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Get-It-Done Guy's 3 Bad Habits Successful People Break
By Stever Robbins
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Stever Robbins
All rights reserved.
We all procrastinate, and we put off the very things that are most important. What is up with that? When we procrastinate, we do everything except work less and do more! If we procrastinated by filling our time with deep, meaningful, soul-enriching activities like spending time with friends, helping children learn skills that will prepare them for adulthood, or bowling, I could understand it. But we don't. We delay what will get us what we want by playing solitaire or restoring our beloved picture of Elvis after humidity has damaged the velvet.
In this "Step 1: Stop Procrastinating," we'll explore how procrastination comes from things under our control, which means the answer to it is also under our control. As tempting as it is to fall back on "Just Do It" running-shoe slogans as the key to success, we'll find that you can set up the world around you to nudge you into action when your brain just isn't up to the challenge on its own. And when the world isn't cooperating, you still have ways to retrain your brain so you'll jump right into action.
Procrastination comes from your thinking. We're going to use the very thoughts that cause procrastination as the keys to overcoming it and sailing merrily along our way.
Let's use me as an example, since I've been procrastinating writing this chapter for two days. And because I'm hopelessly self-absorbed. I glance at my computer, its deceptively innocent screen saver beckoning, "Come to me! Write your book!" Ever the rebellious adolescent, I immediately find reasons to reject my electronic master's seductive command. Thoughts flicker through my mind:
I have to work on my book.
Writing isn't fun.
It's such a big project, I'll never finish. I would rather be out playing.
I have so many other things to do. It won't be any good.
I don't have the resources to pull it off. People won't respect me if I don't finish.
I don't want to work on my book.
My sweater really needs to be
de-pilled. Right now.
These thoughts weigh heavily: "I have to work on my book." True. And just thinking that sends me into fantasies of all the bad things that will befall me should the work not get done. I imagine my editor, Emily, in full riding regalia atop a gorgeous thoroughbred, looking down at me in pity tinged with contempt. "We had such high hopes for you," she says, as I stand empty-handed in despair. The tragedy of the incomplete manuscript is complete as she turns and canters into the sunset, leaving me groveling wretchedly amid the wreckage of my book. So engaging is the daydream that I don't even remember what I'm putting off.
When you're procrastinating, the procrastination, the excuses, and the daydream are all in your head. If there's that much creativity swirling around in there, why aren't you taking action? Who knows? In fact, who cares? All you need is a way to get things moving.
I'll bet there's a lot you don't put off. Most people shower, brush their teeth, and get dressed every morning without procrastinating. They just do it. People who cook go shopping weekly and stock up. They don't procrastinate, they just do it. And when it comes to putting on shoes and socks, well, gosh darn it, they just put those socks right on their feetsies and leap into the day.
The difference is thinking. When you think before you act, you can talk yourself out of anything, no matter how important it might be.
TURN TASKS INTO HABITS TO STOP PROCRASTINATING
The first step in overcoming procrastination is to turn those recurring tasks you always put off into habits. Think of the things you do every day or every week that you just do without thinking about. As for me, I always brush my teeth every day and do the laundry every week. What makes the things you do on time effortless is not their importance. I can survive months without doing laundry, especially if I don't care about keeping my friends. Laundry is just not that important. I can get gum infections and lose all my teeth if I don't brush regularly. Brushing is that important. Yet I treat them equally. I do laundry weekly and I brush daily. That's because they're both habits. Habits are actions we streamline to the point where they're no longer a decision, they're just something we do. They don't require thought, so we don't procrastinate. We just do them.
The easiest way to overcome procrastination is to make things habits. You can have daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly habits. I brush my teeth daily, do laundry weekly, pay bills monthly, and do spring cleaning yearly. That's when I find all the socks that vanish during weekly laundry.
Establish a habit by making it regular. Put it on your calendar to remind you. When the time comes, treat it as an appointment.
A solution many writers use to overcome procrastination is to establish a habit of writing at the same time every day, for the same length of time. Once the habit is in place, they just crank out the prose. You'd think I would have established a habit a year and a half ago when I started this book. Yeah, you'd think. If your event in the procrastination Olympics is filling out your weekly expense reports, pick a day and time to do them — say Thursday at ten — and start them every Thursday at ten. Soon you'll be completing these reports as effortlessly as you brush your teeth before bed. If you don't make your tasks a habit, you're stuck back with your thoughts, which can derail even the simplest of tasks. Potential habits to develop: checking and responding to e-mail only at specific times, working out, grocery shopping, balancing your checkbook, getting together with friends (perhaps for a regular Sunday brunch), cleaning the living room, doing laundry. At work, you can build habits around straightening your desk, writing regular status reports, checking in with people you're building relationships with, offering to help your teammates, following up on prospect calls, touching base with customers, and meeting with your manager or the people who report to you.
USE BABY CHUNKS
Sometimes the tasks we procrastinate are big, one-time projects, so turning them into habits just won't work. Procrastination experts say to break these big projects into tiny chunks and use baby steps to move forward. The first time, I misheard this as "take baby chunks." The visual was so disturbing that I knew I had to invent a real technique to go with this memorable instruction.
Taking baby chunks isn't about breaking your project into pieces, it's about breaking time into pieces. When there's an end in sight, it's easy to buckle down and power through. That's why we like speed dating. We'll even talk to someone who doesn't floss when we know we can move on in a mere three minutes. When a task seems endless, we're terrified, because deep down, we fear getting trapped. Marriage has no end point; meditate on that and despair.
With baby chunks, you'll speed date the task you've been procrastinating. Set a time limit (preferably with an actual physical timer) and work 100 percent for that much time. Then get up and do something else. From the moment you sit down, you'll know that in just a few minutes, you'll be free once again.
When I first began writing, I would write for ten minutes and play games for fifteen. I played more than I wrote. But it gave steady progress in ten-minute chunks. Every hour included twenty minutes of writing. Over a day, that added up to almost three hours.
Over time, I shifted the balance to include more writing. Even so, short chunks of time with a defined end point let me relax enough to get going when the job seemed overwhelming. You can use the same technique for mind-numbingly boring things like planning business trips. When you have travel to book, meetings to set up, hotels to reserve, and details to juggle, you can do it ten minutes at a time. Spend the top of each hour comparing fares on a dozen Web sites. By day's end, you'll have devoted an entire eighty minutes and be ready for your very first excursion to Sheboygan.
Now we know about baby chunks and habits. Let's make a habit of baby chunks. If you're procrastinating several projects at once, each project becomes an excuse not to work on the other. Report due tomorrow? No time to work on it; I have to work on my taxes. Taxes due tomorrow? But I really should work on my report. You need to make sure you're doin' chunks with all your projects, or else the one that's not moving forward will become the siren that seduces you away from the others.
USE DAILY ACTION PACKS
A Daily Action Pack is the answer to keeping track of all your projects. A Daily Action Pack tells you what you need to do daily to guarantee progress toward your goals. You can choose a certain amount of time to spend on each project, as we did with baby chunks, or you can choose some other way to decide a good day's contribution. Let's say you work for Tasty Munchies, Inc., and have to review the monthly financials from your forty retail stores by the end of the month, twenty days from now. (For some of us, this would be the most boring thing ever. For you, it's a thrilling expression of your life's true purpose.) You must review forty reports in twenty days. That means, you must review two reports per day to make your goal. You know if you read your two daily reports, you'll finish the project.
Gather your major projects and figure out what daily dose will be enough to move each project forward. It might be a number of pages to write or read, a number of phone calls to make, or a certain amount of time spent each day on a project. Write these all on your Daily Action Pack. What you'll end up with is the minimum needed to move everything forward. And you calculated it knowing if you do it daily, you will eventually finish everything.
Now that you've created your Daily Action Pack, make it a habit. Every day, pick it up and make sure you run through every item on the list. You will keep everything moving, and if you do it first thing every day, you know you're done for the day as soon as you have finished your Daily Action Pack — even if the whole thing only takes half an hour.
CREATE A WEALTH INVENTORY
One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is by whining. No matter how reasonable my baby chunks are, I can always whine to convince myself to do something later. My favorite whine is, "I don't have what it takes to get this project done." And gosh darn it, I'll stretch reality to the breaking point when I'm whining. I've postponed a project for hours after whining that I didn't have quite the right pen. I needed a .38 mm bright blue, gel ink pen. And since I can't stand listening to whining, I'll do anything to shut me up. In this case, it meant a trip to the stationery store. Yes, I actually have a codependent relationship with my own procrastination.
When you feel like you don't have what you need to Make It Work, think again. Though you couldn't bring a book to your high school finals, life is an open-book test. You have a lifetime's worth of help, if you remember to use it. The best way to remember is to write it down.
What are your life resources? You know people, you have money and things, and you have skills. At any moment, you think of one or two of these at best. But if you make a wealth inventory, you can jog your memory whenever you need. You never know when your ability to act out Poe's The Raven interspersed with Seuss's Horton Hatches an Egg will be just the thing you need when preparing your presentation on the quarterly numbers for the actuarial group.
Get out a piece of paper. Write four column headings: people, money, stuff, and skills. Under each column heading, write in the people you know, your money, your stuff, and your skills. When filling in people, scour your address book. Write down anyone you could ask for help: high school friends, college friends, teachers, bosses, and that strange-but-nice relative with the peculiar skin condition you met at your family reunion. Write them all down.
In the money column, list your cash, and anything that could be turned into cash. List assets you could borrow against, credit cards, and all the ways you could get money if you absolutely needed to. We're not saying you're going to use any of these resources, just that you have them available.
In the skills column, write down everything you're good at. Sometimes you'll find you have skills you can apply to a problem in really creative ways. When you're postponing a project by bemoaning your lack of resources, get out your wealth inventory. Browse it. Ponder, pontificate, explore, think, and research. Bring it all to mind and let your mind begin to make connections to figure out how you could use what you already have in getting the job done. Your wealth inventory helps you get going again when a challenge seems daunting.
When a start-up company was searching for a way to highlight its product, the marketing manager found himself very busy doing anything but approaching potential marketing partners for a product launch. He didn't know any likely partners off the top of his head, and he was scared to cold-call. Then he reviewed his wealth inventory. A resource was an old directory of trade shows from a former job. Seeing that sparked the idea of contacting his city's department of commerce, finding a current directory, and adding promotional speeches and product booths to their launch strategy.
If only I had really looked over my wealth inventory when procrastinating by whining about not having the right pen. What would my wealth inventory have told me? Under "skills," it seems I can write with any writing implement. Who knew? Under "people," I know Brent, the pen counter czar at my local stationery store — it's only a block away. I could ask Brent to bring a pen by during his lunch hour. And resources would be the most embarrassing. I'd have to face the two hundred pens I already own and tell them why I don't love them anymore and am looking for a replacement. That would be really tough, especially since I would have discovered I already have a .38 mm bright blue, gel ink pen. And maybe surveying my inventory would have gently reminded me that I don't need a 201st pen; I can just start writing.
USE OTHER PEOPLE
Sometimes, even with baby chunks and all your resources lined up, you need to call in the big guns: other people. When other people are counting on us, we're hard-wired to perform. We give it noble names like "accountability," but underneath it's really just us being scared Mommy won't love us if we don't do what we say. Using other people is also an excuse to create a shared bond with our other friends who are procrastinating, too. Not to mention having fun sniping together at the few who don't have the courtesy to procrastinate, and are actually going to the gym, or meeting all their deadlines. For me, involving other people is about friendship and fun, so it immediately makes the task I need to complete more engaging. And there's a deeper reason that bringing along a friend can help you get started.
When we know someone else is expecting us, we feel compelled to live up to the expectation. Social scientists have done all kinds of research showing this is true, even if your parents didn't use the meat hook punishment when you were young. This makes friends extra helpful when setting up habits. Make an appointment to call your friend every day at the time you want to establish your habit, say "I'm reading through my Daily Action Pack and planning my day" (or whatever habit you're trying to start), and then listen as he, she, or it does the same in return.
Once you've got your friend hooked on helping your habits, you can expand your check-in to a more sophisticated version that moves all your goals forward. I learned this from coach Andrew Thorn. In the New Manager 101 course, which doesn't exist, thus accounting for the sorry state of management in the world at large, they say, "What gets measured, gets managed." When you created your Daily Action Pack, you created measures. You chose a number of pages written per day, or a length of time spent, or a number of phone calls that you would consider real progress. You can use the measure for your Daily Action Pack; you can also use it as, well, a measure of progress. Next, enlist a friend to help you track your measurements. You'll find yourself making amazing progress when you combine accountability with measurement.
First, you need a friend. Any kind will do. If you don't have one, make one from scratch or use a mix, that's what social networking's all about. You can also use the same one you used to help create habits. Make sure it's someone you trust and can talk with daily.
Next, you each get out your Daily Action Pack and look at the measures you chose for it. You can also include measures related to any other goals you might have. Make each measure a number or a yes/no question like "Did you throw away at least one old expense report today?" Measure the actions to reach the goal, not the goal itself. So for sales, don't use a measure like, "How many sales did I make?" Use a measure like, "How many new prospects did I find?" "How many prospects did I follow up with?" "How many existing clients did I call to discover other products they might need?" ... things like that.
Excerpted from Get-It-Done Guy's 3 Bad Habits Successful People Break by Stever Robbins. Copyright © 2011 Stever Robbins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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