Self-employed? Here’s 3 procrastination hacks that will get you back to work.
This article is a response to Tim Urban’s TED talk about procrastination. His basic argument is that the mind can be (metaphorically) divided into three different characters.
The first is the rational decision-maker.
He is the one who is supposed to navigate the boat through the stormy sea that is our daily lives. While he is in control, you are taking care of the most important tasks that need to get done right now.
The problem is, that there is also an instant-gratification monkey, who is always around. It basically annoys the rational decision-maker long enough, until he gives up and hands over control to the monkey.
The monkey keeps shouting things like:
“Hey, let’s watch some Youtube videos!”
“C’mon man! One minute of playing the piano. I promise, it will be just one minute!”
“Ice cream! Ice cream! Banana flavoured ice cream! NO? Seriously?! Hmpf, okay… then how about chocolate taste?”
There is no inherent problem with the fact that the instant-gratification monkey exists. When we don’t have anything that needs to get done, then it’s totally fine to give in to your urges and just do whatever you feel like doing.
Problem is, when it keeps you from doing your work. Especially, when it happens every single day.
So basically, Tim (the other Tim) says this:
For people who have deadlines, this whole story often isn’t a problem. When the deadline comes close, then a third character appears out of nowhere —and it’s called the panic monster.
The panic monster puts the whole system into chaos.
But eventually, it gets you to put in whatever is necessary and get the work done. Even if it requires you to do an all nighter.
According to him, the real problem comes in for people who are self-employed, and who don’t really have any hard deadlines. Without any hard deadlines, the panic monster won’t show up.
And they won’t get any work done. Ever.
In this article, I am going to pick up where Tim left, and talk about what we can do get our work done, even without a harsh deadline to bring out the panic monster.
But before that, feel free to watch Tim’s Ted talk here down below. It’s super fun to watch and very educating.
Your instant-gratification monkey will love it!
1. Habits are everything
Sometimes, I go on a vacation, thinking that I will come back all refreshed, and ready to jump in back to my work. I think that my vacation will inspire me to get all these fresh ideas, and to put them into action.
I do come back refreshed.
And I do come back inspired.
But the reality of the situation is, that I don’t come back putting all these different thoughts into action.
Because my vacation has screwed up my habits and my rhythm. Whereas usually, I have a daily writing practice and a daily minimum word count that I want to produce, these habits are now no longer actively wired into my brain.
Before I can expect to produce the same amount of output as I have before, I first need to rewire these habits into my body and mind.
Even Stephen King, one of the most productive writers in the world, says the same thing. He says that if he even takes off as much as one or two weeks, it will take him a long period of time to get back to his work.
He puts it this way:
“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop, and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind … I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.”
Do you know what a daily habit and a specific rhythm does?
It takes the decision away from you. You no longer depend on the rational decision-maker, and the willpower it requires to shut out the instant gratification monkey.
Your subconscious mind-, and your natural body rhythm take over, and they will automatically make you to get back to your work, when its time for you to put in your daily work.
But there are some requirements for you to do this:
- It needs to be consistent: you need to have similar working times every single day. It has to be so consistent, that it becomes second nature for you to sit down at your desk and do the work at these times.
- You need to have a goal: daily goals are the equivalent of other peoples deadlines. Writers have been using minimum daily word counts forever. Find the equivalent of that in your line of work. Break down your work into many small steps. It will give you something to hold yourself accountable against.
- You need to make it a priority: you can’t just schedule meetings or other ‘important’ things during the time that you have set away for your work. If you do, then it means that your work is not your priority. In this way, you won’t build the consistency that is required.
2. Don’t give yourself another choice
This is important especially for the time that you get started in building your habits. During your working times, you should simply take away all other options from you, except for the work itself.
You see, your environment is important.
If you are surrounded by all sorts of things that you can use to distract yourself (books, piano, internet, phone, snacks… or whatever other thing that could possibly come to your mind), then you will give in to these distractions.
So what is my suggestion?
Do your work in a very sterile environment. One, in which there is no other choice, but to do the work. One, in which you are going to be so bored, that you don’t have any other choice, but to work.
Make yourself so bored, that even your instant-gratification monkey WANTS to work. Because there simply is no other option.
This could mean things like:
- Turn off your internet during working hours
- Set up a room in which there is absolutely nothing, except for the tools that you need to get the work done. Lock yourself into this room, and don’t get out until working times are over.
- Get rid off any means in which anybody could distract yourself. Make it clear to everybody, that during these times you are not to be disturbed, under any circumstances.
- In the worst case scenario: rent an apartment whose location nobody knows, except for you yourself. This is a real thing, that some of the world’s top performers actually do (Robin Sharma does this regularly and Bill Gates does this for ‘thinking retreats’)
3. Condition yourself to work
I am pretty sure that you already know Pavlov and his dogs. But in case you don’t, here is a quick reminder of how it worked.
Pavlov basically rang a bell, whenever the dogs received food. Eventually, the dogs would start to salivate, whenever the bell rang. That was the case, even if there was no food available, at all.
In other words, Pavlov fooled the the dog’s brain into associating the bell with food.
You can do something similar in order to get yourself to work.
For any work session on which you successfully focus on your work for the time period that you designate (e.g. 90 minutes of full concentration), you reward yourself with something that you truly enjoy.
This will make the instant-gratification monkey very happy.
Overtime, the instant-gratification monkey transforms into something else. He transforms into a delayed-gratification monkey. What this means is that you have trained yourself the ability, to not give in to your urges right now.
Instead, you delay your urges to a time, where they are more suitable. For example — during the break time in-between two working sessions.
So, you could say to yourself:
“During this work break (and only if I focused on my work properly), I am going to get myself not only a banana-flavoured ice cream. But ALSO a chocolate-flavoured ice cream!”
This gives you something to work towards.
Of course, these rewards need to be tailored to your own needs. The kind of things that you actually enjoy and appreciate.
Just make sure that these rewards are not all related to ice cream, because that can quickly turn into an unhealthy new habit.
Here’s how to make this happen:
- Set clearly defined working periods (90 minutes at a time seems to be the time-frame that works best for my own productivity)
- Tell yourself that if during this upcoming work period you focus deeply on your work, you are going to reward yourself with... [insert something that really motivates you here]
- Always deliver on your promise to reward yourself, when you actually get the work done
If you are self-employed, it is even harder to avoid procrastination. Because you are the one who makes the decisions about how to spend your time, it often ends up with you doing… nothing.
That’s because it’s not your rational mind, which is in control.
It’s your instant-gratification monkey, which is taking over.
The only thing that can tame this monkey is the power of your subconscious mind, and your natural body rhythm.
If you break your larger projects down into consistent daily goals and force yourself to do them for a longer period of time, then eventually sitting down and getting them done, will become like your second nature.
Build this habit of daily action.
And then protect it with everything you’ve got.
Because once you loose this habit, then you are going to have to build it from scratch again. And this is definitely going to take you some time, and a lot of fighting with your little monkey friend.
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