Get More Done – Two Ways You Can Blast Through Procrastination!

Get More Done – Two Ways You Can Blast Through Procrastination

As humans we have an amazing ability to separate ourselves from others, especially in uncomfortable or disturbing situations.  Take the homeless person on the street holding the “Need Money for Food” sign.  I’m betting on at least one occasion you distanced yourself from them, looked straight ahead, and perhaps even ignored them.

It is this same capability that is at the root of procrastination.  Our ability to distance and separate from others is also alive and well within ourselves – our future selves.

You Aren’t Your Future You

UCLA Psychologist Hal Hershfield has conducted research where volunteers were asked a series of questions while their brain activity was evaluated under fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).  The questions involved asking the volunteers about themselves, about other people, and finally about about themselves in the future.  fMRI results showed similar brain activity when volunteers answered questions about their future selves and when answering questions about others.  The only time there were differences in their brain scans is when they answered questions about themselves in the present moment.

At Princeton University, psychologist Emily Pronin studied this effect even further by telling volunteers that they were testing people’s reactions to a rather disgusting concoction of liquids they would be made to drink.  Furthermore, they were also told that the validity of the tests improved the more the person drank.  The volunteers were then  split into three groups – the first choose how much they themselves would drink then and there, the second would choose how much others would have to drink, and the third group would choose how  much they would have to drink when they returned to finish the experiment in two weeks.  Again, there were no differences between the “future selves” and the other people results.  Only when they had to drink immediately was the amount significantly less.

Our brains simply categorized our future selves as a different person. This is one reason difficult tasks are pushed off to the future.  Afterall we don’t have to deal with the task – our future self does. Academics call this temporal discounting – or the tendency to value immediate needs as higher than future needs.

Your Willpower is Finite

Would you prefer a chocolate-chip cookie or a radish?  Which would be harder to avoid eating if given a choice?

Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister from Florida State University decided to find out.  Telling volunteers who had been asked to skip a meal before their testing that they were participating in a taste test, Baumeister separated them into three groups.  One group was asked to sit at a table with two plates in front of them – one with freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies and the other with a bowl of radishes.  The volunteers could only eat the radishes and were asked to fill out a form about how they tasted.  A second group had the same two choices but could only eat the chocolate-chip cookies.  The last group was not subjected to any food and answered questions about their mood.

Finally all groups went on to a second phase where they were asked to spend time working on a puzzle.  Unfortunately none of them knew the puzzle was not solvable. What was being tested was how long the members of the different groups would work on the puzzle.  The chocolate-chip and mood groups were essentially the same, 19 and 20 minutes.  The group that ate the radishes and avoided the cookies, however, gave up in only 8 minutes.  Less than half the time of the other groups!  This was because they had depleted their willpower by avoiding the cookies.  As a result, they had less in reserve to work on the puzzle task and gave up much sooner.  Studies have repeatedly demonstrated this effect.  It is why if you are on a diet and are “good all day” you are more likely to fail late at night if temptation is in the house.  Your willpower is gone.

When it comes to doing tasks we don’t want to do, we are considerably more likely to procrastinate doing them if we have already used our allotment of willpower for the day.

Great, now you know some of the problems and what can cause procrastination.  But how can you combat your brain’s wiring and still get things done?

The Power of Mini-Habits

Have you ever driven home from work and when you arrived you had no idea how you got home?  Perhaps your mind was wandering around on all sorts of thoughts and it felt as if someone else drove you home?  That is because driving has become a habit.  Your subconscious does it for you.  It takes no effort because it has become rote.  The beauty of rote behavior is it takes absolutely no willpower.  It just happens.

In his book, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise describes the research on this phenomenon and shows how to leverage it to your advantage.  Using exercise as an example, he suggests instead of setting big goals each day – like working out for an hour – do the opposite.  Set outrageously easy goals that take no effort or will at all to accomplish.  Like one jumping jack.  That’s it, just the one.  That’s the goal.  The key is to have something so simple that you expend no mental energy or willpower to make it happen.  

The magic is what happens next.

Once you do one jumping jack, you cross the activation step.  This is usually the hardest part.  But deciding to do only one jumping jack takes no will power.  What follows in your mind goes something like this: Well, I’ve already done one, I might as well keep going.  The next thing you know you have done a few minutes of jumping jacks and likely work out for even more time.  The secret is setting the outrageously easy goal you can’t not do.  The bonus outcome is doing much more with no expense of additional willpower.

The power of mini-habits is the first step.  Use it with the next step and blast through activities you might have otherwise procrastinated on.

Small Steps Ignite Action

If you are like most people, you have a to-do list.  Maybe you have items listed on post-it notes, a piece of paper, your computer, or maybe you use one of the many apps with prioritization categories, calendar reminders and the like.  These are all fine tools for collecting and maybe even categorizing the various things you have to do, but they are also great at creating anxiety – documenting all the work you have in front of you.

There is nowhere to hide.

Depending on each item’s complexity, different levels of willpower are needed to get them started.  This is why most experts advise you to do your most impactful and sometimes hardest tasks at the beginning of the day when you have your greatest stores of willpower and energy.

That’s good advice and leverages some of the things you have learned above.

But it also means the rest of your day is blown if you tackle a big willpower task at the outset.

There is better way.  One that allows you to do any number of big tasks throughout the entire day without depleting your energy.

The secret is in how you frame your to-do list.

Remember it is the starting of an activity that takes up the energy.  But once you start it takes little more willpower to keep going.  Just like the jumping jack example above, once we start, we have momentum that carries us forward.

So for each task on your list, write two or three really simple get started actions.

One runner I know has his easy start task as put on running shoes and shorts.  Nothing about running 3 miles, just the easy actions that get the process going.  Putting on shoes is easy and takes no energy but once you have them on you resign yourself to the running and it is much easier to complete.

Here’s a work example.   Say you have an article to write on procrastination.  That could be a daunting task worthy of avoiding.  Instead, take the time to list two or three simple actions to take that are impossible not to do because they are so easy.  Such as,

  1. Open Google and search on “procrastination”
  2. Copy some interesting website links into a new file on Google Docs
  3. Write down words capturing different themes you read about

Viola!Add one or two simple actions for each of the items on your to-do list.  The added benefit is that by capturing the actual steps you need to take, it releases the background garbage that usually runs in your mind about the task and the steps you need to take to accomplish it.  Writing these simple steps gets the task out of your mind and reduces stress.

By taking advantage of the way your brain is wired through the use of mini-habits and simple action steps, you can complete amazing amounts of challenging work without depleting any of your willpower, saving it for those unexpected times and emergencies when you really need it.

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