Many of the most successful people focus and make progress, a first down, on their #1 top priority goal each and every week. There is an underlying dragon hiding in the back of our minds that tries to sabotage this all important life habit: Almost everyone struggles with procrastination. If a person learns the right disciplines and builds the habits to overcome procrastination, his or her chances of escaping average skyrocket. Understanding this dragon and how it is becoming stronger in our tech-fueled world is important to keeping it on a leash.
We love our smartphones. They have given us the power to do so much, to stay connected to others wherever we are, to take pictures, to get dates, to buy tickets and make reservations at any given moment. But there are two sides to every coin. The apps on the ever-present smartphone have taught us to become hopelessly distracted, as though we have attention deficit disorder even though biologically 90%+ do not. Texts, Snapchats, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, email alerts, breaking news alerts, and every other pop-up from millions of apps, train us to stop what we are doing and turn our attention back to the app-of-this-minute. We have been trained by Silicon Valley’s developers and AI algorithms to learn a bad habit that resembles ADD. Once we have willingly allowed ourselves to be reprogrammed by our electronic collar, we continue to flutter our attention from one thing to another, even during the rare moments when the smartphone is out of the room. Just try writing a paper on your PC or Mac and count how many times you jump around to look at something in a different browser tab in just 30 minutes.
Changing an existing habit is much harder than adding a new good habit, but it can be done.
The great news is that you now recognize the pattern and you have all the tools that you need to build a habit of getting stuff done, especially the stuff that is of strategic importance. I struggled with procrastination for decades of my life. My procrastination dragon is always lurking and can strike at any time, stealing a day, or a week, or even a month away if I let down my guard.
The cold hard truth is no one is great at multitasking. The people who say that they are great at it are also the people who are most likely to stress themselves out, doing less than their best on everything in their lives. Even computers don’t multitask but rather quickly switch between multiple things, doing one task at a time. The difference is that a computer “knows” exactly the next step when it efficiently switches back and forth while the human mind takes a much more ponderous path to get focused on the next. Even when you are not falling prey to multitasking, ‘good’ things to do are often the very things that get in the way of ‘great’ things to do. Great things to do are the ones that are supporting your strategic priority, the one goal that you have decided to accomplish which will yield long term value. Often, accomplishing greatness takes getting into a state of flow, when your mind gives the task at hand 100% commitment and you completely lose track of time.
Step one is to take a hard look and turn off every superfluous notification that you can. Getting notified of every email and social post torpedoes your focus. I set up a second “high priority” email box that no one knows I have. I then create filters in my main email account to forward emails I want notifications for to that extra email box. This proactive filtering puts me in charge of what matters to me. That second box is the only one that sends me a notification. Unfortunately, text messages are harder to prioritize but putting some percentage of conversations on silent / do not disturb is an idea worth considering.
After you have reduced the bings and the buzzes, the habit that you need to beat procrastination and distraction is to reserve a time slot where you put the rest of the world aside, an hour where you don’t multitask. Start small with 30 minutes a day, then work your way up to 60 minutes and then 90 minutes per day. The 90 minutes might be three independent 30 minute sessions on three different strategic tasks but that’s perfectly fine. The key is to only focus on the one important thing that you have planned and decided to do during that time slot.
Reward yourself after your zen timeslot. I personally write it down as a “great time invested” note on my calendar, so that I can see the steps I’ve taken toward one of my top goals and then I refill my cup of coffee. Remember Aristotle’s golden rule: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
By leaving my smartphone in another room and by working in one full screen window, I have found that my 30 minutes of commitment sometimes magically transforms into 60 or 90 minutes of focused “flow” time. This doesn’t happen every day and it is not always easy, but you get better at it over time. If you are writing a book, you often struggle and write something that is obviously shitty but, if you refuse to open a new tab and look at random stuff on Amazon or Facebook, you are slowly but surely building the muscle memory to retake control of your life.
Procrastination is the gravity that keeps most people down. You can adapt and overcome because procrastination is a bad habit, not a genetic aspect of your DNA. Our minds are reprogrammable. Start by figuring out your top goals and priorities. Make specific plans, distilled down to specific next steps, so that you have decided what exactly needs to be done. Train yourself to stick to the important task for an uninterrupted 30 minutes and you are well on your way. Write your successes down and be grateful when you overcome distraction temptations. Building great habits takes effort and patience.
If I could beat the procrastination dragon, you can too, because my dragon had a death grip on me years ago. To defeat it, I raised the stakes: I decided to not look at my work email in the morning until I finished my first 30 minute “focused” time block, no matter how late in the morning that was. That was a heck of a motivator, since I could easily miss a conference call or meeting by not checking email. To avoid the ugly risk of missing meetings, I forced myself to focus and make progress during the 6:30 – 7:00 am slot, hot coffee in hand. It was an interesting way to start each day, but I now can “disappear from the urgent world” for an hour or two, with a well-established ‘focus’ habit that I know helps me succeed.
If my suggestions don’t get you over the top with procrastination, Tim Urban, the smart, funny, and fresh creator of the WaitButWhy.com blog, writes about the evils of procrastination, the concepts of never wasting a week because life is shorter than you think, and working on the strategic, important stuff as much as possible.
You can beat the procrastination dragon if you believe that you can.