Of all the audiences, entrepreneurs or readers of my book or blog I have spoken to, there is one problem they all face.
It’s not about time or money. It’s not about making the right connections or getting a lucky break. And it’s not even about ambition.
In fact, I hear this complaint the most from people with ambition.
Here it is.
They avoid hard stuff.
Call it procrastination, avoidance or putting stuff off — they avoid hard stuff.
And they do this even though they know the stuff they’re avoiding is important — maybe even the most important of everything staring back at them from their To-Do list.
Before we get to a solution (I’ll bet you saw that coming), let’s take a minute to look at why we do weird stuff.
WHY WE DO WEIRD STUFF
Let me ask you a question:
If you knew a job was important, like phoning 10 clients for referrals.
AND you had it on your Flight Plan for the week.
BUT you also had lots of other distractions stinking up your plans.
What’s the chance you’ll get it all done on Monday?
If you’re like most people, your great intentions slowly get pushed to Tuesday, and then Wednesday and then Thursday and then Friday and then somehow, mysteriously “Call 10 clients for referrals” shows up on next week’s Flight Plan!
What we call being “productive”, according to Inc, is actually about 3 hours of real work in an 8 hour day. The rest is whittled away on news websites, social media, and non-work conversations.
If the above example didn’t make you squirm, how about this weird stuff:
- You have a crazy important meeting today — it’s been booked for a month. But instead of arriving early, relaxed, you squeeze in a last-minute errand and arrive 5 minutes late in a hot panic.
- Instead of doing sales calls all morning, like you planned, you allowed catch up work and email to distract you.
- You debated buying a gym membership for 2 months. You finally signed up. And now it’s been a month and you’ve gone twice.
- You know you need to speak to someone at work about their attitude, but every time you meet with them you end up complimenting them instead.
- It a fit of desperation you bought a book about avoiding procrastination. That was 2 months ago and you’ve read 1 chapter.
Should I go on (by the way, I have done all of these weird things — in fact, I’ve even been aware it was weird, but did it anyway)?
So if putting things off, even when you know it was important, is so damaging, why do we do it? After all, we’re rational people — n’es pas?
Well, we do it because we’re human, of course (which is also a rationalization.)
The real reason we procrastinate comes down to good old pain and pleasure — we are scared silly of pain and suckers for pleasure. And as obvious as the planning-approach solution is (make a plan, take the first step, follow the plan), we rarely behave that way.
Sometimes the reasons are obvious and singular. For example, we rationalize that “it’s not a big deal”, we underestimate the work involved, or we simply forget or get distracted.
There are lots of other reasons, like the work is harder than we expected or we’re swayed by bad advice (like “nobody reads books anymore; writing is a waste of time!”).
The point is we DO put off work AND it is super important to have a strategy because (DUH) it’s going to happen again. And the solution is not about getting a new app or day planner. “Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner,” says procrastination expert Joseph Ferrari, “is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up”
And as much as not getting something done is a problem, there’s a bigger, more sinister cost.
THE REAL COST OF PROCRASTINATION
Sure, when you put off paying a bill you get a fine.
When you avoid dealing with a Tiger in your life you can feel resentment and your relationship can suffer.
When you resist marketing your business or writing that book or calling that client, your income can suffer (unless it wasn’t already obvious, I’m writing from experience.)
But, there’s something more permanent — even more costly — that happens when you break a promise, forget, or simply put off what you know needs to get done.
It’s called a story.
This is the story you build about yourself. That ongoing novel only you can author that governs everything (and I mean everything) you are, do and become. The story you make up about you.
And that story is that you are a procrastinator. You know, the kind of person who breaks a promise, slips on deadlines and rationalizes away stuff that should have gotten done, but didn’t.
The good news (and this is the central plot of The Brain that changes itself), you can rewire your brain and your thinking. This is the most exciting part of our design and the one most ignored — you can literally have a new and better reaction to what life throws at you. And you can start.
Let’s look at how.
HOW TO ONCE AND FOR ALL AVOID PROCRASTINATION
Other than ignoring the problem, there are three ways you can skip the pain of procrastination and profit from more effective productivity:
#1 Dial up the reward.
Everything we do has a reward, from sex (a bit obvious) to selling to making a salad. Dialing up the reward can be as simple as focussing on how great you’ll feel to get this job off your list.
I do this when I’m putting in extra time to get my blog ready to be published or when my next keynote still needs a bit more work — I remind myself how great it will feel to have the work done.
Deep down, we are pain and pleasure-seeking Neanderthals — we might as well use that ancient wiring to our advantage.
The exercise is this:
1. Write down the job you are putting off. This is important — you need to spell out the exact task you are avoiding.
2. Describe a reward that’s meaningful to you — it could be: how you will feel, the money you will earn, the new work you will attract or how accomplishing this job will take you closer to a goal.
You have a hundred ways to waste the next hour of your life. And you now have one reward that makes the 10% extra effort required to get the job done all worth it. Do it.
#2 Simplify the next action.
This is time management 101 — if you’re stuck, trying to get started on a job, it could be the first step is too big.
Stop wasting time thinking about starting and invest 5 minutes getting into micro detail what your first steps will be — write exactly what your first steps will be, like:
The exercise is this:
1. write down the job you’re avoiding.
2. on the right-hand side of a piece of paper, list each small step it will take to complete the job — do this quickly and don’t worry about order or prioritization.
3. next, add milestones as mini-goals that break up the job. If you want to reduce the clutter in your life, milestones might be to de-clutter your garage, then your bedroom and then your office.
4. finally, using the left-hand side of your paper, organize all the steps (from the list in the right-hand side) needed to reach each milestone. The trick here is to make the first 3 steps super easy — you want to build momentum with quick wins.
For your de-cluttering goal the first 3 steps might be:
- put all the broken tools in a box.
- pile all scrap wood shorter than 3 feet outside the garage.
- organize all miscellaneous nails and screws into containers.
These steps won’t finish the job, but you should be able to see progress quickly and get some momentum for the rest of the work.
#3 Construct a routine.
And now for my favourite (did you see this one coming?). Build a habit.
By now you probably know I’m a card-carrying fan of habits. I started by quitting coffee, then no alcohol, and then I graduated to cold showersand making my bed in the morning with a host of others that have joined the list.
When you dial up the reward or simplify your next action you remedy one situation. When you construct a routine, or habit, you create a fix for all future jobs. This is my investment in rewiring the neuropathways in my brain and reprogramming me for success.
The exercise is this:
1. What is your current routine that doesn’t work? Don’t skip this step — you need to really get aware of your current habit. For example, I have a bad habit of not taking action right away after a meeting. Sure, I recorded what I committed to, but I didn’t take the 5 minutes to move my scribbled commitment to my calendar or Flight Plan — or, if possible, do it immediately. This comes back to bite me more often than I care to admit. And that’s the routine I need to redesign.
2. What’s the reward you get from that habit? Yup, there’s always a reward — when I fail to take action right after a meeting, my reward is I avoid the effort to plan my next steps. I also get to move on (rabbit!) to some new bright, shiny distraction. Write that down: what is the reward you are getting from your unwanted routine?
3. Design your new routine (habit). The trick with this step, according to habit expert B.J. Fogg, is to stack your new habit on another habit or separate action. In other words, the new habit is ‘Right after _____________ I always will _____________”
For example: ‘Right after flossing I will brush my teeth’, or, in my case, ‘Right after any meeting ends, I will move all my commitments to my Flight Plan.’
4. Define the exact reward this new habit will give you. The reward could be a good feeling, relief, avoiding conflict, avoiding disappointment, or a lovely mug of London Fog at your favourite café.
It’s not about money, it’s about dangling a desirable dendrite in front of your crazy-brain neurons to create momentum.
When I was training for Ironman competitions there were many days I did not want to head out for hill repeats or a 2 hour run. My reward was a pat on the back. It sounds trivial now, but as I turned into my driveway after a long run or ride, or stepped into the change room at the pool I would reach over and pat myself on the back. As silly as it might sound it was exactly the habit-reinforcement I needed to head out again the next day.
Want to read more about procrastination, habits and cold showers? Here are some popular articles:
Why I joined the Morning Club and why you should as well
How drinking tea can make you rich and build willpower
You already have what you need (money, time, health and sex)
Three very sneaky ways to get done what you procrastinate about (starting right now)