The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand. And we have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
Laziness is not a one-and-done decision. We choose whether to be lazy or not every second of every day.
If we change our short term, we change our long term.
How to Get Going (i.e., go from Lazy to Not Lazy)
The hurdle between the realms of Lazy and Not Lazy is most often procrastination. Procrastination is when we know we should be doing one thing but instead do something else.
What can we do about it?
The ideal scenario, of course, is to get over it and get on with the task at hand. Willpower is the first and best weapon. Being truly productive and reaching our goals means exerting our willpower. And we have to exert it strongly.
But this is much easier said than done.
If willpower is insufficient, one helpful tool is to try to figure out why it is you are procrastinating. Often it is because of anxiety or fear. If you can identify the reason, it is much easier to deal with.
Sometimes, despite your best intentions and efforts, you have fewer resources at hand than you planned on. You’re tired, or you’re distracted by something, feeling down, whatever the reason, you just can’t get the ball rolling.
Here are some strategies for when this occurs:
Do something ridiculously small. Writing 1,000 words of your novel is intimidating. Writing 500 words? Less intimidating. Writing 250 words? Less intimidating still. Writing 100 words? You can do that. Writing 10 words? Anyone can do that. Write one sentence. Wash one dish. Make one phone call or write one e-mail. One. You can also work for a ridiculously short amount of time (I keep a one minute hourglass sand timer on my desk for such times.)
Even if you make only a little progress, you’ve maintained the habit. If the habit did die—and new habits often die young—then you would’ve lost substantially more progress. So in the absolute sense, you made tremendous progress.
But the best part is this: We tend to keep going.
According to psychologists, the Zeigarnik Effect kicks in once we have begun a task, providing a voice that motivates us to keep going. It’s the cause of any time you’ve ever said “Be right there!” three or four times before actually being right there.
This will seem wrong because of cognitive bias, but it’s true: The decision to act occurs before we “feel” motivated or unmotivated.
So, if we connect these ideas, the process is:
(1) Make the decision to do a small task or work for a small amount of time.
(2) Feel motivation.
(3) Make a little progress.
(4) Make a lot of progress.
The Zeigarnik Effect kicks in again, forcing us past the initial few minutes.
Routines are great, but you don’t need a pencil sharpener that much. A little routine before you begin work is helpful, especially if it involves something you like. Coffee. Music. Putting a particular hat (or in my case, a hoodie) on. Aligning your keyboard just right and refilling your glass of water. But don’t get obsessed with the routine such that the task supports the routine, rather than the other way around.
This has happened to me (and will again.) I like pencils and prefer to have one nearby, even if I am primarily, or exclusively, typing. Rare is the time I do not have a pencil and a pencil sharpener within reach. But once in awhile, I have a horrible lapse of judgment. It always hits me like a punch in the gut… Where is my pencil sharpener? I start looking around frantically, begin wondering if I should drive back home to get one, or just go buy a new one at CVS.
I do this for about a minute before I realize how pathetic I am. The point is: Establish a good routine but remember its purpose.
Compete with yourself. Gamify. There are all sorts of ways to turn tasks into games. There are articles all over the web and apps too. An easy thing I’ve experimented with is assigning point values to my actions, more for the most impactful actions, less for the more trivial, negative for bad habits. The goal, every day, is to beat the day before, and beat the total average. I pull this one out from time to time.
Compete with yourselves. If some physicists are right, then there are, right now, near-infinite versions of yourself in parallel universes. In some of them, you are crushing life up and down, left and right. In others, you are a total bum. And there you are, right now, in our universe, somewhere between those two poles. Everyone between where you are and the Life Crusher version of yourself is beatable. You can be more productive than them… because you are them. What changes can you make to out—do yourself? What are most versions of yourself not considering? What’s your advantage? This might seem silly, but I swear it works.
Use carrots or Game of Thrones, or even better, Italian subs. Can you build any rewards into your schedule? Allow yourself to watch Game of Thrones after x, or maybe only go out to brunch after you do y. Or treat yourself to a large Italian sub with hots, extra pickles, light oil and lighter vinegar, oregano, and a dash of pepper. Or watch Game of Thrones while eating said Italian sub.
Bring allies, but tell them to leave their lyrics at home. Music. It helps motivate me, especially when I am writing. Good music makes time better, great music makes time disappear. A Spotify playlist, customized to your individual ebbs and flows during a session, is the best timer I know of. (Music can also serve as a carrot, but that’s really mean.)
Deprive yourself of something to force yourself into action. Go to a coffee shop without your laptop cord. Or go with nothing but a pen and notebook. (And a wallet, don’t just go sit down without ordering something. I’m looking at you, Berklee College of Music students.) Most, if not all, of us, have several “blades” and “bows” distracting us in some way, leaching our resources.
Productive procrastination. If you just can’t summon the willpower to work on the most impactful action, is there something else important you could do? It might not be the goal you intended to work on, or it might be an aspect of another goal, but the important thing is that you are doing something.
Have a backup to your backups. If you are totally brain-dead, you can do what I call “Zombie Mode.” Basically, you allow yourself to do any mindless or near-mindless activity that, in some way, pushes you towards your long term goals. Obviously, this is more of a last resort. But, again, something > nothing.
How to Keep Going (i.e., stay Not Lazy)
It’s not just about getting the ball rolling. You must keep it rolling. Here are some strategies:
Don’t become a victim of perfectionism. The greatest masterpieces the world has ever seen are not perfect. Nothing you ever do will be perfect. Perfectionism is an amazing way to hide your fear. But that’s what it is: lipstick on a pig. If you find yourself spending valuable resources, heed the words of Seth Godin and “Ship it.” Schedule a specific window during which you do everything necessary to get your project or product or whatever in shippable form. Then ship it without regret. (I also advise you to keep everything you cut. I’ve often found great material in the carnage left behind from the mad rush to ship.)
At all costs, beware the rabbit hole. Rabbit holes, covered by fallen leaves, are hard to see. Sometimes the rabbit hole takes the form of a detail that, at first, seems shiny and important, but quickly proves to be insignificant. In spite of this, we trudge forward, now not only convinced to make progress, but also to justify our initial decision. Other times the rabbit hole is an idea in our heads, a way that will make us more productive. Or an idea that might solve a critical problem, but which requires significant resources.
Rabbit holes waste time, can lead us astray, and they’re everywhere. Expect them. If you don’t stumble across one once in awhile, then you’re stumbling a lot more than you think.
Climb out of the rabbit hole.
If you beat yourself up about it, you are not stumbling into a rabbit hole; you are digging a new one.
Sometimes you just need to take a break. If you suddenly become the world’s best rabbit hunter, maybe you just need to open a book or flip on the TV. It’s not a great habit to get into, but sometimes it’s the best option available.
Time travel is not (yet?) possible, but you can still manipulate time. I am a huge proponent of time-boxing. It is a constituent aspects of my productivity system and workflow. It changed the game for me. In fact, most of this book was edited and revised during a time-boxing session.
If the term is new to you, let me introduce it: Time-boxing is a strategy in which you take control of time and use it strategically to get things done. The idea is simple:
Set a clock for a set period of time.
Focus on the task at hand for that duration of time.
When the timer goes off, take a break.
After a pre-determined number of focus sessions, take a longer break.
The psychology behind it is this: When you know a break is coming, when you know your misery has an endpoint, you feel more motivated to move forward. After your break, you're refreshed, and you start the clock again.
When I use this method, I get far more done, I get it done in a shorter amount of time, and I feel much less spent because I didn’t need to fight with myself. Instead of checking Twitter in the middle of a paragraph, I know that I can check Twitter on my break. Instead of checking my phone, I wait until my break. It gives me something to look forward to and helps me get in the zone.
Think of your available time as opportunities to do this. If done well, you can get more done in those blocks of time than you would have otherwise.
Time-boxing is also effective for actions we dread. Want to clean out your desk? Do a time-boxing session focused on one drawer of it. Want to clear a sink full of dishes? Start with a fork!
Even if it is just one short session, starting is often the hardest part, and you may end up working well past the buzzer.
The Pomodoro Method is the most popular time-boxing format. Put simply, a "Pomodoro" is 25 minutes of focus upon one discrete task. Complete the Pomodoro, take a 5 minute break, do another Pomodoro. After 4 Pomodoros, you take a longer break of 15—30 minutes. (15 is almost never enough for me. I think 30 is well-earned.)
Another feature of the Pomodoro Method (which applies equally well to any time-boxing method) is its ability to provide data on how long certain actions take. For example, when I was writing my dissertation, I figured out that writing a page took three times more Pomodoros than I initially thought it did.
You may also find that other actions take less time than you think. (For me, this often happens with tasks I am procrastinating. In my mind, they grow into venomous beasts of burden, but they're usually just annoying little pests.)
How to Get Going Next Time (i.e., be Not Lazy again soon)
End strategically. Ernest Hemingway would always end his writing session when he was feeling good, when the words were still flowing. Then he would retire for the day (from writing, that is, not other activities.) In so doing, he was more motivated to continue the task later. He remembered the feeling of “going good,” not the dread that results from quitting when you are stuck.
Don’t leave juicy information on the table. After you focus on a particular task, you will learn things about yourself, your habits, and your overall productivity. Learning is great, but if it is not applied to your future decision-making, what’s the point? Carry it forward.
Keep learning about everything, but mostly about yourself. Learn from your actions, tendencies, and thoughts. Challenge yourself. Expand your self-awareness, increase your emotional intelligence, and strive to understand your mental models.
(This was primarily sourced from How to be a Long Term Person in a Short Term World, available on Amazon.)