– by Jaime Willis
“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” -William James
I read a really interesting theory on procrastination this week. The author stated that being in the middle of working towards a goal is LESS painful than than not working on a goal at all. If this is true, then why do we avoid working towards our goals? The author’s theory is that the immediate pain associated with beginning to work on a goal is the deterrent. This theory is well-aligned with what we know about the physics of motion. An object at rest tends to stay at rest, while an object in motion wants to stay in motion. When we aren’t working on the goal the “start up” costs of beginning to work are high, whereas once we are in the middle of the goal, keeping at it is relatively easy. (Illustration by Natalie Dee)
What can we do then, to reduce the “start up” costs of a goal and reduce our procrastination?
Just like you prime an engine before starting, we can prime ourselves to be more successful. If I want to go to the gym tomorrow after work, I may say to myself, “Self, let’s go to the gym tomorrow.” But that is not enough to prime me to succeed. If I really wanted to primed to go to the gym, I’ll pack my gym bag the night before. I will make plans to meet someone at the gym. I will “walk through” my day the night before, thinking about what obstacles may prevent me from getting to the gym and troubleshooting them (do I have a way to get to the gym? do I have any late meetings or afterwork obligations?). If I’ve primed myself to get to the gym, the start-up cost of going is very low. In fact, I may feel worse NOT going then going after all that preparation.
Sometimes the start up cost of a goal is high because the goal itself is a high-difficulty level goal. For example, if you have a goal of writing a novel, you may be reluctant to start on that goal because a novel is a 300 page book that you have to write and that is a lot of work! So, instead of keeping the big, end goal in sight, lower the bar and focus on a tiny portion of work that moves you towards your goal. Some writers choose to assign themselves a number of pages to write in a day or a number of minutes of writing a day. It is much easier to think about having to find the time to sit down and write for 30 minutes a day than it is to think about writing an entire book. When you are getting started, the smaller the goal the better. As we talk about earlier, you should set yourself up for easy “wins” when you are first starting your goal. As your smaller goals become habits, you can gradually increase their difficulty level without significantly increasing your goal’s “start up” costs.
Peer pressure is a great motivator. It is great to have a goal that you can work on with someone else. The start up cost of a new goal may be significantly reduced if you know you will be letting a friend down if you don’t get working on your goal. When I was in undergrad, I had to write a thesis to graduate from my school. I had a great thesis topic and a great professor to advise me, but I could not get myself to sit down and write the paper. My advisor finally gave me a hard deadline to turn in a draft. I knew that I had to get the paper done, but even the hard deadline wasn’t motivating enough. I recruited a friend of mine to come over to my room and keep me on task until my thesis was done. My friend got paid to sit in my room and read while I was on the computer typing. Anytime I was off-task, she literally squirted me with a squirt bottle of water. To this day, she counts that as one of her favorite jobs of all time. As silly as it was, having someone assigned to physically monitor my progress ensured that I got the paper done and turned in on time. There is even a company, StickK, that will facilitate this by allowing you to set a goal and set your own financial penalty for failing to meet the goal.
Seth Godin talks about not succumbing to your fear when starting a new project. Just ship it! Don’t worry about all the problems and challenges you may face–you’ll gain something even from your failures. If you can lower your ‘perceived’ risk in completing your goal (fear of failure, fear of losing money, fear of losing face, etc.), you will definitely decrease the start up costs for reaching your goal.
Think about a goal you are struggling with right now and see if you can’t reduce your own start-up costs and start shipping today!
What can you ship today?
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