The Joy Quest

Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.

Helen Keller

At the start of this year, I decided to go on a Joy Quest.

Too often, we rush from one mental worry to the next and we don’t take the time to notice, experience, and create the joy that’s either already there or that can be added to our daily lives. The joy and opportunities for joy are there, like jewels strewn over the ground, yet we rarely pause to pick them up.

What if, instead, we made a conscious effort to notice the big and little things that bring joy and meaning to our lives? We can create joy and meaning in our lives in small ways, in moments of connection, beauty, reflection, and service. We can also create longer term joy and meaning through things that we accomplish that bring meaning. I recruited a close friend to go Joy-questing with me in early January, and it has enriched our experience of the last few months immensely. Here’s what we have done.

I. Notice the joy that’s already there. My 6-year-old son takes great pride in making my coffee every morning. He is proud of being allowed to work the Keurig machine on his own. He picks out a k-cup, carefully avoiding the cinnamon-flavored ones, and then even gets out the heavy whipping cream and pours – usually too much of it – into the mug. As soon as he hears me wake up, he runs down to make the coffee and bring it up to me. One morning, I realized that I had just grown to accept this coffee-making routine. I typically thank him, get out of bed, and begin running through all the lists in my head of things I have to do. I realized I had been missing the opportunity to notice how joyful it is that my littlest child makes my coffee every morning. It clearly brings him joy and delight, and when I stopped to notice it, it brought me joy, setting my day off on the right track.

Rather than wandering around in problem-solving mode all day, thinking mainly of what you want to fix about yourself or your life, you can pause for a few moments throughout the day to marvel at what’s not broken.

Kristin Neff, author of Self Compassion

II. Experience the joy intentionally. Beyond just noticing the moments of joy, consider how you could savor them, make them last, and draw them out throughout your day. Collect them up like pearls on a necklace that you create. Consider what the experience of joy feels like in the moment. To me it feels like a lightness, a freedom, a fullness, as if nothing else could be added to make the moment more perfect. It feels like warmth, stillness, contentment, hope, meaning, like there is a radiance about the moment. Notice, experience, and describe the sensation to yourself. By being more mindful of the moments of joy, you amplify the experience of them. Just as by dwelling and burrowing deep into anxiety or worry, you amplify the experience of those emotions. The 17th century French philosopher, Montaigne, said: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.” Instead of filling our mental bandwidth with the worries and anxiety about misfortunes that will likely never happen or that, if they do happen, we can cope with, what if we could say: “My life has been filled with moments of joy, most of which I could easily have missed.”

III. Create more joy. There is lots of joy to be had that is already out there in our lives. But what if you could intentionally manage your thoughts to create more joy. Today I had to work on a “difficult” project. It was a PowerPoint presentation on a topic I wasn’t very excited about, so I felt apathetic. I had to create slides about a topic I didn’t know much about, so I felt self-doubt that I wouldn’t be able to do a good job. The slides were also supposed to have been done by someone else, but I ended up having to make them, so I felt frustration and resentment. All those feelings led me to want to procrastinate and seek out “easier” work or mindless entertainment instead. I paused to reflect.

Rather than follow that path down procrastination lane to the road of regret, I asked how I could create joy in the task. At first, my mind rebelled: There is, most certainly, no joy to be had in this project, it said. So, I asked why I was even doing it in the first place. I connected the project to my bigger mission, values, and identity, and realized I wanted to do a good job with it, because it is important to me to be a person of discipline who creates high-quality work. I also decided I could create joy in learning about the aspects that would be new to me, rather than wasting time feeling intimidated by them. I asked how I might use my creativity as much as possible in the project to make it more fun. How could I gamify it for myself by setting mini-goals and knocking them out every 10-15 minutes, rather than waiting until the final project was done to cross it off my list. Using an intentional mental model, I was able to tackle the PowerPoint design head-on, take pride in my work, and even find moments of fulfillment and (gasp!) joy.

In the longer term, as you start to become aware of where you are able to create and notice joy more, consider how you could do more of the things that bring you joy and meaning, and less of the things that don’t. Consider what things bring short-term, immediate joy, and what things create meaning for your life over the course of months or years. If you have the flexibility, try to add more of the things that bring meaning, and prune away the things that don’t, creating a schedule in line with your values.

Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.

Leo Buscaglia

Wait! I thought this was a blog about productivity and time management. Yes, it is, and when you are thinking thoughts that create positive emotions, you work better, avoid procrastination, and can improve your productivity. Even the Harvard Business Review agrees that reflection can enhance productivity, and you should do more of it even if you hate doing it.

I encourage you to join me on the Joy Quest. Take a moment before you mentally rush off to your next task or to-do list item, and notice something that has brought you joy today. Finally, share it! My friend and I regularly text each other to ask where the other has found joy that day. You can multiply joy by sharing it with someone else.

Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.

Cicero

Time management strategies with a new baby

Each of the four times I brought home a new baby I found myself wondering: What did I used to do with all my free time!? As I adjusted to the new baseline of sleepless nights and a constant awareness of “who’s watching the baby?” I wondered at how it was always possible to insert a whole new human into our already busy lives. Before the new baby we’d felt that we were maxed out with work, other young children, school, or residency training. Yet we managed to squeeze a newborn in. And then another, and then another, and then another.

When a new baby comes, everything changes. With the new time pressures, you have to hold everything you do up to scrutiny and figure out what can stay in your life and what has to go. With a new baby you also have an incredible opportunity to see the joy and meaning in each moment. Here are three lenses that have helped me think about my time in any phase or stage of life.

This is the key to time management – to see the value of every moment.

Menachem Schneerson

Time Management Strategy #1: Have a Strategy!

Having a newborn often means anything that is not absolutely necessary has to be set aside. Imagine you’re a general considering how to deploy your troops. Here, our troops are our time and effort. When the pressure is on and you have limited resources, that’s when you must be the most strategic with your choices. Ask yourself: What are the high-value activities and tasks I must do to take care of my family and myself? Next, think about what things can only be done by you, and what things you can outsource or delegate. If you’re a nursing mom, only you can nurse or pump, but any number of stores can deliver your groceries. So strategically create time to nurse but ditch the trips to the grocery store if you can get delivery.

Being strategic means cutting the slack, the waste, and the inefficient times from your schedule to make time for the new important things. If you used to take leisurely trips to the gym, you may have to replace them with quicker, more efficient workouts. For me, with each kid, I had to take a look at my free time and see where I was wasting it. I had already cut out TV years before, but I realized I was wasting more time than I needed to on social media. So I became more intentional about creating time to be present with my kids and power down the phone.

Think strategically about your own renewal, too. What things do you need in order to keep your sanity? Is it time alone? Time at the gym? Or time with friends? Create that time strategically. This may mean negotiating with your spouse or finding a babysitter. Spending time renewing your own mind is critical. Also, be aware that while binge-watching Netflix, scrolling social media, and vegging out on the couch may be relaxing, they are not always renewing for our minds. Focus on renewal, not just relaxation. For me, renewal meant time for reading. The late-night nursing time was a special time when I would dive into and lose myself in a great book. I was still tired in the morning, but felt more refreshed than if I had just stared at the ceiling wishing I were sleeping.

Time is beyond our control, and the clock keeps ticking regardless of how we lead our lives. Priority management is the answer to maximizing the time we have.

John C. Maxwell

Time Management Strategy #2: Prioritize

Once you decide what things you must do, the next step is to prioritize them. Remember Tetris? You had to fit different shapes together to optimally fill space. That’s what your time management is like now. Look at your day. What tasks do you have to get done for yourself, your work, or your family?

What shape are those tasks? By that I mean: how long will they take and what type of focus will they need? Some tasks require only a shallow focus. They can be done while also watching the kids or doing other things. Certain tasks need a deep focus and a quiet space.

Make a list of the things you want to do, then number the top three to five things in order of importance. Next, think about how you can fit them into your day, matching the tasks that need a deep focus with the times when you are able to focus. During nap time, can you do the work that requires a deep focus? Can you swap off baby duties with your partner and close the door for your deep work? Can you get shallow work done quickly by shooting off emails or ordering groceries while nursing, pumping, or rocking the baby?

The new-parent-Tetris game has the added complication that the pieces keep changing shape, moving around, or refusing to stay put. They may have new needs that pop up unexpectedly! So be prepared to be flexible and to change your plans. When plans or needs change, remember: you are the general deploying your troops. Reassess your plan and move the pieces around in real-time by re-applying the concepts of strategy and priority.

For me, when I get to the office or my work space, I make a list of the things I want to get done and then number them in order of importance. I intersperse 1-2 hour blocks of ‘deep work’ with 20-30 minute blocks of ‘shallow work.’ This lets me make sure I get the most important things done.  It also ensures don’t fritter all my time away on email or other shallow tasks.

To a child, “love” is spelled, “t-i-m-e.”

Zig Ziglar

Time Management Strategy 3: Focus on Efficiency

Efficiency is key when you have a new stressor on your time and more than you can do in a day. However, the question of efficiency always has to come after strategy. First, make sure you’re doing the right things, then work on making sure you’re doing them efficiently. Efficiency will allow you to create the margin you need to be present when you are with your new baby.

To be efficient, you have to plan ahead and be intentional with your time. You also have to be honest with yourself. Look back on the last few days. Where was there time that was wasted? Where could you use your time better? When you were trying to do a task that required a deep focus, were you focusing well, or were you also trying to multi-task or scroll on your phone? By focusing well on tasks that require a deep focus, you can get work done more quickly to create more margin later.

When I work, I monitor how well I’m focusing, and I use specific tactics to help focus deeply. When I’m at the office, focused on an intense task, I turn off all my notifications.  I take off my watch, stow my phone, and set an alarm for 5 minutes before the next meeting I have to be at, so that I don’t have to keep track of time. That allows me to work with a deep focus and get things done more quickly and with higher quality.

Ultimately, by managing your time well, you can create more meaning in your life. You can get more done while you’re working and you can create more meaningful time with your family.

Most people feel like their plates are full of things to do. With a new baby, your plate likely just started overflowing, and you now have some difficult choices to make. How can you take certain things off your plate (strategy), move things around on your plate (priority), or grow the size of your plate (efficiency)? You will find that with time, it gets easier, you get better at it, and you learn to fit things in creatively. Using these three concepts will help speed that process along. Eventually, you’ll hit your stride and feel pretty good about your time… just in time for the next baby. Finally, remember: if you aren’t as productive and effective as you were before the baby, that’s ok – time spent with your new baby is worth every second.

There’s only one thing more precious than our time and that’s who we spend it on.

Leo Christopher

A version of this post was first published on the Mindful Return blog. Mindful Return is a program run by Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, that helps new parents plan “a peaceful, empowered, and radiant return from parental leave.” Lori and I delivered a free webinar on Taking Control of Your Time as a New Parent. We share big ideas, practical strategies, and what worked for us. You can access the recording by registering through the link.

How to do things when you just don’t want to

What is it for you – the big, daunting projects, or the boring, mundane tasks? Those are the two most common things that professionals I work with procrastinate on. Sometimes it’s because they can’t muster the motivation, other times, it’s because of the fear of failure, or an avoidance of the emotions the task will inspire. In this post, I’ll present some strategies to get going when you don’t feel motivated. To conquer the tasks we hate, the work that bores us, or the project that intimidates us, we must first conquer ourselves.

Man conquers the world by conquering himself.

Zeno of Citium

First, consider what things in your day you struggle to find motivation to start?

Why do you think it is those specific things? Is it that you don’t see a purpose to them? Or are there other more pressing things you think you need to do? Is it because you know when you start working on them that you will feel boredom, frustration, insecurity, or other negative emotions?

Whatever the reason you have avoided a task, first you need to ask if it needs to be done at all. If it does, then ask if now is the right time to do it. Once you have decided now is the time to get it done, here are some practical ways to help you do it.

  1. Tie it into your big vision. Why is this task important to you? If it something mundane, like signing charts for physicians, can you tie it into your big vision or mission of helping patients or being a good doctor? If it is a necessary but annoying part of your job, can you tie it into your big goals of having a job and providing for your family? If it is a project at work that you aren’t excited about, can you tie it into your big goals of being promoted or of gaining more responsibility, autonomy, or trust at work.
    • Write down the things that are important to you, your big mission, values, or vision. Put them up somewhere visible. Some of mine are: To be a good doctor, to relieve suffering, to be a good mentor, to be someone people can count on, to work with creativity and autonomy.
    • With each task you find yourself avoiding, see how it could tie into one of the things on your list.
  2. Break it into laughably tiny steps. One of the most powerful ways to get over the activation barrier of starting something that you don’t feel motivated to do is to break it into minuscule steps, then find the motivation just for one small step. At each point, ask “what is the immediate next step.” Write them out. By breaking it down and only trying to do one small step at a time, you can often find the motivation you need, and then build up momentum so that before long, you’ve been working on it for an hour and accomplished a dozen tiny steps. The less I’m feeling motivated, the smaller I make the steps. If I make them laughably small, sometimes the humor stuns me out of my negative thought spiral: pull covers off face, turn off alarm, put one foot on the floor, etc. The simplicity and humorous smallness of the tasks makes them seem easier in the moment. For example, to work on a paper or report, the steps might be:
    • Turn on computer.
    • Open the relevant file.
    • Skim existing document.
    • Write one paragraph in the results section.
    • Open excel.
    • Find the data I need.
    • Create one graph.
    • Paste graph into report.
    • Etc…
  3. Leverage your identity. What features of your personality are most important to you? What characteristics do you want to work to create? Do you pride yourself on being, or do you want to become, a person who is dependable, conscientious, disciplined, productive? Leverage the strength of the identity you have or that you are creating to replace motivation. This can look like telling yourself: I don’t feel like doing this, but I’m going to do it because I’m a person of discipline. I’m a person who does what they say. I’m a reliable team member. I’m someone people can count on. I’m someone who follows through on their plans.
  4. Find joy. Often we try to motivate ourselves through fear, hatred, or guilt. We think if we hate our bodies enough, that we’ll be more motivated to eat healthfully. Instead, we end up in a shame cycle. When we feel badly about ourselves, instead of motivating us, it more often drives us to the very thing we’re trying to avoid: ice cream, junk food, and sedentariness. Then we feel worse and try to muster up more hatred for ourselves. Thus, the spiral continues. We do the same things with work sometimes. We try to make ourselves feel guilty so that we will do the work. Instead, when we feel bad, we then find ourselves mindlessly scrolling social media sites or retreating to easier, more immediate work, like emails. Observe your thoughts and see where you may be using negative feelings to try to motivate yourself. Instead, look for the positive things.
    • Write down the ways that you have used negative motivation and consider whether it has worked for you or what the outcome of those negative motivators has been.
    • Write down some small ways you can find joy either in the process of the task you need to do, in the feelings of accomplishment when you are done, or in becoming the person you want to be.

Where can you find joy in what you need to do? I may not love going to the gym, but I know I will be happy with myself afterward. I’ll feel proud of myself for following through with what I said I would do. Sometimes there’s even lots of joy to be found in the task. Learning anything is painful but also inherently joyful, whether it is a new program, a new Zumba routine, or a new excel function. Creating the new identity for ourselves as a person of discipline, reliability, and productivity can also be joyful. Conquering ourselves, as Zeno said, while certainly hard work and painful at times, can also be joyful.

5. Radically self-forgive when you mess up…. This one will come in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.”

Albert Gray, The Common Denominator of Success

New Year’s Revelations

It happens every year on January 1st. We join the ranks of the New Year’s Resolutioners who sign up at a gym, vow to stop eating sweets, promise to pay our bills on time, and cross our hearts that we’ll never procrastinate again. Then by February 20th, the gyms are back to their usual patronage, our freezers are full of Ben and Jerry’s, late notices start arriving, and we find ourselves staying up late the night before an assignment is due.

New Year’s Resolutions are frequently doomed to fail because nothing changes when the calendar rolls from one year to the next. For our external actions to change, something must first change about ourselves. Too often we try to change from the outside in: we try to change our actions and hope that will change who we are. Instead, we need to focus on changing who we are, and our actions will naturally follow.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

– Epictetus

This year why not try something new. Rather than thinking about what actions you want to change, think, instead, about what you want to accomplish and who you will need to be to accomplish it. For example, rather than planning to give up ice cream, if your goal is to be healthier, consider how you can become a person who doesn’t need sugary treats to feel happy. Rather than planning to exercise five times a week, if your goal is to be fit, consider how you can become a person who loves to be active more than they love to do what is easy. Instead of promising to work hard and not surf social media, if your goal is more to be more productive, think about how you can be a person of discipline who can do what needs to be done even when it’s boring. You get the idea.

Once you have decided who you want to be, the next question is how you can become it.
Welcome to your 2021 quest, should you choose to accept it!

Let’s take one example of what this might look like. Since losing weight is the most common resolution made each year, we’ll consider that. If the usual heartfelt but short-lived resolutions worked, then we wouldn’t find ourselves making the same resolution year after year. If you want to change how you eat or exercise, then you need to do more than just decide to do it. You need to become a person who does it. To become that person you have to look more deeply at why you are engaging in an unhealthy behavior or avoiding a healthy one. There are several big reasons that come into play:

1. Avoidance of negative emotions. We avoid tasks or activities that elicit negative emotions such as boredom, frustration, self-doubt, or inadequacy. Instead, we seek out activities that give us quick hits of dopamine: getting likes on a facebook post, scrolling through twitter, or mindlessly eating sugary foods. To overcome the problem of negative emotions, first, look at the desired activity: going to the gym or avoiding sugar. What emotions does that elicit for you? The emotions are caused by your own thoughts. Identify the thoughts as specifically as possible that are causing the negative emotions. Second, create cognitive distance or space between yourself and your thoughts. With more space, you can better become aware and then manage your thoughts. This is a process known as Stoic mindfulness.  

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius

As Aurelius wrote, the negative emotions of feeling self-pity or deprivation, frustration, fear that you will fail, and all the other distressing feelings are a result of our own thoughts or estimations. That is great news, because we can change our thoughts. Once you become aware of maladaptive thought patterns, consider what emotions you would want to feel as you approach the difficult task at hand. For example, I like to feel determination, confidence, optimism, hope, or excitement. Then figure out what thoughts you would need to think to create those emotions. Write those thoughts down and keep them handy. Come back to them frequently and pick them up like tools or weapons that you can use when you need to vanquish the foes of complacency, fear of failure, resignation, pessimism, or self-pity. Some thoughts that may be effective for creating more productive emotions are things like:

  • “I can do difficult things”
  • “I can create change in my life.”
  • “I can work hard.”
  • “Hard work pays off.”
  • “I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to do the next right thing.”
  • “I can make the time I need for the things that are most important.”
  • “Isn’t it great that I get to choose how I spend my time!”
  • “I’m going to feel really proud of myself for doing this later.”

There is much more to say on this topic, and many more strategies you can use to assess and manage your thoughts. If you are interested in a much deeper dive, see the Robertson article on Stoic Philosophy, and particularly the middle section on “What did the Stoics do?” for 17 practical cognitive strategies to change how you think.

2. Habits. We tend to do things we’ve always done in the ways we’ve always done them. Change is difficult. To create new habits, consider the habit loop of cue, craving, response, and reward. Find the cues that trigger the negative behavior. Remove the cues as much as possible. Then consider how you can create new cues for the desired behavior. Maybe that’s putting your gym clothes out each night or setting calendar reminders for when you will exercise. Pre-plan your meals so that you pre-decide what you will eat rather than dropping back into the habit of staring into the fridge mindlessly.

If there are cues that you can’t change, then plan ahead what your response will be when you encounter them. For example, the donuts in the break room may be a usual cue for you to scarf a donut before you even register that you are doing it. Instead, have a plan for how you will create a new response to that old cue of seeing the Krispy Kreme box. The new response may be to get a coffee or water, stretch, talk with a friend, do 30 seconds of mindful breathing, remind yourself of your long-term goals, ask yourself what your body really needs, ask Siri to tell you a joke (most of them are so bad you will find yourself distracted from the donuts and pondering just how bad the jokes are).

Finally, create your own rewards. Instead of rewarding yourself with sugar or mindless entertainment, create mental positive reinforcements that reward the behavior and the thought patterns that you want. This may mean congratulating yourself, noticing you did something well, or metaphorically patting yourself on the back. People who use more positive self-talk tend to be more adaptive learners and create positive changes when they do fail, rather than wallow in self-pity and resignation. For much more on habits, see my last post all about habits and willpower, or this podcast episode.

3. Social norms. It’s so common that it’s cliché: we tell ourselves we shouldn’t eat the cookies in the very moment our hand lifts them to our mouths. As a society, we expect things to be easy, we dislike the idea of requiring discipline, we tend to give up or avoid activities when we feel negative emotions about them. Successfully accomplishing your quest to become the person you want to be this year will be easier if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals who will encourage you, rather than sabotage your efforts. Find those people. Spend (socially distanced, 6-feet-apart) time with them. Share your thoughts, failures, and successes. Keep each other accountable. In their book Influencer: The Power to change anything, the authors discuss the idea of 200% accountability. This means you are 100% responsible for yourself and 100% responsible for someone else. Find someone who is willing to help your personal change management quest, and stay 200% responsible for each other.

“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”

– Epictetus

Enjoy the quest to change one characteristic of yourself this year. Be ready for frequent failures and stumbles. Prepare for it to be harder than you think. Most importantly, approach it with a sense of humor. As Epictetus wrote:

“He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at.”

– Epictetus

Resources and References:

  1. Grenny J, Patterson K, Maxfield D, McMillan R, Switzler A. Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. McGraw-Hill Education; 2013.
  2. Dweck CS. Mindset : The New Psychology of Success. Random House; 2006.
  3. Clear J. Atomic Habits : Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results : An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Random House; 2018.
  4. Robertson D, Codd T. Stoic Philosophy as a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Behav Ther. 2019;42(2). https://medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/stoic-philosophy-as-a-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-597fbeba786a
  5. Orman, R and Cheney R, Stimulus Podcast, The Art of Breathing
  6. Orman, R and Shenvi, C, Stimulus Podcast, Understanding Willpower and Habits

The magic of willpower and habits

Do you ever feel so exhausted after making difficult choices or doing unpleasant tasks all day that all you can do is sit on the couch and ‘veg out’? That is a state called ego-depletion. Willpower, it turns out, is a limited commodity. When you resist temptations repeatedly, you use up your willpower. In the state of ego-depletion, two things happen: You have less willpower to bring to bear on the next difficult decision, and you feel temptations more strongly. The cookies that you had been resisting all day are now unbearably tempting.

The best way to conserve your willpower is to not put yourself in situations where it is excessively or needlessly depleted so that you can save it for the important things. Another willpower hack is to create new habits. Going to the gym when you haven’t gone in a long time (ahem.. pandemic) is hard. But once you are used to going every day, it’s easy. It becomes a habit. The same is true of how you manage your time. If you create a habit of procrastination, then it will be your default state. If you create a habit of sitting down and making a prioritized list of what you need to do and then planning when you will do it, then it will take less willpower to get the important things done.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Habits occur because of a cycle of: cue, craving, response, and reward. Think about the habit of checking your phone. You probably realize that it breaks your concentration when you’re working on a difficult task. Nonetheless, when you hear the notification go off, you likely start to feel a craving to pick it up and see what it is. When you do, then you have a reward. Checking the notification relieves your sense of unease or curiosity. By repeating this cycle of cue, craving, response, and reward, you make the action automatic and harder to break. Every time you hear the cue (notification) you will have a stronger craving to complete the cycle and check it. However, by understanding the habit cycle you can also learn how to create new habits and break old ones.

For a detailed discussion of how to make or break habits, check out this podcast on the topic with Dr. Rob Orman on the Stimulus Podcast. You can listen in your car, when you’re exercising, or as you’re doing chores around the house. It’s available online, on iTunes, or on any podcasting app. We discuss practical, evidence-based ways to minimize the willpower you waste and to break or make new habits.

“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.” – Epictetus

“I’ll feel more like doing this later” and other lies we tell ourselves

Procrastination means postponing things when we expect to be worse off for it. We know it would be better if we just started the report, studied for the test, sent the email, did the homework, or made the difficult phone call now. But we put them off in large part to avoid the negative emotions we’ll experience when we do them.

Here’s the funny thing. We know we should do the work when we had planned. We have to trick ourselves into thinking it would be better to do it later. So we tell ourselves lies:

I’ll feel more like doing this later.
I’ll be more excited about doing this if I watch another episode first.
I shouldn’t even have to do this in the first place, so I certainly shouldn’t have to do it now.
Doing this now will ruin my day, I should just do it later.
Other people put things off, why shouldn’t I?
Let’s just not think about this right now.

Sound familiar?

Planning vs procrastinating

There’s an important distinction between planning and procrastinating, just as there’s a distinction between being lazy and running on empty. It’s important to figure out which one you’re doing. You can certainly plan to do something later. Planning out when you will do different tasks to get projects done on time is key to managing your time well. It becomes procrastination when you put something off in a way that you know will make your life more difficult, painful, or worse later. Procrastinating could make your life worse because now you’ll be late on a deliverable, because you’ll have to give up other things you had planned to do, or because you’ll have to sacrifice sleep or other things you like.

How can you tell if you’re procrastinating?

Listen for the little voice that’s lying to you. If you’re planning then you’ll feel in control as you map out your tasks, your time, and how you plan to delegate your energy. If you’re procrastinating, you’ll hear a voice that isn’t your better judgment suggesting all sorts of reasons you should do the undesired task later. The voice will have all sorts of clever and creative ways to convince you to leave the job for another day. It’s originating from your own mind, after all, so it knows all your tricks, weaknesses, and temptations.

What to do if you find yourself procrastinating?

You don’t have to procrastinate. It’s a choice that becomes a habit. Here are three strategies to start to break out of the habit.

  1. Recall why you were going to do the task today. This was your allocated time for a reason, recall that reason. What will be worse about your life if you put this off?
  2. Refocus on who you want to be. Instead of trying to beat yourself up into doing something, remind yourself of who you want to be. Habits are built from the inside out. First decide what kind of person you want to be, then choose the actions that create that identity. For example, instead of forcing yourself to do the task, instead, recall that one of the characteristics that you value about yourself is that you are a person of discipline, a person of focus, a person who gets things done, or a person who does what they say they will. Then take the action that a person with your desired trait would do.
  3. Do the immediate next step. To get over the huge activation barrier, break it down into a manageable next step. That could be: turn on your computer, open the file, write three sentences of outline, open the book and read two sentences, do one practice test question, make one phone call, write two sentences of an email. Make it a laughably small immediate next step, one that you can’t possibly talk yourself out of. Once you’ve done it, pick another immediate next step. After time, you’ll gain momentum and find that you’re most of the way through the previously impossible task.

Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work. – Stephen King, On Writing: A memoir of the craft

Are you being lazy or running on empty?

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot” – Michael Altshuler

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether we’re being lazy and need to get into gear, or whether we’re truly running on empty. When you have a task you’re avoiding, and you find yourself yet again distracting yourself with easy work, social media, or staring out the window, take a moment to reflect. What is going on? Sometimes we are being lazy and avoiding the negative emotions associated with the task. Other times, though, we’re just running on empty.

Imagine a racecar that can usually get up to speed and race around the track with expert precision and efficiency. If the race car is now meandering around, swerving onto the grass, stopping at random points, or not getting over 25mph, you would need to run some diagnostics. Think of your brain as that race car. When you find yourself having trouble getting up to speed or staying on the track, here are some practical steps you can take.

“Lack of direction, not lack of time is the problem.” – Zig Ziglar

Run some diagnostics

Do a mental check in. Step back from what you’re doing and ask yourself honestly if you are not focusing on the task because you’re avoiding the negative emotions (boredom, frustration, self-doubt) associated with the task, or if, instead, you’re running on empty. When you’ve been working hard or exerting your willpower all day or all week, your willpower becomes depleted.

In the psychology literature, this state of running out of willpower is referred to as ego-depletion. The more you exert your willpower to do difficult or unwelcome tasks, the harder it becomes to exert more willpower, and the more acutely you feel temptations. For example, if you’ve been eating healthily all day, avoiding the donuts in the break room, the cookies in the pantry, and the pumpkin spice lattes at the coffee shop, then by the end of the day, you may have used up a lot of your willpower. You may then find yourself after having yogurt for breakfast and a salad for lunch, eating a whole gallon of ice cream, three brownies and half a bottle of wine for dinner. The reason it becomes harder to stick with your plans throughout the day is because of ego-depletion. By the end of the day you have less willpower left, and the temptation for ice-cream becomes even stronger.

So, check in with yourself. Are you being lazy and avoiding a task because it’s unpleasant (see the prior post on what to do if that’s the case)? Is your willpower depleted from doing difficult things all day? Are you running on an empty tank?  Or is there something physical you need? As busy professionals, we often will push off physical needs to focus on the mental tasks at hand. I frequently skip meals, don’t have time to get water, or cut down on my sleep time. Then I find myself running up against a harsh physical reality that to function optimally, sometimes I just need to sleep, hydrate, or take some time to renew. If you are running on empty, then focus on renewal not just recreation or even rest. Sleep is a basic human necessity but sleep alone isn’t always enough to renew our focus. Instead, do things that make you feel mentally renewed and excited to re-focus on what you need to do.

“He who every morning plans the transactions of that day and follows that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” – Victor Hugo

Plan the track beforehand

When you’re facing a difficult decision or challenge in the moment, it takes willpower. Rather than trying to summon your willpower to force yourself to do the difficult work in the moment, the smarter thing to do is to plan ahead so that you need less willpower. With the food example, this would mean not walking into the break room where the donuts are, storing the cookies in a cabinet out of sight, or not buying the ice cream. When you don’t see the temptations and have to resist them, it doesn’t deplete your willpower.

When it comes to your work and time management, this means planning ahead what you will do. When I have a long day of time that I’m going to work with, I plan blocks of ‘deep work’ time, and take breaks between them to do ‘shallow work’ such as emails, scheduling, or quick phone calls. As the day progresses and I become more ego-depleted, it is harder and harder to decide what to do, so I fully rely on my pre-made schedule. By following your pre-made plans, it takes the difficulty of decision-making out of the equation. After 8 or 12 hours of working hard, I don’t have the bandwidth to figure out what to do next, but I can look at my pre-planned schedule and see what I had intended to do, and I can do it.

Further Reading

  1. Baumeister R, Tierney J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books; 2012.
  2. Baumeister RF, Vohs KD. Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2007;1(1):115-128.
  3. Duckworth AL, Gendler TS, Gross JJ. Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2016;11(1):35-55.

Don’t die before your time

“Despair over the brevity of our chaotic lives is common to us all, even the rich and the famous.” – Seneca

What makes life short

How often do you notice that minutes or hours have passed and you have wasted time that you can now never recover? How often do you listen to yourself and ask what is truly important for you to spend your time on? By contrast, how many days do you spend in a perpetual cycle of busyness, of a never-ending to-do list, and of a calendar dictated by other people or filled with unimportant things? At the end of the day we often find ourselves worse off than when we had started. Our time and energy are even more scarce than when we woke up.

“Thus the time we are given is not brief, but we make it so. We do not lack time; on the contrary, there is so much of it that we waste an obscene amount.” – Seneca

Life is made shorter by the time that we waste. To die before our time means to have spent our time on things that don’t matter and to live without intention. We squander time our on things that have no purpose.

“The problem… is not that we have a short life, but that we waste time.” – Seneca

How to avoid dying before your time

To make the most of your time means to be intentional. Take stock of the last week. How much time did you spend with focus and intentionality? How much was spent mindlessly, idly, or passively? How many hours in the last week have been taken from you? Living intentionally certainly does not mean working all the time. Time spent thinking, learning, dreaming, connecting,  introspecting, bending “your own ear inward to hear what it is that you yourself have to say” are all meaningful.

“A life well spent can truly be a long life.” – Seneca

To understand whether you are spending your time well, you need to understand and decide what is worthwhile for you. What people, ideas, pursuits, or accomplishments hold true value and meaning? What do you enjoy about the way that you work? What things that you do give you a sense of fulfillment? What things do you do that help you more deeply understand yourself, others, or ideas and truths?

The next step is to understand where your time is going. A great way to do this is by logging all your time for a week and looking at it through the lenses of meaning and efficiency. What things are you doing that bring no meaning to your life? Where are you acting inefficiently?

Practical steps

If you feel like time is rushing away, it may be “because you don’t grab it firmly enough… You let is slip away as if it were something unimportant that could easily be replaced.” – Seneca
The way to grab onto your time firmly is to:

  1. Identify the things that have value to you. Create a list of what is important to you. Now shorten the list by half. It is impossible to function well with 35 different ‘top’ priorities. If possible, cut the list in half again.
  2. Track all your time for a week. I have created an excel sheet you can download from the bottom of this post. Create the categories of things that you spend time on. At the end of each day, go through and select what you were doing during each half hour increment. Do this for a week starting at midnight tomorrow. Page two will graph out how you spent your time. In an upcoming post, I’ll help you reflect on what you find after tracking your time in order to be more intentional with your future.

“How many things have taken time from you when you were not even aware of giving it away, how much was frittered away on pointless worry, in ignorant bliss, in the pursuit of pleasure, in the seductions of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will see that you are dying before your time!” – Seneca

References

Lucius Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life” version translated by Damian Stevenson, 2018

How to write… and do other unpleasant tasks you’ve been avoiding

“Ask: What is so unbearable about this situation? Why can’t you endure it? You will be embarrassed to answer.” – Marcus Aurelius

Among the dozens of academics and busy professionals I’ve worked with, writing projects were the number one type of work that they procrastinate on. If writing projects are a breeze for you, then substitute in whatever projects you tend to avoid.

There are several reasons why writing tops the charts as most procrastinated-on activity. First, writing typically requires a large chunk of time. Writing isn’t something that can be easily intercalated into 15-minute breaks between meetings and other tasks. It can be harder to create big chunks of time among meetings, clinical schedules, teaching, or other time commitments.

Second, when we think about writing, we often begin to fear the many negative emotions we will feel when we sit down to write. The thought of writing brings on fear of boredom if we’re tired of the topic, fear of failure (the paper will get rejected, the grant won’t get scored), feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and imposterism.

How can we break through the activation barrier and start writing? Over the course of the most recent 4-week workshop I ran with academic faculty who hailed from California to Scotland, several participants chose a writing goal to work on. One individual finished a long-overdue book, another made major strides on her master’s thesis, and still others began to see real progress on papers or other writing projects. Here are some practical ways you can start to see progress on your own writing projects.

Motivation

  • Think about why you want to finish this project. What outcomes or benefits will it give you? What will it mean for you to be done with this project? How will it feel? How does this writing project align with one of your big goals or values or your big mission or vision? Leverage the power of your WHY and recall it often.

“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.” ~Albert Gray

Operations

  • Set concrete goals and lag measures. What project do you want to get done, and by when? If you have several papers to write, for now, just pick one. If it’s a book, pick your final due date.  Next divide up the project into smaller goals or tasks into a timeline, such as a chapter each week or month, or the methods section in 1 week, the results section in 2 weeks, the discussion in 3 weeks, etc.
  • Decide on critical actions you need to do to meet the goals above. These are your lead measures. For example, it may be that you need to write for 3-4 hours per week, or you may have to set up specific meetings and collaborations. Put time on your calendar when you will write or do those things and protect the time from encroachment by other tasks! Be as specific as possible with what you will do. I think of this as the Clue method after the board game. What will you do and where will you do it? It will be Prof. Plum with the methods section in the study, or it will be Dr. Green with the prologue in the library. For many of us, we may not be able to write every day, or even on the same day each week. Our clinical, teaching, and other work responsibilities may be sprinkled across all times of day, night, weekday, and weekend. Don’t let the irregularity of your schedule become a stumbling block or excuse. Fit the writing time in wherever you can. If that looks like 2-3:30pm Weds, 9-11pm Thurs, and 8-9am next Monday, then so be it.

Cognition

  • Identify the inner obstacles you will face when you set out to follow your plan above. Be clear that these are inner obstacles, not outer obstacles such as your schedule, your family, politics, coronavirus, or your coworkers. Perhaps you can anticipate that as soon as you sit down to write, you will be tempted to one of the let-me-justs such as “let-me-just check my email really quickly” or “let-me-just check my social media account” or “let-me-just read the news.” In addition, maybe you know you will be deterred by the feelings of boredom, frustration, imposterism, anxiety, or shame for having procrastinated on it so long already!
  • Create implementation intentions for each of the inner obstacles you anticipate. Implementation intentions are a simple, powerful tool that has been shown in many different research studies to improve the likelihood that you will actually follow through with something by several fold. Here’s how it works. Plan ahead for what you will do when you encounter the above inner obstacles using phrases such as:
  • When [inner obstacle occurs] then I will ______________________.

Here are a few that I use:

  1. When I start to feel like I want to avoid writing because I’m afraid I’ll put all the work in and it won’t get accepted, then I’ll remind myself that this is an important paper to write, and that it definitely won’t get accepted if I don’t even write it.
  2. When I start to feel bored doing it, then I’ll remind myself that I don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. I don’t act at the whim of my emotions.
  3. When I start to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, then I will sequentially ask myself: “what is the immediate next step.” See the prior post on activation barriers for more on this.

Re-assess your inner obstacles daily and plan for how you will overcome them using the implementation intention model. Keep your implementation intentions close by to pull out of your mental toolbox and use whenever the inner obstacle arises. Any time you find yourself attributing problems to external obstacles, reframe your thinking and find the inner obstacle that is the problem and plan for how you will manage it.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Alan Alda

Finally, question your assumptions. You may have assumed for so long that writing is unpleasant and therefore you should avoid it, that those assumptions have become conclusions. What if you could change your own mind and challenge your own assumptions? Pick an assumption: either the assumption that writing will be unpleasant or the assumption that you should avoid unpleasant tasks. Challenge your assumptions. Instead, focus on creating more joy and meaning in your writing and remind yourself that you can write even when you don’t feel like it. Hold your assumptions up to the light and scrub them off. Happy writing!

Further reading:

  1. Gray A. The common denominator of success. 1940.
  2. Oettingen G. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current; 2015.
  3. McChesney C, Covey S, Huling J. The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Free Press; 2016.

How to overcome the activation barrier

It is ultimately liberating to realize that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to sit down and do it.

Why we procrastinate

You have a task to do. Maybe it’s a paper you have to write, a test you need to study for, charts you have to finish, or a presentation you have to prepare. It’s there and you know there is no way to expunge its specter from your life except by doing it. You also know that once you sit down and start working on it, that it won’t be nearly as horrendous as you think.

BUT there is an invisible barrier keeping you from actually sitting down and starting to work on it. Every time you think about starting it, you are either filled with dread or you find yourself inexplicably doing something else. You realize you simply must check your email, do the dishes, watch just-one-more-episode, check if someone has liked your most recent social media post, clean the attic, or get a head start on your taxes.

There is an activation barrier to getting started on tasks that we think will be unpleasant. As a former card-carrying chemist, I like to think of things in terms of free energy graphs. Imagine you have a project or task that is unfinished. You need to take it to the finished state. There is some activation barrier to getting it done.

Have you ever wondered why that is? What is inside that activation barrier?

Let’s imagine dissecting the activation barrier and seeing what is inside. If you did, you would find several things, but one of the most important is: a desire to avoid feeling a negative emotion associated with the task.

Avoidance of negative emotions

That’s right, much of why you procrastinate comes down to avoiding negative emotions. Depending on the task, the emotion you are avoiding may be boredom, insecurity, self-doubt, imposterism, fear of failure, frustration, betrayal, and anxiety, among others.

There are plenty of tasks we avoid because we know they will be boring. Think about the mundane task of paying bills or doing paperwork. Many people are chronically late on their bills or paperwork because they want to avoid the feelings of boredom and frustration.

Alternatively, you may procrastinate to avoid the feeling of insecurity and fear of failure. If you are worried you won’t be successful at the task you are working on, you will avoid feeling that insecurity by avoiding the task itself. If you are working on a paper you will submit and you are worried it will be rejected, a presentation you are worried will flop, or a new business venture you are worried may fail, you will likely experience self-doubt and fear of failure whenever you sit down to work on it.

So what do we do? We avoid feeling negative emotions by avoiding working on the tasks that induce those feelings.

“How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?” – Seneca

Practical Solutions

Here are two questions to ask yourself to start to overcome the activation barrier.

First, cultivate curiosity. When you notice yourself procrastinating, ask yourself why. What are the feelings you are trying to avoid experiencing? Is it boredom? Is it something deeper related to your own self-doubt, anxiety, or insecurity?

Once you’ve identified the feeling you are trying to avoid, ask yourself: “Am I willing to feel that feeling in order to get the job done?” When you phrase it that way you may realize that yes, you are willing to feel boredom in order to get this done. Or you may be willing to feel some insecurity in order to have a shot at successfully completing the task.

It is freeing to realize that you do not have to wait for the whim of feeling to fill your sails and drive you to action. You can act whether you feel like doing something or not.

Second, ask: “What is the immediate next step?”

If I have a paper to write, I will sometimes procrastinate on it to avoid feelings frustration, fear of failure, self-doubt, etc. One powerful way to overcome the tendency to avoid daunting tasks is to ask what the immediate next step is. For a paper, that may be to turn on your computer and pull up the file. Then ask what the next step after that is. It may be to identify the area you were working on last and pick one paragraph to work on. The immediate next step after that may be to write two paragraphs of the introduction or methods section.

By focusing only on the immediate next step, you break the activation barrier down into manageable pieces. In the immortal words of Anna from Frozen II: Do the next right thing.

Summary

Get curious next time you find yourself procrastinating and ask what emotion you are trying to avoid by avoiding the task. Then, ask what the immediate next step is.

Future posts will go into more detail about how to manage the thoughts and emotions that lead us to procrastinate. For now, put these two steps into practice and watch how you are able to lower the activation barrier to getting things done.

“The happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast – a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good… A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources.” – Seneca