Even though I don’t think New Year’s resolutions work, I’m still a sucker for the kinds of self-improvement lists popping up everywhere this time of year. “Five foods you should never eat!” “The only three exercises you’ll ever need!” “The ten best breakfasts for fat burn!” Even my own recommendations for modifying a morning routine turned up in the latest issue of Working Mother Magazine condensed by the journalist who interviewed me into three ways to “Change a Habit, Change Your Day.”
I’m clearly not the only one irresistably drawn to quick fixes. So here’s another list.
My Five Favorite Tips for Becoming More Productive
1) Don’t wait for motivation to strike.
You don’t have to feel motivated to start. Momentum builds from action, so do something. Anything. Once you take the first step, it gets easier.
2) Stop fooling yourself.
Think you’ll do it later? Think again. Get started now because it will never happen later.
3) Make a daily To Do list.
And then cut it by two-thirds. There’s nothing more daunting than a long list of tasks you’ll never finish. Pick a few items you know you can complete in one day. You can always add more if you have time.
4) Do the hard stuff first.
It’s tempting to get started on the easy, mindless tasks but by the time you get around to the more difficult ones, you’ll have run out of steam (see #2). Motivation researchers have shown we have limited stores of willpower. So jump in and tackle the big challenges first, before your willpower dwindles.
5) Reward yourself.
You may think your day is already front-loaded with too many pleasurable activities (watching cute kitty videos on YouTube, playing Candy Crush Saga, searching home design sites for the perfect ottoman, reading political blogs, making Fantasy Football trades, sneaking in an episode of your favorite TV series). But you’re probably using those as distractions, not rewards. Do the time-wasters after you’ve finished a task and they’ll become motivators instead of sources of guilt. You’ll either enjoy them more or discover the limitations of their appeal, thereby freeing up time to explore new (and possibly more meaningful) leisure pursuits.
So test out my suggestions. If they work, you may never need to make another New Year’s resolution again.
Not even a week into 2014 and already I’ve broken my resolutions. I should have known better.
Most of the promises made on the eve of January 1st are doomed to fail. Yet we continue to make them year after year, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?
My first resolution didn’t even last through New Year’s Day. Feeling pleased with the meditation practice I’d cultivated over the last year by setting myself the modest goal of sitting and focusing on my breath for at least five minutes daily, I’d decided to raise the bar. I would meditate for thirty minutes every day!
As it turned out, on the first of January I got involved in preparing a complicated meal, puttering around the house, and sharing the fruits of my labor with my family. When I finally remembered I hadn’t yet meditated, it was 11:00 pm, and I was sleepy. Normally I’d put in my five minutes and call it a night. But instead, I set my timer for 20 minutes and struggled to stay awake while I concentrated on my inhalations and exhalations until the bell chimed.
You’d think, having just quadrupled the length of a typical late-night meditation session while managing not to fall asleep during it, I’d congratulate myself. But no. I felt disappointed.
I kept my second resolution until January 3. I’d decided I would accrue 10,000 steps a day on my activity-monitoring wristband. Despite my sedentary job, I often do get in at least 10,000 steps by taking the stairs instead of the elevator to my seventh floor office, walking the dogs for nearly an hour, and catching up with my favorite TV shows on the elliptical trainer instead of the couch.
Usually, in spite of my aversion to the cold, I manage with a Teutonic-like resolve to drag the dogs (both wimps when it comes to weather extremes) and myself out the door every day for a walk. But with the wind chills hovering in the single digits on January 3 and the sidewalks iced over, none of us could endure more than fifteen minutes around the block, giving me a paltry 5700 steps for the day.
Maybe you’re sticking to your resolutions a little longer than I did. But unless you’re endowed with an ironclad will—and, if so, probably not in need of making vows to improve yourself—you’ll abandon them sooner or later.
Why don’t New Year’s resolutions work? In my experience, both personal and professional, most people fail to stick to their resolutions because they set their sights on inflexible goals. Both my resolutions were too rigid and unrealistic, failing to take into account variability in daily responsibilities and interference from outside forces (like the weather).
Before making my resolutions for 2014, I’d already been meditating regularly and getting more active by aiming for consistency over quantity. This tactic motivated me because even one minute of meditation “counted.” And when I increased the length of a practice, I did it out of choice rather than obligation. But as soon as I changed the rules, demanding of myself 100% adherence to an arbitrary numerical standard, I set myself up to fail.
Fortunately, I recognized my distorted thinking right away and have gone back to striving for consistency. I’ll still try to practice longer when I can carve out the time but I accept that it’s not always possible.
Many people get frustrated and give up altogether when they fall short of their goals. If you’re an “all-or-nothing” thinker, you may believe you blew it if you slipped up even just a little. Then, bye bye, resolutions.
One reason making New Year’s resolutions is so appealing, according to social scientists, is “the fresh start effect.” Researchers found an increased interest in dieting, inferred from the frequency of Google searches for the term “diet,” around the beginnings of new weeks, months, years, semesters, birthdays, and holidays.
Viewing change from the perspective of a fresh start mentality can backfire, as anyone who’s fallen off the diet wagon on a Wednesday knows all too well. Your waistline won’t shrink if you tell yourself, “Oh, well. I guess I can eat whatever I want and start the diet again on Monday.”
But if you must give yourself a mental clean slate to recommit to change, there’s a better way. You can take a page from Zen Buddhism and the concept of Shoshin, or “Beginner’s Mind,” where every moment can be a fresh start. Even the same action repeated over and over is different every time.
So forget about the New Year’s resolutions and just begin again—not tomorrow or next week, but right now.
Ok, enough putting it off. No more checking Facebook for status updates of people I don’t remember from high school but can’t unfriend because I’m afraid of offending them. No more binge-watching Orange is the New Black. No more scrolling through the App Store to find the perfect habit tracker. No more games of Words with Friends. I have to stop procrastinating and write a blog post on procrastination.
The beginning of September brings out the inner student in all of us, even if it’s been decades since we last smelled the intoxicating possibilities contained in a brand-new box of Crayola crayons. A new school year is a blank slate—a chance to start over with pristine notebooks and no overdue assignments.
Unfortunately, life isn’t quite like school. Time isn’t measured in semesters. There are always endless projects to complete and opportunities to avoid them.
Dealing with procrastination requires a tough love approach. No excuses. No second chances. Just do it. Now.
Easier said than done, of course. It calls for a major cognitive overhaul. New rules.
Memorize, and repeat often:
1) Later isn’t a better time.
2) You’re fooling yourself.
3) There is no better time.
4) You don’t have to feel like it to do it.
You can work on your capacity to follow through with a plan by practicing just one small behavior every day. Meditation is a good choice because it can help you sit with uncomfortable feelings. Over time, it may actually strengthen the part of the brain involved in organization and planning.
But any behavior (preferably one that doesn’t take more than a few minutes) will do. You can decide you’ll sweep the kitchen floor every night at 8 pm, or empty your in-box at the end of each workday. The point is to choose an activity and carry it out, no matter what.
Procrastinators also should practice resisting the overwhelming impulse to give into avoidance. One way to power through the urge to avoid is by not hitting the Snooze button when your alarm goes off. You’ll be working on ignoring the self-sabotaging messages your brain is sending you. And as an added bonus, you’ll be starting the morning with a sense of accomplishment that can boost your motivation to take care of business throughout the rest of the day.
No matter how long your To Do list, crossing off even one item can help you break through the inertia of procrastination. I feel so much better already! But I’m just getting started. I’ll have more tips on how to deal with this irksome problem in future posts.
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