Work Strategy

When you’re struggling to get work done, the hardest part of any project is the start.

Whether you’re just starting a new project, or you’re trying to get restarted, all too often, procrastination rears its ugly head.

So, there you are: stuck.

Knowing you need to be working on that project.

Feeling guilty you’re not getting work done.

But unable to get yourself to sit down and tackle that project.

In my research on what makes some people productive and others not, I have found that procrastination comes in as many flavors as ice cream. And just like ice cream, we each have our own favorite flavors.

I’m not saying that that all procrastination is bad. Sometimes it can be helpful. In fact, my father calls it “just-in-time management.”

A little procrastination can give your brain the space to think about a project; to get a jump start on creation. It can also prevent you from wasting valuable time on a project that is a priority one day and a dead issue the next. But, in many cases, procrastination makes you less effective, less successful, and more stressed.

If you don’t need more stress in your life, the good news is that there are some simple solutions to help you break through procrastination.

Your Brain’s Drive for Closure

In my book, Brain Power, I wrote about seven principles of how your brain operates and how to use them to focus, create, and get work done. One of the principles, the Drive for Closure, is important to understand when you’re trying to break free from procrastination.

Have you ever been reading a story and just could not resist the urge to peek at the last page, because you just couldn’t wait? The principle of Drive for Closure explains this urge by saying that our brains strive for a sense of completion or a definitive answer.

Your brain does not like the experience of limbo, when there is no clear direction or ending. So, it races toward the finish line. Even when you know you would be better off by waiting to make a decision or by taking time to consider other information, you will still have the urge to close the open loop.

The principle of Drive for Closure explains why people find it difficult to resist buying something immediately, whether it’s an electronic toy or a pair of new shoes. Once you feel the urge to acquire, your brain is in limbo, waiting for an answer. It is not until you make the purchase, or you decide you’re not going to make the purchase, that you give your brain the closure it wants.

The interesting thing about Drive for Closure is that it doesn’t only happen when the answer to the question is of practical value or urgency. You can feel the Drive for Closure in relation to something as inconsequential as the end of a movie or book, even though there is no practical need to know and no actual urgency involved.

What does this principle have to do with procrastination? You can use your brain’s Drive for Closure to start or finish a project. Strategies that use the Drive for Closure hinge on this idea: if you can get started on a task with a modest goal in mind, your brain will help you reach that goal.

Bribe Your Brain: The 15-Minute Bribe

When you just can’t seem to get yourself to sit down and focus, you can bribe your brain. The 15-Minute Bribe helps you get started on a project when you are procrastinating.

Here’s how you use it: Begin by promising yourself that if you work on the project for just 15 minutes, you can turn your attention to something more pleasurable or less stressful.

Why 15 minutes?

First, because it’s such a short period of time. You can tolerate almost anything if you know it’s just for 15 minutes. And even if you have a packed schedule, you can find a 15-minute window somewhere in your day.

Second, because you can actually accomplish a significant chunk of work in 15 minutes.

Because of your brain’s Drive for Closure, once you start, your brain will beg for completion, which means you may find yourself working longer or accomplishing more than you expected.

Using the 15-Minute Bribe, you can make real progress on your project. You may even surprise yourself and complete it.

Are you wondering just how many times you can bribe your brain before it catches on and the 15-Minute Bribe no longer works?

Don’t worry.

Remember the Peanuts Thanksgiving cartoon with Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football? The one where Lucy convinces Charlie Brown to kick the ball and just as he does, she pulls it away and Charlie Brown goes flying through the air and lands flat on his back? For your brain, the 15-Minute Bribe is just like that. Your brain will fall for it every time!

Use It Now: The 15-Minute Bribe

What are you having trouble starting?

Choose one of your tasks and try out the 15-Minute Bribe. If you only have a few minutes, try out a mini version, the Five-Minute Sprint, by working on your project for just five minutes.

Are you waiting for perfect to accomplish your goals?

perfectionist cutting grass with scissors

It’s a common block to getting it done: perfectionism. When you set rigid expectations or standards of performance for yourself (and others).

We live in an achievement-oriented, competitive society that holds perfectionism as a high social value. We believe that if we can be perfect in some way, then good will magically come our way.

The problem is that perfectionism causes paralysis. Blank spaces. Stuckness. Procrastination.

Blank journal on table with coffee

Fortunately, perfectionism is a learned behavior. We are not born with it.

That’s good news because it means we can learn to overcome it, work around it, and break through it.

Break Through By Doing It Badly

Whether you are a perfectionist or just suffering from a bout of perfectionism, there are strategies that can help you when you are stuck because of perfection.

One strategy I call: Do It Badly.

Do it Badly? What?

Stay with me.

There might little gremlins in your head whispering (or even shouting), “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well,” or “Always do your best.” Or, “If this isn’t perfect, people will think I’m incompetent. (Or stupid. Or sloppy.)”

Desk with messy papers and phone

Let’s face it, that’s the internal commentator that keeps you from doing what you need to do. It can drown out even the best idea or strongest motivation. That fear of being judged and found lacking prevents you from starting, from creating, and from getting work done.

To outwit the commentator that criticizes each time you even think about beginning, instead of shooting for a masterpiece, allow yourself to just do it badly, and then revise and rework.

Make a Mess

For example, my development process is messy and chaotic. I have had to learn that not only is it okay to let the mess and chaos exist, it is a necessity. It took me years to learn that, because it’s not what most experts teach, especially in the field of writing.

I have never been able to start by writing an outline, in spite of the many teachers who have urged the technique. If I try to create in that linear fashion, it is a laborious, painful, and often, fruitless process.

Perfectionist businesswoman sitting at her desk with blank notebook and crumpled paper

If instead, I let myself follow my tendency to start writing in a messy, circular, jumbled process – to do it badly – without expectations of linear transitions or the perfect words, I can eventually write my way to a product I can point to with pride.

Sometimes it is just a matter of re-labeling something to give myself permission to start out messy. When I use the words “draft” or “musings” in the early stages, it makes it easier to accept the messy or disorganized beginning and get my creative thoughts on the table (or on the screen).

Another way I write “badly” is to write a draft that is a combination of paragraphs, phrases, and single words, knowing I can go back and fill in the blanks on my second pass.

puzzle with last piece almost in place

Obviously, Do It Badly doesn’t mean I do a crappy job and just leave it. It means I give myself permission to do a (very) rough draft and then go back and revise and polish.

What Can You Do Badly?

What project or task have you not accomplished because of perfectionism? Pick one project or task from your list, and give yourself permission to do it badly.

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One of the common reasons people postpone work or procrastinate is because the size or complexity of a project makes it intimidating. Every time they think about working on the project, they are overwhelmed by how much work is going to be required or how many different parts are involved. Or sometimes, they’re overwhelmed because it’s a long-term project and they can’t easily visualize the end result.

When faced with a too-big project, it’s easy to feel you should wait to start until you have a big block of time, or until you are sure you can make significant progress, or until you have all of the information.

Why do anything if you can’t do everything?

It’s called, “all or nothing” thinking.

The Perils of All or Nothing Thinking

Have you ever promised yourself that as soon as you had a free afternoon or a couple of unscheduled hours, or a whole day, you would tackle your project? Congratulations! You have been the victim of all or nothing thinking.

All or nothing thinking happens when people believe that until they can do everything, there is no point in doing anything. All or nothing thinking blocks people from all kinds of projects and goals: beginning a new initiative, looking for a new job, starting or marketing a business, or writing a book.

I see all or nothing thinking quite often in clients, especially when we are talking about a big project with lots of different parts.

One of the problems with all or nothing thinking about a project or task you need to tackle is that it creates a state of paralysis. You can’t get started until you believe you can do it all, and right now you can’t do it all. Therefore, you can’t get started.

Realistically, we rarely have the block of time we think we need to finish a whole project at one time. Especially in today’s digital world.

Instead, slice off a small piece and get it done in a small window of time.

Cut Your Project Down to Size

When you are stuck and just can’t get started on a project or task, use a tool I call Chunking It Up.

When you chunk it up, you break a project into smaller, more manageable pieces.

The pieces may be steps like simply making a list of tasks for the project, organizing your notes or research materials into a folder or notebook, starting an outline, or brainstorming a list of ideas.

When you break your project into smaller pieces and complete them, you give your brain what it is begging for: the satisfaction of closure. That satisfaction, in turn, motivates your brain to want to tackle and complete more.

Let’s say your project is to write a new blog post. Here are some smaller chunks you could start with:

  • Brainstorm topic ideas for the blog post.
  • Brainstorm keywords for your post.
  • Make a list of points you want to include.
  • Brainstorm examples you might include.
  • Research additional material, such as statistics, quotes, or images you might include.
  • Brainstorm titles for the post.

What if even those small chunks feel like too much? Try even smaller chunks:

  • Brainstorm one possible topic idea for the blog post.
  • Brainstorm one keyword.
  • Write down one point you want to make.
  • Write down one example you might include.
  • Research one statistic, quote, or image you might include.
  • Brainstorm one possible title for the post.

Chunking It Up breaks through that all-or-nothing paralysis, and it helps you create the momentum to keep going.

Leverage the Power of Small

Sometimes people are reluctant to use this strategy because they don’t think taking small steps is enough. They underestimate the power of many small steps and overestimate the need for “massive action,” as the gurus like to call it.

Taking many small actions can be even more effective than trying to do it all.

No doubt you’ve heard the business improvement term, Kaizen. The philosophy of Kaizen is that small, continual changes add up to big improvements.

Chunking It Up is similar to the concept of Kaizen: small steps add up to big progress.

Kaizen is the antithesis of all or nothing thinking. All or nothing thinking expects you to eat the entire elephant. Kaizen asks only for a small bite.

What Project Can You Cut Down to Size?

Pick a project from your to-do list and chunk it up. Break it into very small, easy-to-accomplish pieces. To make sure the pieces are small enough to begin with, use a 15-minute execution time (or even less) as your guideline.

How do you keep working toward your goals when you have setbacks and things go wrong?

It’s easy to feel good about your goal when you’re humming along, and things are going well.

It’s a lot harder when you run into bumps, obstacles and setbacks.

The journey to achievement of any goal is going to have bumps and problem, like when a step you take or decision you make doesn’t turn out quite like you expected.

Maybe you set yourself a goal to get a new job this year. And you’ve been faithfully networking, searching, and applying. And nothing is happening. You feel like you are spinning your wheels.

Or worse yet, you had an interview for a job you were really excited about and you didn’t get an offer.

When you work hard and don’t get results, it is frustrating and discouraging.

You might feel like giving up on your goal. Setbacks can do that.

Don’t Make a Setback into a Failure

For most people, failure is a scary word. For most, their mental map on failure is loaded with negative connotations and fear.

Your mental maps are groups of mental shortcuts. We all have them. In fact, we each have an entire atlas of maps. We build them for things like driving, going to school, living in families and working in companies. And these maps contain unwritten rules and assumptions that once learned, we rarely question.

It’s important to recognize that many of these unwritten rules and assumptions you did not even consciously choose. You learned them from other people–parents, teachers, coaches, and friends.

The failure map often says that failure is not just a bad thing; it’s a personal flaw. Only winners have worth. Only winners are good. Winning is their reward for doing all of the right things.

On the other flip side, this same map says that if you fail, there must be something wrong with you. Failure is a judgement of you and your worth. It’s the opposite of winning. If you fail, the map says, you must have done something to deserve that failure. You must not be good enough to succeed.

So, if you turn a goal setback into a failure, and your mental map says failure is a judgement on what you deserve, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to pick yourself up and keep pursuing that goal.

No Plan Survives Full Contact with Reality

Setbacks happen. If you’re not expecting them, you’re not thinking realistically about what it’s going to take to achieve your goals.

A better way to handle goal setbacks is to not just accept that they happen, but expect them to happen. Make them part of your plan.

Think about the last time you learned a new skill. Or when you learned how to ride a bike, ski or skate. The first time you attempted the new skill you were likely pretty awful. In fact, you might have been awful the first few times. You were also very likely afraid, not only before and during your initial attempt, but also before and during each subsequent attempt, again for quite some time. You might have fallen, or even hurt yourself.

So, learning any or all of these new skills was, in the beginning, a series of setbacks.

Then, something unexpected happened. You started to master the skill. You went from stumbling and awkward to graceful and swift. You felt exhilarated. You succeeded.

If you had let your fear, awkwardness, or embarrassment stop you when you were learning, you would have missed out on the success you ultimately achieved. Instead, you persevered. You learned to treat your setbacks as part of the journey to success.

Bring that same mindset to your current goal setbacks.

Being able to endure setbacks, and even expect them, will go a long way towards making the journey of achieving your goals faster and easier.

Are you struggling to get work done? You might be a victim of perfectionism.

Perfectionism happens when you set rigid expectations or standards of performance for yourself (and others).

When you set standards too high, that perfectionism can cause paralysis.

So, sometimes getting more work done requires deliberate imperfection.

For example, a lot of people constantly strive to be organized. But one of the stumbling blocks to being ‘organized’ is the need to do it perfectly.

The desire to be perfectly organized, with the perfect container system, the perfect filing system, the perfect to-do list, and the perfect scheduling tool, often keeps people from being organized at all.

The solution? Go for imperfection.

Some people think that because electronic systems exist, or because their electronic system holds all of the information they might ever need, they should give up a paper-based system that works for them. The problem is that most electronic systems were developed for a specific purpose by a specific person (or team) and they may not suit your needs or your way of working.

I use the usual electronic systems for my schedule, contacts, and deadlines, but I use a paper to-do list. The electronics can hold a lot of information, but they don’t give me a holistic picture of my week or month, broken into the categories that work for me to function effectively. So I pair the electronic system with my own paper system.

But isn’t using two systems in your work inefficient? Not if it works.

How can you get work done by trying imperfection?

Three tips for keeping a New Year’s resolution or promise to yourself.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? Maybe you made one of these popular 2017 resolutions (according to Google):

1.    “Get Healthy”
2.    “Get Organized”
3.    “Live Life to the Fullest”
4.    “Learn New Hobbies”
5.    “Spend Less/Save More

If you did make a resolution, chances are you already broke it.

The consolation? You’re not the only one!

Why is it so difficult to keep a New Year’s resolution?

One reason we fail at resolutions is that we resolve to make too big a change.

With that new year/fresh start mindset, people mistakenly believe that a resolution must involve a momentous change (which is the most difficult to accomplish).

Another reason is that we don’t have the emotional leverage needed to survive the transition.

The good news is that it’s never too late to start again. And this time, to keep your promise.

How to Keep a New Year’s Promise

Ready to start again and succeed this time? Here are three tips:

Be the Tortoise, Not the Turkey

Except for significant addictions, cold turkey is not the way to succeed.

Making change gradually is less of a shock, plus it allows your brain to physically change its pathways.

Gradual change also lets you make mistakes and still move toward your goal. When you aim for all-or-nothing, you leave yourself little room for learning how to change.

2-How Do You Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time.

Break your oversized goal into easily-accomplished chunks: this quarter, this month, this week, today. Then celebrate accomplishing each of these small goals.

Breaking your elephant into small bites lowers the bar as well as the intimidation factor.

And celebrating small wins gives you positive reinforcement to help you keep on track.

3-Why, Oh Why?

Ask yourself why you want to make the change, and then find a tangible object to symbolize that reason.

I call them touchstones, and they can be as simple as a penny or as complex as a collage. Whatever helps remind you of your emotional commitment to your chosen promise.