One of the problems I often see with people trying to improve your productivity is to fall into the motivation / “rah rah rah” trap. That is, they feel they need more enthusiasm to get jazzed up in order to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, that may make someone feel great … at least for a little while, but trying to tap motivation in order to prod yourself to action over and over again only leads to exhaustion. It’s basically putting a bandage on the fundamental problem that the processes of your brain aren’t tuned for consistent performance. Instead of working against the physiology of your brain and body by tapping your limited motivation reserves, you can work with it by understanding what behaviors and thought loops are preventing you from achieving your goals. This post will quote heavily from The Procrastination Cure by Wendy Joy Hart in an effort to help you get to the root issue of why you’re procrastinating in the first place.
Your Brain and Procrastination
Wendy provides a short overview of the three brains: the top brain is your thinking brain, the middle part is your emotional brain while the bottom brain stem governs fight or flight responses to the immediate environment. She makes a convincing case that when we do things like procrastinate, what’s actually happening is that something in our environment has triggered either the brainstem or the middle brain which trumps anything that the top thinking brain can do. Once you’ve tripped the alarms of the lower brains, the game is basically over – your thinking brain is basically in jail until your bottom brains feel safe that the stressor or emergency situation is no longer immediately present. This is how she puts it in her own words:
The point I want to make is that the two primary ways to attend to procrastination that most people try over and over and over again are connected to which part of the brain?
Yes! It’s the THINKING brain, the top brain!
Where is your top brain if your alarm has kicked off?
So, that would be like being locked inside a cell with an imaginary key that would be your willpower and your affirmations and you’re thinking “that this ought to get me out of this jam!” but the lock’s on the outside, you’re on the inside and the tool that you have in your hand WILL NOT get you out!
Taking an assessment of where you currently are at is a necessary but difficult step. But you need to first see where you are now to measure how far off you are from an ideal day of functioning.
Imagine for a moment that you landed here from Mars. You just asked this question above with curiosity, and without any preconceived notions.
Important: It is not about you…not what would YOU do, but what would someone do who did not have your background or your limitations, or considerations. What would THEY do?
Someone who really wanted to win? Write that down in as quantifiable a way as you can. They would make this many phone calls, they would make this many contacts, they would do _________.
Then, look at the gap between those two things, and look at the cost of that gap.
Then, look at what you are ACTUALLY doing every week to further your business, or go after whatever goal you want.
Taking stock of where you are is a really important step since it’s quite sobering to realize that what you’ve been doing is falling far short of what you should be doing. If you’re self-employed and you need to set up X number of events per month, or have X number of websites completed each month, you can take stock of how you as the person with their own unique foibles and habits falls short of what needs to get done. This is also a great chance to look at the particular things you do to waste time and stall progress toward your goals.
Choose small micro-actions and do it consistently. As she says, “Consistency trumps the size of the step x 100.” Here’s the thing with how Wendy Joy Hart describes micro-tasks:
• They are miniscule. Like if you want to start doing yoga, stand on your yoga mat every morning.
• These steps aren’t necessarily “productive” in the usual sense. That’s where most people probably get confused: you aren’t trying to take a ‘baby step’ towards your goal. You’re trying to incorporate a new habit by taking a tiny step in that direction while gauging how your middle (emotional) and lower brain stem (fight or flight) are reacting to it. If you try to baby-step it, and attempt to do a small portion of your desired activity, that isn’t necessarily incorrect but it’s kind of beside the point of what she’s teaching. You’re trying to step without triggering any alarms, so don’t worry whether your first steps are productive or not.
• You can build on your micro-action to whatever point feels comfortable, but you should always start with the same micro-action no matter how far you get in your habit. Remember, consistency is key and the same mundane first step towards your action is something your bottom two brains will accept as non-threatening.
“Yeah, right. How well is that going to work? It’s going to take me 75 years before I get to any kind of a goal.”
That is NOT the truth. It is not a rational function. What we’re doing is engaging the thing that is scary in a
minuscule, tiny way that is so sideways, sneaky, and small that it does not engage the alarm and trip it, which is what happened for her.
Once your alarm system gets to engage with the thing that you have been dreading, and critical mass is achieved, the alarm figures out that that whatever you have been dreading is not actually a tiger. Then all of a sudden, the
curve goes straight up and you’re able to engage in that activity without dread.
What I’m talking about is something that is INFINITELY smaller than a baby step, something that is crazy, tiny, sideways, small, and sneaky, and often adding the physiology of silliness. It was kind of silly for her to have her coffee and her paper on the treadmill. She was marrying the physiology of something that she really enjoyed with this thing that she had been dreading and it mixed together and it sort of cancelled each other out.
I’ve covered enough in this post to give you a good idea of Wendy Joy Hart’s anti-procrastination system, but there are multiple things that I just can’t cover in a short blog post. There’s lots of ways to still go wrong even if you have an understanding of how the mind is sabotaging yourself, especially being overly self-critical. I recommend working with a life coach or productivity coach if you think you need some help achieving your most-cherished life goals.