Note: This article is a follow-up to Planning for Success. I highly recommend reading it first and creating your individual five-year plan before moving on. By doing so, you’ll get the most out of this week’s article.
Rationality vs. Procrastination
Alright—here’s Tim Urban to raise the curtain on the theater of procrastination inside our heads.
To understand why procrastinators procrastinate so much, […] let’s look at a procrastinator’s brain: […] It seems the rational decision-maker in the procrastinator’s brain is coexisting with a pet—the instant gratification monkey.
This would be fine—cute, even—if the rational decision-maker knew the first thing about how to own a monkey. But unfortunately, it wasn’t a part of his training and he’s left completely helpless as the monkey makes it impossible for him to do his job.
The fact is, the instant gratification monkey is the last creature who should be in charge of decisions—he thinks only about the present, ignoring lessons from the past and disregarding the future altogether, and he concerns himself entirely with maximizing the ease and pleasure of the current moment. […]
In the monkey world, he’s got it all figured out—if you eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and don’t do anything difficult, you’re a pretty successful monkey. The problem for the procrastinator is that he happens to live in the human world, making the instant gratification monkey a highly unqualified navigator. Meanwhile, the rational decision-maker, who was trained to make rational decisions, not to deal with competition over the controls, doesn’t know how to put up an effective fight.— Tim Urban (U.S.-American writer and self-proclaimed “master procrastinator”)
It’s a mess. Neuroscientifically speaking, Urban’s whimsical portrayal describes the ever ongoing battle between our brain’s limbic system (home of the instant gratification monkey) and the neocortex (control center of the rational decision-maker).
For our purposes, his anecdote is an acknowledgment that both cognitive functions together determine the reality of human activity—and ultimately, success. After all, making sophisticated plans and using critical analytical thinking to mechanically dissect them into detailed execution methods is a great start. But understanding the art of accomplishing our ambitions as a psychological, emotional act is what completes the blueprint for our challenge.
With that in mind, this article aims to mitigate both barriers to success:
- Analytical, mechanical exercises: Goals—without concrete systems for specific and measurable actions or habits to attain them—are nothing but desires. In Part 1 of the Application section, we’ll break your lofty ambitions from the five-year plan into smart goals—and from there, into manageable, precisely defined tasks.
- Emotional, psychological burdens: Part 2 of the Application section will explore how to tackle our human tendencies for procrastination by leveraging both technological tools and a range of proven techniques to outsmart and train our desire for instant gratification.
Before we move on, you can find Tim’s entertaining TED talk on the rational decision-maker, instant gratification monkey, and panic monster here. Since it’s on topic, we’ll not count that as procrastination.
Taming the Monkey
Now, I realize that breaking down goals sounds a bit more practical than curbing your instant gratification, if at all possible. But consider the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, a series of studies that demonstrate both the power and trainability of discipline:
In the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel began conducting a series of important psychological studies. During his experiments, Mischel and his team tested hundreds of children—most of them around the ages of four and five years old—and revealed what’s now believed to be one of the most important characteristics for success in health, work, and life. […]
The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them. At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child.
The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child didn’t eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they’d be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they’d not get a second marshmallow.
So the choice was simple: one treat right now or two treats later. The researcher left the room for 15 minutes.
As you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was rather entertaining. Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later.
And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time.— James Clear (U.S.-American author and entrepreneur) on the Stanford Marshmellow Experiment
The Power of Discipline
As the children grew up, the experiment’s most intriguing insights unraveled in a series of follow-up studies. Mischel and his fellow researchers followed each child from their original experiment for more than 40 years. Over and over again, those children who were able to delay gratification and patiently waited for the second marshmallow outperformed their “hedonistic” fellow participants in the decades to come—across the domains of education (e.g., better SAT scores), work (e.g., improved responses to stress), health (e.g., lower obesity rates and substance abuse), personal interactions (e.g., better social skills as reported by their parents), and a wide variety of other life measures.
In summary, the team was able to provide scientific evidence for the hypothesis that success appears to ultimately come down to “doing the work” and choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction.
Primate Domestication 101
It follows then that if you want to reach your goals, there comes a time at which you need to activate or grow your discipline and bias for action— instead of becoming distracted and doing whatever appears easier.
Of course, acknowledging such destiny for success would be frustrating news if it weren’t for the additional insight that the children’s self-control wasn’t merely a natural predisposition, but in fact a trainable trait. Scientists at the University of Rochester recently demonstrated in a modified Marshmallow experiment that a child’s ability to delay gratification and exercise self-control wasn’t a predetermined character attribute, but heavily impacted by the experiences and environmental factors (e.g., the reliability of their social interactions with the researchers) that surrounded them.
This is good news. In fact, there’s now a sizable body of research that shows delaying gratification is a learnable skill, and that you can train your brain similar to how you train your biceps by adhering to two simple concepts:
- Starting small: Designing your environment and removing barriers for action are simple but effective strategies to (literally) setting yourself up for success.
- Delivering consistently: Consistency is key. Completing tasks at regular intervals, preferably daily, not only leads to outsized cumulative results, but also has a positive long-term impact on your attitude towards work.
To put this theory into practice, today’s Application section will deal with concrete techniques for fighting procrastination. But before we do so, let’s get back to your five-year plan goals and turn them into refined tasks for execution. After all, we first need something to not procrastinate on.
Application Part 1
From Goals to Tasks
Building on the work of your five-year plan, this chapter is dedicated to helping you with the translation of your ambitions into concrete methods for execution. This is where things become less strategic—and more tactical.
- From art to smart: First, we’ll examine your achievable, relevant, and time-bound (art) five-year plan goals and ensure they’re also specific and measurable (smart).
- From smart goals to actions and habits: Depending on the type of smart goal, we’ll examine its ideal implementation as an action or habit (collectively, tasks).
Refining Goals: From Art to Smart
Don’t blame the monkey for everything. Not all sidetracking during our journey to success can be explained by a lack of willpower, but a lot of it’s due to not setting goals correctly. Take a good, long stare at each of the items you noted in your plan, and ask yourself the following:
- Specific: What exactly are you planning to accomplish? Can it be quantified? For example, “improving my salary” isn’t complete without a numerical target for your compensation.
- Measurable: How will you hold yourself accountable for your progress? What are reasonable milestones or checkpoints? For example, “exercising more” should include a monthly, weekly, or daily target for the type, duration, and amount of your intended activities.
Also make sure your criteria from last week remain in check:
- Attainable: As you dream big, how can you ensure that you have the knowledge, commitment, and time to work towards your goal?
- Relevant: In the light of other ambitions and their requirements, what makes this goal relevant to you?
- Time-bound: Is the timeframe or deadline unambiguous? What can you do today to advance your goal? Of course, you do not want to allow your goals to stress you out or overwhelm you, but a certain sense of urgency is healthy.
As a next step, determine whether each goal is best reached in the form of actions (one-time activities, likely the case for most of your goals) or habits (recurring practices, such as exercise schedules and other routines).
Designing Actions: Create Massive Action Plans
The term Massive Action Plan (or MAP) was coined by inspirational and motivational guru Tony Robbins. In his own words:
Focus equals power. If anyone’s successful at anything, and not just once in a while but on a consistent basis, they’re not lucky, they’re focused. They’re crystal clear about what they want.
The clearer you are about what it is you want, the easier it is to achieve it, because your brain can figure out how to get there. The fuel behind getting there is having a compelling purpose and a reason that will move you.
Your fuel is what will drive you while you navigate your life’s map—and your massive action plan on how to get from where you are to where you want to be.— Tony Robbins (U.S.-American life coach, author, and philanthropist)
Handwritten templates for Tony’s Massive Action Plan (or various similar approaches) are countless, but I strongly believe that technological tools—as introduced further below in this article—offer much-needed flexibility for this exercise. Ultimately, the core exercise consists of three elements.
- The clear, smart goal: For example, I listed “Website” for the second half of 2019 in my personal five-year plan. Expressed as a proper smart goal, it’d look more like “Launch a website for sharing career advice by September 2019.”
- Its purpose: You’ll have noticed that Tony also talks about internalizing the underlying purpose of a goal, as we discussed and incorporated in your five-year plan. In my case, the website is dedicated to scaling the impact of my long-term passion for helping others realize their potential.
- A list of all the actions needed to reach your goal: This is where the rubber hits the road. To the best of your current knowledge and foresight, break down your smart goal into as many specific, measurable, and time-bound activities as possible. Be as granular and collectively exhaustive as you can. In my case, these actions include:
- Choosing a company and domain name
- Registering an LLC
- Selecting a hosting provider and content management system
- Designing the website
- Integrating a membership functionality
- Writing the first article, etc.
Do not surrender to the overwhelming feeling of hundreds of actions. Having planned for a lot doesn’t mean you have to tackle each item immediately. Rather, the opposite. You now should’ve clarity on where to start.
Designing Habits: Leave Cues and Reward Yourself
Habits are similar to actions in that they follow a purpose, propel you towards a goal, and require work. However, they’ve one feature that makes them significantly more complex—and psychologically interesting: they’re recurring.
Serious monkey business so to speak. As such, Part 2 of the Application section will showcase a variety of tricks and techniques to help you finally live that healthier lifestyle, exercise more, or call your parents on the weekends. For now, for each habit, determine:
- The clear, smart goal: For example, I listed “Running Training” for the months leading up to my Marathon des Sables, a self-sufficient 140-mile ultramarathon through the Moroccan Sahara. Expressed as a proper smart goal, it’d look more like “Until April 2019, run three times a week for at least 30 minutes each”.
- Its purpose: Same as for actions (see above).
- A cue: Make it obvious and easy to remember. When the levers are in the right positions, it can become almost effortless to develop new habits (or break bad ones). In my example, I hung my running shoes prominently in the hallway, instead of keeping them behind locked closet doors.
- A reward: Make it satisfying to complete your habits. The human mind is designed for positive reinforcement. Every time I came back from a run, I immediately treated myself with a cup of coffee (in the morning) or kombucha (in the evening). Soon, the act of running was more closely linked to the little pleasures of life.
Measure, Track, and Adjust
An important part of following through on your actions and habits—and ultimately, reaching your goals—involves measuring, tracking, and adjusting our execution. It can be helpful to find an overarching metric that you can track on a daily basis. This way, completing tasks itself becomes a habit. Personally, I aim to complete two tasks per day, no matter what.
As you reach for certain milestones, gauge your weekly and monthly performance. If something is not working out for you, actively aim to find improvements in your approach. And if something is indeed working, try to scale it.
Application Part 2
From Tasks to Work
Fighting Procrastination with Superhuman Powers
Your head’s for having ideas, not for holding them.— David Allen (U.S.-American productivity consultant and author of Getting Things Done)
Before reaching into the behavioral psychologist’s magic hat to pull out some procrastination tricks, take a moment and internalize the fact that we live in a time with superhuman powers—to wit, technology—readily available at our disposal.
Two tools that I find incredibly helpful when it comes to recording, tracking and completing all my actions and habits are Todoist and Notion. Having tried countless productivity tools, I happily arrived at using Todoist (simple but thoughtful) for my personal life and Notion (sophisticated but streamlined) for more complex professional endeavors and side projects.
Unloading your mental activity log into a technological system alleviates the overwhelming sensation of loose ends and instills focus, clarity, and confidence—one of the key benefits described by David Allen in what arguably became the most widely spread productivity system to date: the Getting Things Done (or GTD) time management method. By getting the information out of your head and into the tool, you can focus on taking action on tasks instead of recalling them permanently. In addition to this peace of mind, Todoist in my perspective beats the vast competition with:
- Comprehensive features: Not less, and importantly, not more: quick entries with natural language support (e.g., “every Friday”), keeping track of all actions (one-time tasks) and habits (recurring tasks), prioritization, categorization, scheduling, and sharing or delegation.
- Beautiful, minimalist visualization: A simple and clean interface that provides relevant insights and measures your progress.
- Cross-device integration and synchronization: For better or worse, screen time is at all-time highs. You might as well use it to your advantage. Todoist integrates seamlessly with various applications (e.g., Gmail and Google Calendar), browsers, and operating systems, to keep you in check—no matter what captures your attention.
- Reminders and logging on-the-go: Todoist’s inbox makes it easy to quickly capture new ideas (and refine, prioritize, and categorize them later). Its context-specific reminders help focus on the relevant tasks, even when you are in the midst of your hectic life.
- Gamification and rewards: Built-in points for completed tasks (Todoist Karma) cater to our much-discussed desire for instant gratification, and winning streaks (e.g., for daily goals) can work wonders for your consistency in maintaining habits.
Personal tip: The benefits of Todoist and Notion stem from providing you with an efficient and comprehensive platform. And while they provide this efficiency without any effort on your part, you will have to put in the regular work to keep them comprehensive. Do yourself a favor, and don’t overcategorize tasks. I usually keep only three long lists running: “personal” and “work” to separate my action plans, and “habits” for all recurring tasks. Logging new actions and habits as they appear in your consciousness is key, and this surely means that your logging of tasks is not a one-time activity after constructing your five-year plan. It’s a continuous endeavor—a habit in itself.
Techniques for Delaying Gratification
Ah, finally, the tricks. Below is a collection of “best of” techniques to help you tame the monkey, delay gratification, work on your massive action plans, and follow through on developing your habits.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to human behavior, and some of the below strategies are even in slight conflict with another. Ultimately, you’ll have to experiment a bit and pick and choose those methods that deliver the best results for you. That said, there’s a lot of good stuff to work with.
In accordance with the scientific insights presented earlier, all recommendations are grouped into two categories of effective brain training: starting small and delivering consistently.
Starting Small: Reducing Friction and Distraction
If we’re perfectly honest with ourselves, it’s usually not the work itself that is hard, but the act of getting started. These techniques can help you overcome this perceived burden of the first steps.
- Preparing the prior day: A popular implementation of preparing your tasks for the following day is the 100-year-old Ivy Lee Method. It was developed by productivity consultant Ivy Lee for steel magnate Charles M. Schwab in 1918, who was so delighted with the productivity gains that he paid the 2019 equivalent of almost half a million U.S. dollars. It goes as follows:
- At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow—not more.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their importance.
- When starting your workday, concentrate only on the first task. Work until it is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. Move any unfinished items to a new list for the following day.
- Repeat this process every day.
- Prioritization and elimination: Lee’s method works not only because it’s is simple and removes the friction for the next morning. It also forces you to make tough decisions about prioritization (or ultimately, elimination). Similar, popular approaches based on prioritization and elimination strategies include Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule and the Eisenhower Matrix. I’m personally not a supporter of Brian Tracey’s Eat the Frog, the idea to start each day with the most challenging task. This is because I believe tasks should be addressed in order of their importance and urgency—not difficulty.
- Single-tasking: Another thing that Lee gets right is single-tasking. About a century later—possibly thanks to the rise of smartphones—we may have collectively arrived at the conclusion that multitasking is a myth, as Greg McKeown’s Essentialism and other works have argued.
- Environmental alignment: Leaving visual cues inside your home or work environment is an example of this technique. If you place floss next to your toothbrush, flossing becomes a more natural default decision. If you keep water instead of alcohol in the fridge, healthier drinking choices are more likely.
- Choice architecture: Similarly, even the way you design your home and arrange your furniture can have an impact. Imagine a living room in which chairs face each other (to encourage a conversation) instead of the television screen.
- Implementation intentions: Especially for habits, implementation intentions can be powerful mental mechanisms. Broadly speaking, the format for creating an implementation intention is an if-then plan typically including a behavior, location, and time such as “I’ll meditate for 10 minutes in the bedroom when the clock hits 9 pm.”
- Two-minute rule: James Clear makes the case for designing habits that are impossible to say “no” to, such as reading one page at night (vs. half an hour of reading) or simply tying your running shoes (vs. three miles of running). The idea is that the hardest part is the start, but if it takes only two minutes, why not do it right now?
- Ignoring emails in the morning: If possible, don’t fall into the traps of daily “urgencies” before finishing your first task.
- Switching off phone or browser notifications: Self-explanatory, and equally powerful.
- Ramp-up routine: Many, myself included, swear on a pre-programmed morning routine (e.g., take your vitamins and do your 100 pushups) with relatively easy first habits to start your day in the mindset of completing tasks. Five minutes into your day, you’ll already have made progress on your list. The most important task comes next.
- Opt-out vs. opt-in: Try to commit to a task today (e.g., sign up for a workout class) and deal with it at the scheduled date. We tend to have a higher barrier for opting out than we have for opting in.
Consistent Delivery: Ensuring Continuity
Mastery follows consistency. The trick is to design actions and habits that are sufficiently meaningful to make a difference, but easy enough to complete on a regular basis. All of the above techniques, if applied correctly, not only help you with getting started but also increase your chances of completing tasks more regularly. That said, the below methods are specifically designed with the idea and benefits of consistency in mind.
- Streaks: If you’ve done your pushups for 53 days in a row, is today really going to be the day to miss a beat? Note that Todoist and other productivity tools can help you track your streaks, among the many other benefits.
- Energy management, not time management: You’ll probably realize that you are better at doing certain tasks in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Try to determine what tasks each energy level and time of day are best suited for, and adjust your schedule accordingly.
- Exercise and healthy diet: On the note of energy management, research has shown that light daily exercise (including standing or walking regularly) and healthy nutrition—two fantastic habits in themselves—positively affect your ability to get things done.
- External commitment: As discussed in last week’s article, sharing your plans with a supportive friend not only might bring you helpful suggestions, it also raises the stakes and increases your chances of following through with your ambitions.
Set Up Your Tasks
We covered a lot of ground today. But a good amount of it was theory, and a lot of the heavy lifting on the application side is already completed with your five-year plan. This weekend, I encourage you to take the time to:
- Translate your five-year plan into smart goals: Be specific and measurable, and make sure each goal is achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
- Record all tasks necessary to reach them: In moving from smart goals to massive action plans and habits, I highly recommend recording all of them in Todoist or a technology-supported to-do system of your choice.
- Experiment with what works for you: Everyone’s monkey is different. Is prioritizing at night what does the trick for you? Or leaving visual cues at home?
And well—finally, just try to get started with your tasks. Rest assured that the guilt and frustration of procrastinating usually exceed the actual pain of doing the work. I wish you the best of luck with your adventures.
Thank you and see you next week,
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