really remind you of who you are becoming.

Stand up straight and smile. (Really.)

How you hold your body and your expression are additional ways you can start to change how you think of yourself. Remember that soldier? He is taught to stand at attention with “chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in.” Try it now. You actually feel more confident when you stand or sit that way. And there is a famous study in which people making certain expressions (e.g., anger, fear) for a time started to feel the emotion they were mimicking, even though they hadn’t felt that way when they began. So channel your mother. Remind yourself to stand up straight and smile at times during the day. (Don’t smile constantly though. That’s just creepy.)

If you take these simple steps to change the external you, you’ll be on your way to changing the internal view you have of yourself.

Change your blocks into your strengths

I confess that today’s tip is not for everyone. But before you dismiss it as not being right for you, be sure to really try it on for size. You may discover that you can make this change. If you can, it will make a huge difference in your work.

“Mark” has blocks to growing his business. He came to me knowing that he procrastinates and misses deadlines. As we delved further, he identified a pattern of starting out on a project for a client with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He would analyze the client’s problem, identify what they needed to be doing, create a new process, and then implement it. Those first few months were glorious as Mark delivered just what his client needed.

Then the tedium would set in. Maintaining his great process was boring. Newer, more exciting projects would take precedence and he would start to put off doing the first client’s work. Now the client wasn’t so happy with him anymore. And, truth be told, he wasn’t happy with himself, but he couldn’t seem to knuckle down and just do the work.

So, what’s the answer for Mark? Well, there are actually two possibilities. First, we could look for an internal block that is keeping him from simply getting the work done on time. Is there a downside to succeeding — loss of friends, fear of becoming too busy to play with his kids, worry that he will outshine siblings? Does he have “old programming” that kicks in whenever he is doing too well, telling him that only greedy people make a lot of money or that he is too artistic to succeed in business? Once we identify the internal block, we can get rid of it, leaving him free to carry on with the mundane (but still lucrative) part of his business.

hand off responsibilities so that they don't become blocks to accomplishent
Hand-off certain responsibilities so that they don’t become blocks to accomplishment (Photo credit: Patrick Bell / Flickr user druidicparadise)

Before we did that, though, I wanted to check out the second approach. What if his reluctance to do the more mundane work was simply an acknowledgement by some part of him that such work was not his strength. Perhaps he is “a fixer” through and through and the daily work should be turned over to a “doer.” If that were the case, he could turn that block into a strength by building his business around his strength of “fixing.” He could be the one who goes into a client from the outside, puts his new processes in place, then hands the new system back to the client for continued maintenance by one of its employees. Alternatively, if he really wanted to keep the maintenance part of the business, Mark could hire someone himself to do that work while he monitored his employee and personally kept in touch with his client on a regular, but less onerous, basis.

Either approach would allow him to keep doing the analyzing and fixing he truly enjoyed and skip the dull work he hated. His clients would be happier. And he would be seen as the hero instead of the one with a follow-through problem.

Now think of your own business or job. What are your strengths? What do you love to do? What do clients (or bosses) rave about? Now think about ways for you to focus on those strengths while delegating the work you dislike — your “blocks” — to someone else.

In our culture, we usually get hung up at this “handoff” stage on three different things. One, we grew up believing that we have to improve those parts of our work that are weaker. Remember that comment on elementary school report cards, “Needs Work”? We are not taught to think, “I’m not very good at spelling so I’ll give it to Johnny across the table and he’ll give me his multiplication tables.” No, we are told to focus on our weaknesses to improve them. So, first up, remember that you are not in school anymore. You do not have to do everything and do it well. You just need to make sure that someone is doing what needs to be done.

Second, many of us are worried that if we delegate something, it won’t get done right. We want to control everything, and we can’t control what someone else does. This is true. It is also entirely beside the point. You want to make the most of your strengths, so give away something you are weaker at. By definition you aren’t the best person for that job. There are plenty of other people who are better at it. In addition, you can get better results by delegating even when you delegate something you are good at. The art of effective delegation is a topic for another time, but for now just remember the old adage: two heads are better than one. Someone else will have different experiences, viewpoints and ideas to bring to a problem. Their plan and execution could be better than yours. Alternatively, together you can create something better than either of you alone.

Finally, entrepreneurs often get trapped into thinking they have to do everything in their business from answering the phones to changing the light bulbs. Yes, that may save you money when you are starting out, but if you don’t get away from it quickly it will stunt your growth. How can you add a new product or client if you are already working flat out? How can you impress your existing and potential clients if you are completely exhausted from wordprocessing, bookkeeping and filing every night and cleaning the office and filling orders on weekends? The short answer is you can’t. Don’t try. Figure out what your clients come to you for and do that. Everything else is fair game to be delegated.

There are a lot of ways to delegate. For business owners who simply have too much to do, you can contract out tasks (think bookkeeping, virtual office assistance, cleaning services). You could also hire part-time or full-time employees for specific areas of work. If you feel like you are missing something key to making your business grow — say, you love to learn everything you can and stay on the cutting edge of your field but aren’t good at networking and bringing in new clients — you can join with a partner who has that skill.

If you are not a business owner, this approach may be harder to implement but you may still be able to make it work. If you are in a position to hire direct reports to “fill in the gaps” for you, do it. You will probably need to understand what they do, but it will still be better to have someone do the detailed work. If you can’t delegate to a direct report, see if you can develop your strengths to the extent that you become a “star” at what you do and can expect your employer to find others to do what you are not good at. I once worked in a law firm with a partner who excelled at writing appellate briefs. She was one of the few attorneys who was not expected to go out on golf courses and bring in new clients.

What about Mark? He is intrigued by the idea of turning his blocks into strengths, but nevertheless wants to root them out. I’m happy to help him do that since I know, once they are gone, he can still choose to focus on his strengths in his business.

So think about how you might be able to turn your blocks into strengths. It could be a much simpler solution to your problems!

How To Get Optimistic

In my last two tips I’ve described the benefits you get from using optimistic explanations when you have setbacks in your business (“What Optimism Will Get You”) and what the elements of such an optimistic explanation are (“The Elements of Optimism That Can Unblock You”).  I have culled this information for business owners from Martin Seligman’s classic book Learned Optimism, which is filled with ways to use optimism in multiple areas of your life. I recommend going to the source if you really want to dig in and make significant change to your whole life.

Of course, some people are naturally optimistic. If that is you, you have my permission to skip the rest of this post. This post is for the rest of us. It shows us how to develop an optimistic explanatory style to use when things go wrong in our business so that we can avoid feeling helpless and instead keep our energy and motivation going.

First, a quick recap. A pessimist explains bad things that happen in her business as permanent (“I’ll never sell this”), universal (“no one wants what I have to offer”), and internal (“It’s all my fault; I’m horrible at marketing”). An optimist explains his setbacks as temporary (“My sales figures have gone down with the dip in the local economy, but they’ll go up again when the economy picks up”), specific (“The last person I talked to didn’t need my services, but the next one might”), and external (“She wouldn’t listen to my offer all the way through; now must be a bad time for her”). For more examples of what this looks like, check out my last article.

Seligmandebate has an involved technique using the ABCDE model from cognitive therapy to recognize and change your pessimistic explanations to optimistic ones, but I’m going to boil it down to its essence here, which is the “D.” “D” stands for “dispute.” When you catch yourself overwhelmed or feeling like giving up when you have a setback, call to mind what you told yourself about it. You probably have thoughts like: “I’m such a loser;” or “Why would anyone hire me?” or “Nothing is ever going to work out.” Those thoughts feel pretty powerful—and true—don’t they? And they sap your energy for going forward, making you feel like giving up.

Now imagine that those words were being yelled at you by your worst enemy. They don’t feel so true or powerful now, do they? In fact, you probably would tell your enemy exactly where he got it wrong. It’s time for a big realization. You are your worst enemy. So dispute what you are saying the same way you would dispute it if it came from your enemy.

Of course, this is easier said than done. You’ve probably got years, maybe a lifetime, of practice coming up with such negative explanations. So Seligman provides four ways to dispute with yourself:

  • look for the evidence;
  • consider alternative ways of looking at what happened;
  • think about the real implications of what happened; and
  • decide how useful your explanation is.

What Is The Evidence?

So you have been telling yourself a lot of lies and half-truths with these negative explanations for what happened. They only feel true because they are coming from inside of you. But just because they feel true doesn’t make them true. I’ve heard of one ABCDE approach that describes “E” as “play detective and look for the Evidence.” Look for the evidence that what you told yourself is true or false, or likely to be true or false. Look for ways that it is overstated. Look for what the statement missed. Be Sherlock Holmes. Often you will find you jumped to the worst possible conclusion based on very thin evidence indeed. This can often come up naturally when you think about disputing what an enemy said.

What Are the Alternatives?

So you’ve told yourself that you are a total loser and nothing ever goes right for you because something went off the rails at work. I know, I know, it feels true. Stop listening to your feelings now and listen to your head. What are other ways to look at what happened? If you are having trouble getting started, go back to the list. You are looking for explanations of the negative event that make it temporary, specific and limited to what happened, and/or due to causes outside of you.

If this still has you stumped, ask a friend you trust to give her alternatives. Don’t argue with her, just write down her list. Some of her possible explanations will be acceptable as is. You can also use her ideas as a springboard to get your own creative thoughts flowing.

Once you have a few alternatives on your list, you can go back to look at the evidence. Which one fits the evidence you have best? Or if there is no evidence, recognize that you can’t choose between the alternatives. (“She just hung up on me. I don’t know if she’s mad about the report, just got an urgent message about her kid, or AT&T decided to take away my cell phone service again. It could be any of them.”)

What Are the Implications of Your Explanation?

Let’s say that your explanation is correct. Yes, this client has fired you and is never coming back because you screwed something up. Does that really mean no one will ever hire you again? That you have nothing to offer? That all your clients will pull their business and you will have to go into bankruptcy? That you will end up living under a bridge? Take a deep breath and stop catastrophizing. Go back to the evidence. Consider what is likely to happen. Then look at what you can do to improve the situation going forward.

How Useful Is Your Explanation?

Let’s say you got yourself dead to rights. You screwed up big time and it’s bad. Will thinking about that screw up now do you any good? Of course, if you make a mistake you want to learn from it. (“My presentation was really poor. I probably did my reputation some damage with that one. I need to get some help on developing my presentation skills and put in some practice before the next one.”) But what about just brooding about how bad it went; going over and over how you blew it? Is that really useful? Probably more likely it is getting in the way of things you need to do, so you need to stop thinking about it.

There are three great ways to get out of dwelling on a negative event:

  • Do something physically distracting, then force yourself to think about something else that can hold your attention. So, if you keep flashing on that awful presentation, splash cold water on your face or snap a rubber band on your wrist whenever the thought comes to mind. Then think about, say, what additional product your favorite client might need from you. For this to work, you will want to have your interesting alternative thing to think about worked out in advance.
  • Schedule a time to think about what is bothering you. Then, whenever you catch yourself dwelling on the event, you tell yourself “Stop! I’ll work on that at 8 tonight.” You need to actually schedule the time, it needs to be at least fifteen minutes, and you really need to sit down and think about it during that time for this to work, though.
  • Write down your troubling thoughts as soon as they come up. You can then come back to work on ways to fix the mess deliberately rather than having the thoughts come up and pull your focus at inconvenient times.

Of course, you could combine two or all three of these approaches to get the maximum benefit. Schedule a time to think about the negative event. Then, whenever a negative thought about it comes up, write it down, snap that rubber band, say “I’ll think about this at 8 tonight” and think about something else. Or just pick one approach. Whichever you choose, do something to get on with what is important to you and get out of the negative spiral of dwelling on a negative event.

Get Optimistic

So go ahead and dispute the negative things you tell yourself when things go wrong. Pretend that a drunk on the street just said what you told yourself. Tell him all the ways he’s wrong. Tell him what the evidence is. Tell him the big picture and the real implications for what happened. Or decide what he’s saying is not useful now and take steps to turn your attention on to other matters. Whatever you do, don’t roll over and take it. You wouldn’t take it from a drunk or your worst enemy. So don’t take it from yourself. Dispute it and get your energy and motivation back. It may just be the way to get your business on track.

The Elements of Optimism That Can Unblock You

Last week I started a series on the practical application of Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism to improve your results in your work. Last week in my post What Optimisim Will Get You I explained why using an optimistic approach can get you past some of your blocks and when to use it. This week I’ll explain the three elements of the optimistic explanatory style that get you motivated and energized.

Optimism as Seligman describes it is not some sort of dewy-eyed, happy-go-lucky approach to life that someone is born with. Likewise, being pessimistic does not mean going around being grouchy all the time. Instead they are ways of explaining events in your life. And since you can learn how to use an optimistic explanatory style, you can get the benefits of being an optimist even if you’ve never thought of yourself as one before. (By the way, if you think of yourself as a “realist,” you most likely use a pessimistic explanatory style more often than not.)

We will focus here on ways to get unblocked by changing how you explain to yourself why bad things happen in your job or business. Explain setbacks the wrong way and you’ll feel helpless, like it isn’t worth trying anymore, and your career or business will suffer accordingly. Explain them in the right way and you’ll bounce back quickly from the same setbacks, sometimes with more excitement and energy than ever, leading to all sorts of good results at work. So identifying when your explanations are blocking you and changing them to more motivating language are important skills to develop.

After the big quake hit.Everyone feels at least momentarily helpless in the face of a failure. The pessimist decides he is helpless and gives up. The optimist looks at the same failure and thinks of ways to limit it so he can go on to succeed. To react to a setback with optimism, you need to look at the three Ps of how you explain what happened, or your explanatory style: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization.

Permanence: Temporary (Optimistic) v. Permanent (Pessimistic)

First, Permanence. An optimist thinks of a bad thing as a temporary setback, arising out of temporary conditions that will or can be changed. A pessimist believes it is something permanent that’s going to last for a long time because it was caused by traits that will not change in himself, or the economy, or in potential buyers, or in “people.” To use the optimistic approach, look for ways that a situation is temporary or the conditions for it can be changed.

  • Instead of thinking “No one is going to buy from my company in such a bad economy; I’m doomed,” you might think “Yes, the economy is bad right now, but it always cycles out of downturns eventually. I just need a plan for how to get through this lean patch.” Or “What can I provide that people need now because the economy is bad.”
  • Instead of “That was terrible. I’ll never get the hang of sales,” think “I blew that sales pitch, but I can go back over my notes and practice for the next one, and maybe get some pointers from my friend on how to handle that kind of objection.”
  • Instead of “My boss ignored my idea at the meeting because she doesn’t want to try anything new. I won’t bug her about it anymore,” try something like “My boss has seemed pretty out of it lately. Maybe she has too much on her plate to consider my idea right now. I can check back with her in a few weeks to see if anything has changed.”

So if you catch yourself thinking people, or situations, or even you, are “always” or “never” a certain way, and will never change, find ways to limit your conclusions. Remember: situations and people change all the time, so “always” and “never” thoughts are usually wrong on their face. Dig deeper for ways change may happen.

Pervasiveness: Specific (Optimistic) v. Universal (Pessimistic)

Next, Pervasiveness. A pessimist thinks a setback in one area means everything is going to go bad in all areas. She sees it as a universal failure. An optimist sees the setback as limited to the one event. He sees the failure as specific. Here’s how those two explanatory styles might look:

  • “All bosses will throw you under the bus to save their own career (so I’ll just keep my head down” v. “This boss will throw me under the bus to save his career (and I better get my resume updated)!”
  • “My services are worthless” v. “My services are worthless to this guy, but maybe that guy over there needs what I do right now.”
  • “The job market is in the tank. No one is getting hired right now. I’m never going to get an interview” v. “The overall numbers don’t look good, but my region is picking up faster than other parts of the country” or “my industry is actually growing” or “I’m not getting hired by statistics; I just need one offer from one company with one opening. There is always turnover from people retiring, moving away, or even dying. Something will open up if I just keep sending out resumes and networking.

Personalization: Externalization (Optimistic) v. Internalization (Pessimistic)

Finally, Personalization. A pessimist internalizes the cause for a failure, saying “I’m the cause of this problem” and calls themselves names (“I’m such an idiot.” “I can’t sell lemonade to people in the desert.” “I’m a total failure in this job.”) An optimist externalizes the cause, blaming outside people or forces. (“My co-workers didn’t do their homework.”)

Two things to be aware of on this last explanatory pitfall. First, it is the least important, so if you have limited time to make changes in your own explanatory style, focus on the other two. Second, and more importantly, you will not improve if you do not take responsibility for your mistakes. If you caused a problem, or were a significant reason for a failure, own that. But don’t call yourself names. Instead look at how you can change, learn or grow from what happened. That’s the optimistic and effective approach that will lead to better results in your career or business.

For the next week, pay attention to how you use the 3 Ps when something goes wrong. Do you see it as a permanent problem that is pervasive throughout all areas that is caused by your personal failings? If you find you lean toward any of those pessimistic explanations, you will want to get started on changing your explanations so you can be more effective and energized when you want.

Coming up next, I’ll detail some of Seligman’s specific techniques for changing a pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic one.

Four Rules for a Vacation That Helps Your Business or Career

Now that Fall is really here and summer vacations are over, it’s time to start thinking about your next vacation. Really. You need to take breaks from work in order to do your best. A good vacation will send you back to the office refreshed, energized, and more creative. Go without a decent vacation too long and you actually put your job or business in jeopardy. You can lose your focus, start making obvious mistakes, miss great opportunities, and risk getting into fights with co-workers, your boss, or your clients.

Now, if you are going to go to the trouble and expense to take time off from work, do it right so you get the most benefit from the break. Here is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished book (working title: Living Better Than a Lottery Winner) which sets out four simple rules to actually get the benefits you need out of your vacation. I know, I know, these rules are easy to say but can be hard to do. If you’re thinking that, consider this: if you don’t do what you need to in order to get an adequate break from work, part of you is probably already working against yourself and on track for getting fired or sabotaging your business anyway, just to get the break you need, so you might as well do what I recommend here instead.

Vacation!

THE RULES OF A GOOD VACATION

Rule Number One: Do not spend time with family or friends on your vacation.

I don’t care how close you are to your parents, how much you love your cousins, or what a great time you had with your friends five years ago. Just don’t do it.

I don’t mean you have to leave your husband at home or the kids with their grandparents, although some people do need that much of a break from time to time. I mean don’t go stay with your parents for a week and call it a vacation. Don’t even make plans to stop by your aunt’s and uncle’s house on the Big Island in the middle of your time off. Think of your vacation as time away from all obligations, including familial ones. If you don’t, your break will end up feeling like one more chore and you will end up feeling like an overwound watch at the end of the trip rather than the limp, relaxed dishrag you are aiming for.

When I was in the process of burning myself out therapizing non-stop, I still spent holidays with family. I called them vacations. I lied. I came back from such “vacations” as tense and tired as when I left.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a great family, including my in-laws, and I love them all dearly. It is always important, fun and enriching to spend time with them. But it is not, I repeat NOT, a vacation. When you spend time with your family, or even your friends, you are “on” all the time to a certain extent. You are watching your Ps and Qs, and inevitably missing a P here or a Q there and feeling like a failure for fighting with your father over politics again or for not helping your sister with the dishes or for thinking of ways to avoid explaining why you’re not married yet or . . . . You get the idea. A break is where you get away from most of the expectations on yourself, not where you exchange one set of expectations for another.

So, no family or friends on your vacation.

Rule Number Two: Schedule a two-week vacation.

I know—you can’t possibly take two whole weeks away from work. Your To Do list is just too long, and no one else can do any of the tasks on it right. If you’re gone that long your boss will think you aren’t really committed to the job and your performance reviews will slip. That amount of time will allow your coworkers to snap up all the good, visible projects that could advance your career. I’ve heard all the excuses for not taking a two-week vacation. Now it’s time you heard the reasons you have to have one.

First, at some point I read about some research done somewhere showing that people do not relax for the first week of the vacation. They are still thinking about what they did or didn’t do before they left, and can Roger handle that presentation on his own, and what if I don’t get the numbers from Gigi right away when I get back, and what did my boss really mean when he said not to worry about the project—is he planning to fire me? Apparently, we all need that first week of vacation just to decompress in body and mind. The second week of vacation is where the real regeneration happens.

Second, you need all the regenerating that happens in that second week. Only then can you go back to work with energy, enthusiasm, and new ideas so that you don’t just do your job, you excel at it, get handed the stretch project that gets you noticed, strut your stuff and finally move into the corner office.

Finally, the alternative to taking the time you need is that you continue plodding down the path you are already on. At best, you’ll stay stuck where you are. More likely, you will get more and more tired, make more mistakes, and have less ability to deal diplomatically with boss, coworkers, and clients, not to mention what will happen to your home and social life. If it’s bad enough, you may even unintentionally screw up enough to get yourself fired just to give yourself the rest you need. I’ve seen it happen with more clients than I believed possible.

So plan for two weeks away from work. Then do it.

Rule Number Three: Rule Number Two means you need to take two weeks away from work, and what that means is no contact with work.

I mean it. Leave the laptop, Blackberry, and phones turned off. Better yet, leave them at home. Don’t let the office know what hotel you are staying at. Leave no contact information whatsoever in the wrong hands—by which I mean with anybody at work.

This means you will probably have to do some groundwork at the office before you leave. If in the past it was expected that you would take “working vacations,” it’s time to disabuse coworkers and bosses alike of the notion. A working vacation is not a vacation; it’s just work. You won’t get any of the benefits you really need from your time off. Be gentle, be firm, be strident if you must, but let people know that you will be out of touch from the time you walk out the door pulling out your hair until the time you walk back in with a tan and a smile.

I’ve known people who had so much trouble with this rule that they had to go somewhere where they literally could not be reached. Some options might be staying in yurts while trekking through Nepal, floating down the Amazon by raft, or snowshoeing to the South Pole. If this isn’t in your budget, you will have to learn to be firm and make yourself electronically unavailable to the office. Or drop your cell phone in the lake on your first day out.

Rule Number Four: Go away.

Don’t think that staying home and remodeling the bathroom will give you the R & R you need. It won’t. You’re just exchanging one To Do list for another. This does not give your body and mind the space they need to do the healing you need.

You also will not get the right kind of break if you plan to stay home and not do any of the chores on your list. It sounds good. I’ve tried it before. I told myself “Hey, I’ll just act like a tourist in my own hometown for a couple of weeks. I won’t have to do any planning. I’ll save tons of money. I’ll get to see all the places I keep meaning to get to.” But it didn’t work out that way. I ended up hanging around the house feeling guilty that I wasn’t being more productive. Plus, staying in the same old surroundings kept reminding my brain of the same old daily thoughts, which simply were not that restful or stimulating.

I’m not asking you to spend a lot of money traveling to Thailand or other exotic parts. If the most you can afford is a trip to a friend’s lake cabin in the middle of February when he’s not using it, then do it. If you swear up and down you cannot afford a vacation of any kind, I’ll even take the stay-at-home vacation as long as you promise to go somewhere you’ve never been and do something new each and every day. (It’s better than nothing.) All I’m pointing out is that you need to get away from your everyday routine to get any benefit from your vacation.

By the way, if you only get two weeks vacation per year from your employer, it’s time to do a serious evaluation of your job. Okay, if you are just starting out and you have to wait a year or two before you get more vacation time you’ll probably just have to tough it out. However, if you’ve already been in the same job for seven years and this is all you get and all you will ever get, ask yourself if the job is really filling your soul. It certainly isn’t giving you much time to pursue other interests, so if the job itself doesn’t fulfill you, then look for another one that either does or that gives you enough time for a life outside of it.

This is just my personal opinion here, but I believe staying put simply because your job pays you enough to have a nice comfy retirement isn’t a good excuse for keeping a job that doesn’t give you time for a life now. What kind of life will you have left when you turn sixty-five, anyway? If your job is that wearing it is probably affecting your health, so how much time will you really have left even if you make it to retirement age? In addition, your mood and imagination are getting ground down daily. How long do you think it will take to get them back once you retire?

Nancy Linnerooth

So there you have it. If you want to reap the benefits at work of a good vacation, start planning that mid-winter break trip now. And don’t forget to follow the rules!

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.