Procrastination–at least for me–tends to be caused by one of 3 things:
- It’s unclear why I’m doing a particular task;
- I’m unsure what the next step is; or
- I’m afraid of doing a poor job of something; so I don’t start it at all.
Thankfully each of these has a relatively simple solution, and lends itself to a procrastination checklist. When I’m putting something off, I can work down the list.
- Why am I doing this? What is the end result I’m hoping to achieve? And will this task help me achieve that result?
- If so, what needs to be done to achieve it? How can I break it down into smaller chunks?
- What is the smallest possible starting point? What small, simple task can I start with, just to get some momentum going?
There’s your starting point: and then you just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Any time I’m struggling to get going, I bring it back to: what’s the smallest I can do to keep moving forwards? Then do that. The rest will follow.
So you messed up.
Maybe you were on a diet, but you just ate a bag of Doritos. Or you’re trying to get into a workout routine, but you skipped the gym to watch House of Cards. Or maybe you caught yourself wasting time when you promised yourself you’d finish that presentation by noon.
It’s tempting to beat yourself up about it. “I’m such an idiot! Why can’t I do this?”
But that’s not useful to anyone.
You know what’s useful?
Getting back to work.
“Discipline equals freedom.”–Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership
“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”–Jerzy Gregorek
When you’re faced with a choice between an easy option and a hard option, your default reaction should be to take the hard choice.
- Work out, or just go home? Work out–you’ll feel better for it.
- Have a difficult conversation now, or put it off till later? Do it now. It’ll only become more difficult later.
- Should I read a glossy magazine or a big, thick book? Always the book.
- Grab a quick takeaway, or cook at home? Cook at home–it takes longer, but it’ll be cheaper and healthier.
- A quick trip to the shop: should I walk or drive? Walk: stretch your legs, give yourself some time to think, and help the environment as well.
- Take a job you know you can do, or find something that’s a little outside of your comfort zone? The latter: that’s how you grow and develop in your career.
I’m not saying you always have to take the uncomfortable choice, but it should be your default, only to be deviated from with good reason to do so. You need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
As you seek out short-term discomfort, slowly but surely, piece by piece, you start accumulating all these small advantages. You get a little healthier. You get a little smarter. You get a little more done. You grow as a person. You build the decision-making muscle that eventually means you no longer find it difficult to make the hard choice. You’ve internalised the idea that the second-order effects are much more important than the first-order effects.
These small advantages are individual snowflakes, accumulating into your snowball, that starts off small, but slowly gathers mass and speed, until you realise one day: it’s unstoppable.
Here are some articles I read this week that I particularly liked:
Lessons from history 100 years after the Armistice:
The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”.
What I Learned About Life At My 30th College Reunion:
No matter what my classmates grew up to be—a congressman, like Jim Himes; a Tony Award–winning director, like Diane Paulus; an astronaut, like Stephanie Wilson—at the end of the day, most of our conversations at the various parties and panel discussions throughout the weekend centered on a desire for love, comfort, intellectual stimulation, decent leaders, a sustainable environment, friendship, and stability.
What Makes A Good Writer?
I think curiosity might be one of the biggest factors of all for a good writer.
Good writers like to explore.
Good writers like to poke and prod an issue.
Good writers like to break down complex ideas into simple chunks.
Have a good week.
We all underestimate the impacts of compounding. Any non-linear process is incredibly hard for normal people to instinctively grok. It’s crazy to think that Warren Buffett didn’t first become a billionaire until he was in his 60s, but in his late 80s is worth north of $70bn.
So what’s the solution? I’m not sure, but I’ve got a good idea:
- Spend a lot of time investigating things that might possibly lead to non-linear returns. Talk to people older than you that you admire, read widely, and try to figure out what you should be doing.
- Put in place habits and routines to operationalise the things you identified in step 1.
- Trust the process for 5-10 years. Forget about results entirely–the score will take care of itself.
Tech investor and entrepreneur Paul Graham advises people to “keep your identity small.”
Don’t identify as Republican or Democrat, religious or atheist. If you do, you’ll find it hard to change your mind and be rational, because if the facts don’t line up with the identity you’ve created for yourself, you’re much more likely to discard the facts than discard your identity.
That’s great advice for matters of faith and politics. But in certain areas, you should aim to make your identity as big as possible. In his new book Atomic Habits, author James Clear talks about identity-based habits.
- I am the type of person that keeps their word.
- I am the type of person that cares about their health.
- I am the type of person that builds deep relationships with people I care about.
- I am the type of person you can rely on to do a good job.
If you can adopt these as part of your identity, then you’ll want to act in a way consistent with that identity.
And you can choose to start right now.
Why are you going after this new customer? Does it fit with your strategy? Is it a good fit? Or are you just trying to stay busy?
Why are you taking up this new hobby? Is it something you’re genuinely interested in? Or is it something you think you should be interested in?
Why are you eating that doughnut? Do you genuinely want it? Or is it just in front of you?
Often, when we ask ourselves these questions, we find out what we’re really after.
Nothing in life is truly compulsory.
Aside from birth and death, everything else is optional.
Sure, there are consequences if you decide not to, say, obey the law. But you don’t have to.
So it’s time to change how you talk about these things. Stop saying, “I have to”, and starting saying, “I get to.”
- I get to wake up early tomorrow.
- I get to go to the gym.
- I get to work hard at work I’m good at.
- I get to meet up with my family next week.
- I get to go to my kid’s game at the weekend.
These are no longer obligations, they are opportunities. Things you’ve freely chosen to do. Isn’t that much more positive?
“He’s a man who always keeps his word.”
“She’s great — incredibly reliable. If she says she’s going to get something done, she does.”
Most of it would be proud if people said these things about us. Always keeping your word is a truly valuable trait. Believe it or not, there aren’t a lot of people or companies out there who do what they promise, every time, without fail.
It’s also a trait that requires absolutely no skill or talent.
All you have to do is be careful with what you promise — not giving in to the easy temptation to promise the world, when you know you can’t really deliver — and then work hard to make sure you live up to your word.
That’s how you build a reputation. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.
Almost two years ago I decided to get in shape. I stuck with it, and kept showing up at the gym 3-5 times per week. Over time I gradually improved what I ate. I got stronger. I got fitter. I got leaner. You can see the results below.
I show you this not to brag (too much), but to show you that I worked hard, for a long period of time, and got results that a lot of people would be proud of. But oddly enough, the fitness gains are not as important as the side effects of getting in shape. The past two years have taught me 10 lessons that I want to keep in mind for the rest of my life. These are lessons that apply in all walks of life.
- Focus on process over outcomes. The scale changes day to day. Your weight fluctuates, as does your performance in the gym. Not every day is going to be a new personal best. Just keep showing up. Keep lifting and working hard. Keep eating right. Keep getting lots of sleep. The results will come.
- Results take time. You can’t just eat incredibly healthily and do one intense workout and suddenly be in shape. It takes a lot of time. You have to be patient (and refer back to point 1). Each workout and healthy meal is another brick in the wall that you’re building.
- Being a peak performer takes massive effort and sacrifice. There are people in my gym whose fitness is far, far beyond where I will ever get to. They’ve made a choice to sacrifice a lot of things to achieve that, and I’m not willing to make that trade–and that’s OK. Because…
- There is always someone better than you. When I first started CrossFit, basically everyone was fitter than me. Now that I’m in decent shape, I’m in the middle of the pack. But I will never, ever be the fittest in the gym. So be it. All I can focus on is improving my own fitness.
- Tangible evidence of progress creates a powerful feedback loop. I’ve tracked my scores on some popular CrossFit workouts, as well as my one rep max lifts. I’ve also tracked my weight, and taken regular progress pictures. When you start to really see results, it’s incredibly motivating. It makes you want to do better.
- You will regret not having started sooner. When you do see results, your first thought is, “That’s awesome!” Your second thought is, “Fuck, imagine where I’d be if I’d started a year earlier.” And while there’s nothing you can do on this particular front, it’s worth bearing in mind the next time you’re considering taking up a new habit.
- Surround yourself with the right people. The reason I love CrossFit so much is the community: the people I work out with every week who want to get better, and who want me to get better as well. It’s like having a whole crowd of mentors and supportive colleagues. When you find people like that, you should keep them around.
- Changing your actions changes your identity. If you’ve ever thought, “I’m not the type of person that works out”, then you’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you’ll never set foot in the gym. On the other hand, if you just lace up your trainers and work out once or twice a week, sooner or later you will start to think that you are the type of person that works out. Your actions shape your identity just as much as your identity shapes your actions.
- Sleep and diet are crucial. Obviously, this is true when it comes to getting in shape, but it’s also true for managing energy levels at work, staying mentally sharp, keeping your mood up, and so on. Sleep and diet literally feed into every single other aspect of life. You simply HAVE to get them dialled in.
- The hard work is its own reward. Some of the happiest moments of my days are immediately after a killer workout. The kind of workout that you first think you won’t be able to do. Where, halfway through, you think you can’t go on. Then you take a breath, and get back to work. You break it up into small chunks. You chip away, bit by bit. The end approaches. And then, all of a sudden, you’re done. And you look back at what you did with a sense of pride and accomplishment that makes it all worth it. Then you show up again the next day and do it all again.
As I said, these are lessons that you can apply to your career, relationships, finances, or any area where you want to improve. Starting today.