It’s funny what kind of books you can find when shopping at used book sales – for whatever reason, getting things done was on my mind and I just happened to chance upon this book. A bit of background on the book: the author is Edwin C. Bliss who wrote Getting Things Done and the author has held seminars on procrastination and time management and breaks down the cure for procrastination in 12 easy steps.
I want to step back for a moment and talk about my own problems with procrastination. Yes, I procrastinate too with a lot of things including work, writing and chores and I don’t mean to say that in a “even the best procrastinate” manner because I’m nowhere in the top of my field but as much as I try to create and produce, I get different kinds of blocks – one of those is just a procrastination block. I sit down with a blank blog post in front of me and I’ll pick up my phone to see what notifications I have or check out what’s new on Netflix or even just browse the web with nothing particular in mind. A lot of the times, procrastination becomes a battle against time – if I have no time, I don’t procrastinate otherwise I end up getting incredibly stressed. Of course, I and a whole bunch of other people want to get more done so I was keen on finding out what Edwin could teach me about beating procrastination. Here are the 12 steps that he recommends (and it just so it happens that I’ve done something similar though not in the order that he recommends).
1. Adjust your attitude
The first thing that you need to do is to adjust how you think about yourself. If you think of yourself as a procrastinator, lo and behold, you are going to procrastinate. If you, however, think of yourself as someone that gets things done early, your whole mindset towards tackling items on your to do list changes. This is similar to something I’ve written in the past about the stories that we tell ourselves – if we buy luxury cars, the story we are telling ourselves is that we are buying luxury cars because we are people who ride around in luxury.
I also think back to my times working in university and hearing the concept of ‘reframing’ which, I think, can be applied here. Maybe instead of thinking that you need to get the work done right now because you have free time, you can ‘reframe’ it to think about getting work done now so that you can accomplish more tomorrow (or to get some sleep later in the week).
2. Create a game plan
One of the ways, Edwin says, that people procrastinate is by the sheer amount of things that people have on their ‘imaginary’ to-do list. I say imaginary here to mean that they have their list in their head as opposed to written down on paper. The first thing to do then is to write down all the things that you need to accomplish using a specific time frame – maybe it could be one or two days, it could be a week, it could even be a month or a year (although I think keeping the time frame small will help more for day to day planning). Once you have written down the tasks, you go through and prioritize them to figure out what things are very important, what things are urgent and which items are both.
Okay, you have a good attitude about it and your task list – but you still don’t want to get started, what do you do?
Edwin shares the same suggestion as B.J. Fogg – start extremely small. Do the task for about 5 minutes and see what happens from there. I bet that if you just get started on a task, you’ll find the motivation and energy to continue. I do the same thing for writing – sometimes I have nothing to write about but if I just write random words on a page for 5 minutes, I find that something clicks in my head and then my fingers form a narrative.
3. Overcome fear of failure
I really like one of the techniques that Edwin shares here – its a concept called “imaging” and it’s actually a technique that a lot of athletes use to improve their performance. The idea is to picture yourself making a golf shot or scoring a basket – well not just picture it but imagine yourself actually doing it and going through all the motions.
How many times have you tried to do something the first time and failed miserably but when you got back at it and tried to do it again (and again), it was way easier the second, third or tenth time around? This is the same idea here – even picturing doing something and accomplishing it mentally can increase the chance of success for your actual performance.
The idea here then is to see yourself doing a hard or difficult task on your list. Don’t just think about doing the task, you have to picture yourself accomplishing the task – like if you were experiencing an out of body moment and watching yourself accomplishing a task.
4. Overcome fear of success
I know, I know – this seems paradoxical. Who fears success and why would that stop you from achieving or accomplishing items on your to do list? You might have never done this (or at least knowingly done it) but there are people who, at a subconscious level, want to fail because they worry about what happens if they complete the task. Maybe they might get more responsibility. Make no mistake, there is a price for reaching any goal.
Think really hard about what is stopping you from reaching a particular goal you have in mind. Dig deep. What would happen if you finish the book and it became a best-seller? Maybe you’d lose your privacy? Maybe you’d have to tell yourself that writing should be your career? What are the other negatives that come from achieving a goal? Don’t let those stop you!
Heck, sometimes I’m scared that if I finish my book, nobody will want to read it and I’ll have spent years researching and writing a book that nobody even paid attention to (and so I don’t finish it so that will never happen). But that’s dumb, people will read my book. Right?
5. Raise your energy levels
Have you ever gotten down to read, study or do something where you need to think critically and then decided that you would take a nap? Yeap that’s happened to me (oh lovely naps) but it’s another form of procrastination. Here, Edwin suggests that you get your energy levels up. How? Exercise. Eat the right foods. Get a stand up desk (I’m surprised that he knew about stand up desks given that the book was published in 1984).
Caffeine is an easy way to boost your energy levels OR is it? I heard somewhere that an apple is much better at boosting your energy than a coffee and probably healthier too. And sometimes taking a nap isn’t a bad thing. I get tired thinking about what to write and then I nap, wake up and then write some more.
6. Get touch with yourself
In other words, develop some willpower. Yes, there are going to be times where you don’t want to do anything except lounge around. That’s all I really want to do on the weekends. But then I think about my imaginary fans (well maybe one or two real fans) and think “I’ve set a goal for myself to write and publish at least twice a week and I want to stick to that schedule”. So I sit down to write, even if it’s just for 5 minutes (which inevitably turns into more).
There are other ways to increase your willpower as well and I especially like the author’s suggestion here to develop your willpower: do things that do not have to be done. If your furnace breaks down, you will have to call someone in to repair your furnace so focus on items that are not ‘must dos’ – filing away receipts, organizing your pantry, etc.
7. Establish an action environment
I’m going to tell you a secret – I have a secret passion for blank notebooks. For some reason, I like looking at them, browsing through them and flipping through the notebook with nothing on it. In fact, when I need to start a new notebook, I’ll hesitate as much as possible to keep the pristine nature of the notebook. I think there’s something about a clean page that speaks to me – it is something that should be filled with ideas and possibilities.
The author suggests that your environment be the same way. Is your desk incredibly cluttered? One way to procrastinate then is to organize your desk (which means that you should organize your desk before you sit down to complete a task). Have all your tools and materials ready and then focus on completing the task. If you are writing – do all of the research that you need to do ahead of time so that you aren’t just browsing the web and going down different rabbit holes as you do your ‘research’.
Here’s some advice that can apply to any task that you do – if you are writing and need to do some additional research that you didn’t realize beforehand, use a placeholder so that you can come back to it and so you don’t have to break up your writing flow. Tim Ferriss learned from Neil Strauss to use a placeholder. I can’t remember what the exact placeholder letters were but it was two letters (say KM) that are very rare in English that you can search up later and replace. You can do the same thing while writing OR while doing any other task – have a set of post-its ready and when you realize that there’s something else you need to do, write it down on a post-it note and then forget about it until you have accomplished the task that you originally set out to do.
8. Use the reinforcement principle
You accomplished your task but the next time that you go about to do it, you really do not want to. What happened? You successfully got it done the first time around but why not the second or third time? Try to reinforce your accomplishments with pleasant experiences after. Say, if you write that 500 word post, you can then go on to Youtube to watch badminton videos (no that’s not from personal experience). Or if you get that Risk Register accomplished, you can go down for a coffee break. Find healthy and sustainable ways to reward yourself after getting something done and watch your productivity soar!
Side note: I like to give myself a mental fist bump for accomplishing tasks. It makes me feel good, pumps me up for the next task and costs nothing aside from a few seconds out of my day.
9. Consider deliberate delay
As it turns out – deliberately delaying tasks can be good. This is different from procrastination because procrastination is not doing something that you know you should be doing whereas deliberately delaying is a purposeful way of not doing something.
How does this work? Imagine that you have lots of items on your task list and you find that you are procrastinating for whatever reason (lack of energy, lack of motivation, etc.). Sit yourself down or lie down on your bed and literally do nothing. Stare at the ceiling. Twiddle your thumbs. Breathe in and out. After a few minutes (or maybe even a few seconds if you are as restless as I am), you’ll realize how precious the time you have is and how you need to get onto that task that is sitting in your list and you will get to it!
I can’t honestly say that I’ve done this a lot – I find meditating instead of doing nothing to be really helpful though if I find myself procrastinating.
10. Time management
Time management is of course important when getting things done but what struck me here is the idea of looking at your task list and ‘burning’ different items. These are things that maybe you keep shuffling around in your list but that shouldn’t actually be on your list in the first place. Can you find ways to delegate these items? Are these things that you need to do yourself?
On one episode of our Remix Podcast, Shawn Kanungo and I talk about the idea of not attending meetings that are not important. I’ve certainly missed a few (although not on purpose) and it turns out that nothing bad happens. I’m still a firm believer that most meetings are a waste of time and I think the reason is because a lot of people do not fully understand what an effective meeting looks like (heck, I don’t know what an effective meeting looks like).
11. Give yourself reminders
For the longest time, I had motivational wallpapers on my phone. I found that because I was looking at my phone so much, I wanted a positive message to be reinforced in my brain – similar to how I choose some of my passwords to be influential books, authors or quotes that I like. Here, the author suggests that you have visible reminders to make sure that you are not procrastinating – whether it’s post-it notes on your door, messages on your mirrors, notifications that pop up on your phone or computer or having your laptop wallpaper say “QFA” – politely, quit foolin’ around.
Personally, I like having some motivational wallpapers or quotes on my phone screen to remind me of why I need to work hard – maybe it’s to achieve financial freedom, or to start a side hustle, or to make sure that I’m not wasting time when I could be writing.
12. Avoid the cop-outs
I’m not going to list the 40 cop-outs that the author wrote but basically the list has a long list of excuses that people make when they procrastinate. They use these excuses to justify why they are procrastinating. The key takeaway here is to recognize the excuses for what they are: excuses. Anybody can come up with excuses to not do things and even if you can’t think of it now, realize that there are counter arguments to any excuse you bring up.
The author suggests that you ask yourself “are you rationalizing or are you analyzing?” the next time that you come up with an excuse and I like that question. As Tony Robbins says, successful people ask better questions and as a result, they get better answers so that question is a great one to keep in your mental toolbox the next time you are procrastinating.
Overall, the book is written in a Q&A format – Edwin picks a variety of questions on each of the 12 steps and provides his own thoughts and answers to each of the questions – it feels like he’s talking to us and he’s anticipating some of the questions that the reader has. I thought this was a very interesting way of writing a book – and an approach that I haven’t seen before. It’s funny that the book was published in 1984 yet is still applicable today.