Goal setting is a big topic for self-development geeks. It can raise eyebrows and sometimes gets you in trouble like being cornered into an unpleasant online argument.
The reason goal setting is so controversial is surely because it adresses one of the most basic and most frustrating problems we all face. I am talking about procrastination. The dreadful enemy of accomplishment, life success and we all know it: true happiness.
Everyone struggle with procrastination at some point, most of us on a daily basis and we know that there are perfectly good reasons for always postponing some tasks. One of them being that our brain wants to protect us from anything tiring, boring and unexciting. Our body does not want to sit for hours while focusing on a single task, it does not care about strenuous and repetitive work that might pay off in the future, it wants us to feel good now.
Here are the three main reasons why we procrastinate:
(I mean you, I don’t procrastinate, ever...)
One of the basic human needs is variety, there is literally an infinite amount of things we want. And we always want the next thing. Whenever we reach a goal, we want the next one. Whatever we have or experience, we want something more.
There is no limit to what we want, it’s in our human nature. Even if we experience some moments of satisfaction, we move on to the next thing : status, power, entertainment, love, spirituality, purpose...
Faced with this amazing and endless choice of options, our mind freezes as we are unable to choose.
Inability to choose is the first and probably biggest source of procrastination.
Making a decision is far too complex. Choosing any option would mean saying no to everything else. How can we say no to all these other possibilities and things that we also want ? We all know someone who sits at a restaurant and needs twenty minutes to select a meal. It’s just a meal, and not an insurance policy or an important career choice. And yet, people are blocked by the wide choice that is offered to them, unable to decide.
I remember reading this marketing experiment about a supermarket offering a choice of 6 sorts of jams on one day and 24 different kinds on another day as a test. People who were presented with only 2 sorts of jams were 10 times more likely to buy than the ones who were presented with a wider choice.
Our life is like a big supermarket full of different products competing for our attention. It’s really hard to decide what to put in our basket. And sometimes that’s all there is to the inability to choose: a lack of clarity. We don’t know what we want exactly, because we haven’t thought about it so how could we know ?
There is another reason for this indecisiveness: worry and doubt. The cool thing about not choosing is that we are sure that we are not making a mistake because we are not choosing anything. When we are afraid to make a mistake, we prefer to wait or to just not choose. What if this goal that we are choosing was not the right one ? What if it was a waste of time or even worse: what if we failed and ridiculed ourselves ?
Fear of choosing prevents us from deciding what we want and puts our life on pause. People who experience a lot of anxiety and doubts will often have difficulty choosing for themselves and setting goals.
The remedy to Indecision Procrastination is learning how to make a Decision by setting Priorities.
You don’t have to give up on everything but you do have to focus on one goal at a time. Jim Collins the author of Good to Great said: “If you have more than three priorities, then you don't have any”. If you have a purpose and you consistently work at it, things will start to move into place quickly. But you need to find this purpose first ! You want to allow yourself to make this decision and to accept the fact that you will never know if this choice is the right one. Not choosing among an infinity of possibilities is making the choice of nothingness. We want to accept the responsibility we have of choosing our time and what we do with it.
Choose a target and aim.
Waiting for motivation and energy to get started
We all have goals or some kind of ideal even if we haven’t read anything about goal setting. Truth is: "once I am motivated, I am unstoppable. And when the time is right, and when this first thing will be finished and when I have a bit more free time and when all the planets align and this and that... Then I will do it ! Now is just not a good time. OK ?"
We all have goals and yet, we sometimes don’t do anything about them. We don’t even get started ! We have projects and dreams, and so much we want to accomplish. We know we are supposed to achieve a lot and that we are capable of anything we put our mind to, at least that’s what this great picture on the internet with an ancient quote is saying.
We all know someone who means well but is always late, someone who gives their word but rarely keeps it, someone who really tried to but did not deliver. If we let our current levels of motivation and energy dictate what we accomplish, we will face situations where we just don’t feel doing anything at all and we never really start to move toward our dreams.
So why don’t we actually do it ? Why don’t we do what we say we really want to do ?
If we rely on motivation and energy to get started, the problem is that as soon as they decrease, we get easily distracted.
In his Ted Talk, Tim urban explains how his own mind works as a master procrastinator:
He has this great plan laid out for his goal with enough time planned to do everything. Yet suddenly the "Instant Gratification Monkey" appears. It’s the little monkey in our brain that just loves everything easy and fun. And it will do everything it can to stop the rational decision maker in our brain.
It’s called being “distracted" from our objective. We mean one thing, but we do something else instead.
We say that some people have ADHD, or are “right brain”, or just daydreamers. Whatever belief we have around why we get distracted and have difficulty to focus, it is perfectly normal. Some of us struggle with it more than others and we all experience it. This Instant Gratification Monkey does not want us to focus, not until it is too late and a deadline approaches. This is when the "Panic Monster” appears as Tim Urban puts it. Then we are able to achieve a lot of work in a short amount of time without any distraction because the urgency of the task became so huge.
The only problem with this process is that we are filled with guilt and that we are frustrated to always do things at the last minute.
More importantly, there are some tasks or projects where there are no deadlines and will therefore never become urgent. So even if the Panic Monster helps with short term deadlines, it cannot help us with bigger goals such as being healthier, improving our relationships, developing our skills or spending more quality time with our loved ones.
If we wait for extrinsic sources of motivation to schedule our life, we will miss out on the most important things.
The solution to Extrinsic Motivation Procrastination is Action.
It is to simply get started without waiting for the energy and the motivation to be there. It sounds awfully simple and stupid and yet it works. Saying to yourself 1, 2, 3 let’s go is the main thing when it comes about lack of motivation. Some people are really good at getting themselves motivated even when they feel down. They either learned it or they put systems in place that help them make sure they will do what they want to do regardless of their current motivation or enthusiasm.
We want to accept the fact that we sometimes don’t feel motivated or energised and that it is ok because we know the solution is to start moving.
Baby stepping the process is often a great solution to get started: want to work out ? How about doing three push ups ? Just three push ups, then we will see how we feel. Getting this momentum going and not waiting for the perfect time or circumstances is huge to counter this lack of motivation.
Get started now, lay the first stone of your castle.
Letting your current results drive your actions
Most goals fail because we lack persistence. We usually stop before we get to the real treasure.
This is very common and probably has a lot to do with our education system. The way we are taught in schools is to learn something and then we are tested on what we learned a short while after. The grades we receive will determine how well we have done and what kind of a student we are, not only to the people around us, but also to ourselves.
For example I remember having a really hard time with mathematics when I was in high school and in prep school. When I say hard time, I mean I had some of the worst grades in the class. It had nothing to do with my capacities.
I remember vividly hating every minute of the class and dragging my feet to do my homework or study for a test. I always managed to get the minimum grades so that I could pass the exams and move on to the next grade or school. So the problem was not my knowledge or my amount of study, or even my grades. These were all consequences of one thing: my attitude about the subject.
When working on a project or on a goal, it’s easy to see what we lack. Especially in the beginning or when we are doing something we have never done before. We fail and we fail again. We make mistakes and we usually feel bad about it. I will always remember the look on some of my teachers’ face when they would give me back a paper with a bad grade on it. I just disappointed them and they sometimes even told me how bad of a student I was. This did not make feel good and surely did not make want to study more.
There is a definition of attitude that I like a lot: attitude is the combination of your thoughts, your feelings and your actions.
What kind of attitude do we usually have about failure or bad results ? We don’t like making mistakes, and we don’t like admitting that we are wrong. And even if we do, people will think we are being foolish or dishonest.
Some people don’t dare to ask questions because they are afraid of looking foolish. And we all know someone who is always having “a bad day” whatever happens and their attitude is pretty much the same all year round.
If we manage to choose a goal, and if we succeed to get started, we very often don’t follow through. I am not just talking about new year resolutions, I am talking about every type of goal that requires some time and effort. It could be a project for work that has started, or a book we are reading, or even this event we are planning. We want to know that whatever happens, whatever obstacle we face or problem arises, we will be able to push through and keep our eyes on the prize.
We cannot do this if our attitude about the problems is negative. What kind of thoughts are we having when we are having “a bad day” ? We know for a fact that life always happens, that problems will always show up. Now it is up to us to decide wether we will let these circumstances become “a bad day” or if we will use it as an opportunity and keep a positive attitude whatever happens.
It's easy to be really motivated and excited when things go well. But as soon as something unexpected happens, how do we feel about it ? And more importantly, what do we do about it ?
Negative feedback procrastination happens when we stop doing what we said we would do.
We make a plan, we put it in motion and then something happens and we just give up. Negative feedback is always around the corner, from our colleagues, from our family members and our loved ones, from what the society tells us or even from our own body signals. If we let our current results drive our attitude, we won’t get what we want.
So how do we change our attitude about results and about problems ?
The same way we learned to react to them.
The cure to Negative Feedback Procrastination is through habits.
Habits are not results oriented, they are state oriented. It means that we do the things we do because of how it makes us feel not because of what we think we will get out of it. Once we start doing things as a routine, we unconsciously rely on our default mode instead of relying on effort, motivation and circumstances. The way to create a routine is through repetition, we build one small habit at a time and little by little, it becomes natural.
The great thing about this process is that it requires very little effort and creates lasting change. We feel good not because of the results we instantly get but because of the sense of accomplishment we get every time we go through our routine. A routine does not require much effort, it does not need to be perfect and it is not something that requires a lot of time. If we want to read more, how about reading one page a day ? If we want to eat healthier, how about eating veggies once a day to start ? If we want to write a book, why not write one hundred words a day ? All these outcomes become manageable and yet will have a huge impact if applied consistently.
A good way to create a new routine in your life is to set yourself a 30 day challenge (could be 21 days or 40, or 66 days depending on who you ask), then make sure the task you want to do is aligned with your bigger outcome and is something that will make you feel good and will require little effort.
To put it in a nutshell: choose what you want, start doing it now, keep doing it until you are satisfied with your results.
If you want to get started now (no pressure !) here are a few practical tips:
Choosing a target : Use the rule of 3 to select your priorities, use a vision board to remind yourself of your choices
Getting started and building your goals : Use Well-defined outcomes and the 5 seconds rule to start.
Surfing the daily routines and creating habits : Use the 30 day challenge, and deliberate practice to harness the power of repetition
Performance coach, world traveler, tribe builder, NLP enthusiast and mnemonist. I am passionate about self-development and life changing coaching tools.
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