Procrastination is not a state of rest. It is an active state of denial. It involves avoiding something you know you ought to attend to. Breaks are rejuvenating. They are supposed to provide the energy necessary to power through the next work session. Procrastination, on the other hand, is riddled with anxieties about what’s pending, doubts about one’s ability to accomplish things and never-ending internal arguments about their urgency.
As a professional procrastinator, the amount of time I have wasted feeling bad about wasting time is embarrassing.
A while back, I was reading ‘Good To Great’ by Jim Collins. His team’s research uncovered a principle the book advises for business leaders. It goes as follows-
“Be rigorous, not ruthless.”
The fact is, we are the CEOs of our own body, mind, and productivity. To an extent, we control what each of these does. Just like a CEO, we attempt to “hack” or incentivize ourselves into doing something we don’t like. We create restrictions on what we can do. We also reward ourselves for performing in accordance with those limits.
This, however, isn’t ‘The Big Revelation’.
The Big Revelation
Just like a CEO praises or chides his employees for their work, we are constantly giving ourselves mental feedback. The feedback can be encouraging like “Good job going to the gym today.” or “You’ll be able to stick with this sleep schedule, you’re disciplined.” It can also be negative- “You never do things right, you always mess them up.”
The problem is that a lot of us believe we need extreme criticism to make lasting changes. I did. However, the truth is that being a mean CEO to ourselves will not make us rigorous. It is, at best, a bad attempt at course-correcting. At worst, it can lead to a host of problems including the aforementioned procrastination, anxiety, depression and other stress-induced reactions.
Extreme Self-criticism Is Not Your Friend
Self-criticism has garnered a bad reputation in the world of behavioral science. For one, it leads to the same “fight-flight-freeze” response we typically experience in response to an external threat. The state of being self-critical, like the state of being stressed, produces excessive amounts of cortisol.
Too much cortisol in the body over a prolonged period of time weakens the immune system and makes us more susceptible to illness. Hence, it's fair to argue that self-critical individuals are more likely to experience the effects of chronic stress from their internal monologue.
In my experience, being overly critical created a negative feedback loop.
I would chide myself for not doing something on time. This created a physiological state not very different from feeling stressed. Such problems- even at a low intensity- made working difficult. The fear of messing up or failing to be perfect paralyzed me. Over time, this state led to anxiety, fatigue (‘burnout’) and constant colds. If experienced full-scale, they prevented me from being consistent for a longer time, leading to more chiding. The process never ends.
The bad solution to this is giving up. The good solution is to become a better CEO.
Rigour Without Ruthlessness
Being rigorous or consistent is the act of doing the same thing over and over for a prolonged period of time. At no point is being overly cruel to oneself important to excel at being consistent. What does it mean to be rigorous without being ruthless?
At its core, it means not being too harsh on yourself for not accomplishing something as planned. For me, this led to two things. First, I stopped viewing every mistake as a “failure.” Instead, I saw my goal as a work-in-progress. This helped get over my mistakes easily and bounce back into my habit.
Rigour without ruthlessness also means defining your goals in a manageable way. A bad CEO gives you too much work to accomplish in too little time. A good CEO recognizes your strengths and shortcomings. They give you work in the right amounts so you can hit your targets while feeling challenged and not overburdened.
Finally, it means thinking about the goal beyond the way it affects “you”; making the cause bigger than yourself. Your goal is bound to be something that makes you a better partner, parent, employee, sister, friend and general human being.
A good CEO reminds you that what you’re working for is bigger than simply your own self-improvement. By working on this one thing, you are bettering the lives of those around you. You’re improving the quality of their experience. Simply being grateful for that is uplifting and likely to keep you going.
So for your next habit, try this mental switch. Become cognizant of how you talk to yourself. Recognize if your internal CEO is too harsh. And if they are, don’t hesitate to fire them instantly. You deserve better.