Like most people, I struggle with procrastination. My personal battle toward the shimmering ideal of perfect productivity has been raging for several years. As the old saying goes: I’m not where I want to be, but I’m sure as hell not where I used to be.
I’m a big fan of Getting Things Done, the comprehensive workflow management system invented by David Allen. It’s pure genius. For those of you not familiar with it, the basic premise is to capture all of your open loops into a single list. An open loop is any obligation you have: getting your oil changed, booking a hotel for your upcoming vacation, drafting a business proposal, or building a multi-billion dollar corporate empire–anything you have decided to do and haven’t yet done. The big ones get broken down until you are left with a list of physical actions you can accomplish right now: go to JiffyLube for oil change, research vacation rentals in Aspen, draft outline of proposal, etc.
Most people end up with fifty to a couple hundred “next actions” on their list. There’s more to it than that, and I highly recommend you read the book to get the full system. It sounds like a lot, but it’s really it’s the easiest and most functional system of organizing obligations I’ve come across. Read the book and try the capturing process just once. You’ll be hooked.
The biggest benefit I have derived thus far is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that nothing slips through the cracks. As soon as I mentally note that I have some kind of obligation, I capture it in my inbox and put it on my list (which I maintain on my iPhone). It takes only seconds, and ensures that I’m not constantly wasting mental energy worrying whether or not there’s something I’ve forgotten to do. It frees me to fully focus on the task in front of me.
So I have my list of next actions perfectly captured and organization. But the one thing GTD can’t help you do is to actually do your next actions. I’ve found that on this massive list of actions I could do right now, I tend to either do the ones that are easiest/most enjoyable, or to default to the ones toward the top of the list. Soon, there accumulates within my list a “dead zone” of actions that have been sitting there for weeks (or sometimes months) un-done for no good reason. Eventually, it’s as if my eye stops seeing them as I’m scrolling through my list looking for things to do. And the system loses a little bit of its integrity.
So here’s the solution I found. I got an accountability partner. Each night, we send each other an email with a handful of things we commit to do the next day. I choose things that have been on my list for too long, or things that because of their nature I would be likely to put off. I don’t send him things like appointments, which I’m already committed to do and have accountability for. Or things that I really enjoy; there’s already incentive there. I’m looking to nip procrastination in the bud by “calling my shot” and declaring that I will do something difficult that I would not otherwise be inclined to do. It’s a difficult discipline, but immensely worthwhile.
The next evening, we either talk on the phone or text to let the other person know how we did that day. If one of us didn’t get an item done, we explain why. That’s it.
It seems simple, but it has worked wonders for both of us. We’ve been doing this for almost two months now, and they have been two of the most productive months of my life. I know have a functional way to be proactive about avoiding procrastination. I can’t say enough about the positive effects this has had for me and my accountability partner.
If you struggle with procrastination, why not try something bold and new to overcome that? Find someone to hold you accountable. And apart from the caveat that in this case, it does help to be working on similar goals, follow the guidelines in my earlier post on accountability partners. Good luck to you!
It is my theory that over half of our nation’s collective effort goes toward figuring out tricks to circumvent hard work on the road to achievement. I developed this theory based solely on the covers of magazines at the supermarket checkout and an episode of Oprah I accidently Tivoed, so take it with a grain of salt.
But kidding aside, I am convinced that too much of our brain power is spent looking for tips, tricks, secrets, and hacks to accomplish a goal without actually working toward it. That’s the entire premise of The Secret: All you have to do is think about something and “the universe” will magically bring about that thing. It’s an odious crystallization of man’s worst instincts about productivity–and it sells. Why should I count calories and work out when I could just sit around and think of thin people?
But the open secret about The Secret is that it’s a bunch of (pardon my language) poo hickey.
The real secret is pretty boring, and makes for horrible headlines: disciplined action over time equals achievement.
My favorite examples of discipline leading to great achievement come from martial arts. Supposedly the Shaolin monks used to practice their stances and footwork in a certain courtyard at their temple on Mount Song. Generation after generation of monks toiled away in the bitter cold, trampling and trodding the ground until their technique was perfect. Now, over 1,500 years since the founding of the monastery, that courtyard is a pit twenty feet deep, worn away by the footsteps of the martial monks.
That’s the kind of discipline that can produce real results. I think many people would be so much more competent and at peace if they just accepted the fact that there usually aren’t shortcuts in life. Accomplishing goals (in the general sense) is a solved puzzle, and yet people keep searching for answers that don’t exist–some slight mental adjustment or secret thought pattern known only to the masters that can obviate the need for all that boring work.
But here’s a funny thing about the secrets of the Shaolin monks: For centuries, their most secret texts that only the innermost initiates of their sect could study were kept hidden from outsiders. When the communists came into power, they publicized these texts as a part of an effort to weaken cultural institutions other than the Communist Party. They have since been translated into English.
And here’s what that society of some of the greatest warriors the world has ever seen was guarding. In a nutshell: if you want to be able to punch hard, punch a brick wall every day. Start with a few light punches, add more every day, and gradually increase the intensity. Ten years later, nobody will be able to survive a punch from you. If you want to be able to kick hard, start kicking a tree. Find one as thick as your wrist, and kick it every day until you break it. Find a thicker one, and repeat. A decade later, you’ll be able to use your legs to clear forests.
Heavy on the hard work, light on the pop-mysticism. Not a whole lot of affirmations and positive thinking. So if you want to be great at something, take the counter-cultural approach: forget the shortcuts, get to work, and don’t stop or slack off.
I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked. You may be more talented than me. You might be smarter than me. And you may be better looking than me. But if we get on a treadmill together you are going to get off first or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple. I’m not going to be outworked.
I was watching a movie recently, and a football coach told the following story to teach his team what mental toughness is. With the tiniest bit of artistic license:
There was an oil company building a pipeline through Alaska. Half the workers were from Oklahoma, and half were Eskimos. As the weeks wore on on this massive construction project, the Oklahomans couldn’t work near as long as the Eskimos because of the cold weather. The oil company had each group tested to see what gave the Eskimos the ability to handle the cold so much better. They performed every manner of blood test, body composition analysis, and took every measurement and reading they could. But they couldn’t find any physiological difference between the two groups.
They ultimately determined that the difference was mental toughness. The Eskimos knew it was going to be bitter cold. They accepted it, and they focused on the work at hand. The Oklahomans could never get past the cold. Their minds were completely occupied with how cold it was.
Don’t be an Oklahoman. Be an Eskimo.
That’s the best definition of mental toughness I have ever come across. Don’t obsess over how difficult the work is going to be. Accept that it is going to be hard, and do it anyway. Focus on the task.
Here are a few more thoughts on commitments after my last post:
- You can renegotiate. Treat your promises like they are carved in stone. But there are times when things change, you can renegotiate the commitment and maintain integrity. If you agree to meet someone for lunch at 12:00, and you’re running late, don’t just show up late. Call and ask permission to arrive at 12:15. It may seem weird to ask permission for something that is going to happen anyway, but when you say you’re going to do something, the other person has the right to expect that you’ll do it. They have that power over you, so acknowledge that reality and renegotiate. Or let’s say you commit to run for half an hour every morning in an effort to get in better shape. After doing it faithfully for a month, you develop a knee problem, or just discover that you hate running. The goal was to improve your health, so renegotiate. Go swimming instead. Or take up judo. Just be sure not to use this as a way out of the commitment. This is a danger of renegotiating commitments with yourself. If you “renegotiate” running every morning to walking the dog once a week, you really haven’t maintained integrity with your original commitment. So listen to your conscience.
- Be judicious in making commitments. If you start take commitments seriously, you’ll naturally start to hesitate to actually commit yourself to do something. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, or else you’ll either break the commitment or end up with your world in chaos as you attempt to move heaven and earth in order to keep a promise you never should have made. On the other hand, don’t be overly cautious. People perceive that as being weasley and disconnected.
- People will notice. Maybe not at first, especially in relationships where there is a lot of precedence of broken and ligtly-made commitments. But over time, people will start to notice that you keep your commitments. On the other hand, if you break promises, people tend to notice that much more quickly.
- Don’t be “that guy.” In the same vein, don’t be the flaky guy that nobody can rely on. We all know someone like this (probably multiple people). I have an ex-business partner who now has a reputation of not honoring his word, particularly in his business dealings. People who have worked with him and invested money with him in the past have pretty much completely cut him out of their lives because of promises he broke. The sad part is that I don’t think he’s even aware of the opportunities that are closed to him because of this deficiency in his character. I’m just grateful I ended my relationship with him when it did. I still hear stories from people in our industry about how they’ll never do business with him again. Don’t be that guy. Be the polar opposite. Be the one who people know they can trust implicitly because you honor your word, period.
- Commitments are for when times get tough. People tend to want out of commitments when circumstances change to make the fullfilling of their promise more difficult. But that’s what a commitment is. We generally don’t need to promise to do things that are easy and to our own advantage. It’s when they are hard and costly that we need to be kept in check by our honor.
Against all odds, I appear to have some people who are reading my blog. I’d like to invite you to comment and share your thoughts on this and my other posts. Even if it’s just to say, “I can’t believe I actually clicked on this link. I want the last five minutes of my life back.”
Most people think “accountability” means “who gets blamed or punished when things go wrong.” It’s a shame that the word has such negative connotations for most of us, because acountability can be a powerful tool to help you keep your commitments and achieve your goals. Generally speaking, we perform better when we have to give an account of our actions. So with that in mind, here are 5 specific ways to use accountability to make yourself more effective at whatever you’re trying to achieve. Presented in no particular order:
1. Don’t Break The Chain
What it is: According to internet lore, Jerry Seinfeld forced himself to write every single day in order to become a better comedian. To motivate himself and track his progress, he marked the days he wrote with a red “X” on his calendar. As he accumulated more days, a “chain” began to develop. Seeing the unbroken string of days he had written was a powerful incentive to keep the streak going–hence, don’t break the chain.
What it is good for: Daily tasks or habits you want to develop: exercise, creative work, practicing skills, etc.
How to get the most out of it: You can create an account for free at the Don’t Break The Chain website, or you can download the free app for your iPhone. Or, just use a paper calendar. It worked for Seinfeld.
What it is: First, you’ll need a goal–something you want to do every day (exercise, etc). Second, you’ll need a buddy. You write your buddy a cheque for an amount of money that is significant enough to motivate you. Now you’re going to email your buddy every day to report whether or not you accomplished your goal that day. If you didn’t, or if your buddy doesn’t hear from you, he cashes the cheque.
What it is good for: Similar things as Don’t Break The Chain. But this one is more hardcore, so use it for the things you’re really stuck on.
How to get the most out of it: Stick to well-defined goals with sharp edges. If your goal is to “be nicer to co-workers,” your buddy might end up having to make a judgment call about whether smiling at the receptionist really counts or not. So nothing nebulous: either you ran two miles, or you didn’t.
3. The Nightly Inventory
What it is: This one comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The idea is to take an inventory every night of how you did that day. Franklin made a “resolution of the day” every day, and focused on one character trait: industry, frugality, humility, etc. So each night, he would take stock of how well he lived up to those standards. In his words:
Let not the stealing god of Sleep surprize,
Nor creep in Slumbers on thy weary Eyes,
Ere ev’ry Action of the former Day,
Strictly thou dost, and righteously survey.
With Rev’rence at thy own tribunal stand.
And answer justly to thy own Demand.
Where have I been? In what have I transgrest?
What Good or Ill has this Day’s Life exprest?
Where have I failed in what I ought to do?
In what to GOD, to Man, or to myself I owe?
Inquire severe whate’er from first to last,
From Morning’s Dawn till Ev’ning’s Gloom has past.
If Evil were thy deeds, repenting mourn,
And let thy Soul with strong Remorse be torn:
If Good, the Good with Peace of Mind repay,
And to thy secret self with Pleasure say,
Rejoice, my Heart, for all went well to Day.
There are many ways to do this. I use a spiral notebook. Each morning I write down my resolution at the top, and in the evening write a couple of sentences at the bottom of the page evaulating how I did that day. Make it as simple or as elaborate as you like. Personally, I like it simple.
What it is good for: This one is pretty universal, and I think everyone can benefit from using it, no matter what you’re working on: a strict diet or workout regimine, nebulous character goals, etc. Right now, I’m using it to work on not criticizing, condemning, complaining, and correcting other people (the “4C’s”).
How to get the most out of it: Be honest. Presumably, you’re not going to show this to anyone else, so take advantage of that privacy to be honest. You’re not doing yourself any favors by giving yourself slack and just writing down empty praise. When I find myself doing that, I ask myself how I could have done even better. That usually generates some good ideas.
4. Post Online
What it is: Join an online discussion board and post. There are thousands of these boards online devoted to everything imaginable, and odds are you’ll be able to find one related to the goal you’re trying to achieve. So look around, get to know the posters, and start a progress thread. For example, if your goal was to put on some muscle mass, you could join The Bodybuilding Dungeon (no, I don’t post there) and post your workouts every day. You could post what lifts you did for how many reps/sets, how your body is feeling, your diet, protein shake recipes, progress pictures, etc. The interaction of others combined with the habit of posting your progress can be a positive pressure to stay on track with your goals.
Or, start a blog. You have more leeway if you can’t find a discussion board specifically dedicated to what you’re trying to achieve, but the tradeoff is that you have to put in the work to develop a following. But the same principles apply.
What it is good for: Posting on a discussion board lends itself more to concrete, specific goals: running a marathon, fixing up an old car, learning a new language, etc. Your blog, on the other hand, is whatever you want it to be. There are some really great blogs out there that are just about some guy’s struggle to be a more courageous person by taking risks.
How to get the most out of it: Get to know the people you’re posting with. Don’t just talk at them; interact. Give more than you take. Try to help them without asking for anything in return. You’ll be rewarded. Oh, and keep it classy. There are a lot of jerks on the internet, so don’t pick fights.
5. The Accountability Partner
What it is: Everyone has heard of this arrangement, but it’s difficult to do well. The more your accountability partner is willing to dig, pry, and interogate you, the more it helps you stay on the straight and narrow. The more they take it easy on you, the worse off you are in the long run.
So you have to find someone willing to be honest. It can be a friend, but most of us don’t have the context for that kind of honesty in very many of our friendships. For many people, a stranger is ideal. You can reach out through your network. Ask around to see if your friends know anyone who would be willing to hold you accountable.
Most people look for someone who is trying to achieve the same goal they are–two people trying to get in shape, for example. In my opinion, these relationships often become a “conspiracy of mediocrity,” especially if the people were friends before becoming accountability partners. If one of them reports that he just didn’t have time to go to the gym that morning, the friend rushes in to reassure him that it’s OK and that he knows what it’s like juggling work, family, and fitness, etc. The appropriate response from a good accountability partner should be, “that’s not good enough. You committed to go to the gym today. It’s only 8:30, so you can still get a good workout in before they close tonight.” That’s why I recommend finding an accountability partner who’s not your friend and who’s not trying to achieve the same goal you are.
What it is good for: This one can be used for just about anyting, from concrete actions like working out every day to big, broad goals like being a better father. The secret to making it work, especially with the broader, less well-defined goals, is the willingness of your partner to call you out.
How to get the most out of it: Find someone who’s not your friend and who’s not trying to achieve what you are. Demand that they be completely honest. Give them permission to call you out. If they go easy on you, find someone else.
“ONE MINUTE!” The man’s voice boomed as I made my way into the hotel conference room with my fellow workshop attendees. And then, sixty seconds later, the voice sounded again: “TIME! If you are not sitting in your chair, remain standing.”
For the better part of an hour, the trainer grilled the unfortunate souls who had been left standing about why they didn’t keep their commitment. You see, we had all agreed to be sitting in our chairs when the lunch break was over, and not all of us were. We had broken a commitment.
It seemed such a trivial matter at first. It’s not like anyone was an hour late, or even five minutes. We were in the conference room, headed in the general direction of our chairs. We kept the spirit of the commitment, right? The mind races to come up with excuses and justifications, to minimize the matter, or avoid it altogether. But the conclusion is inescapable: we said we would do something, and we didn’t.
It was a stark and vivid illustration that shattered my image of myself as trustworthy. I thought I was pretty good about keeping my commitments. I was almost always on time for appointments. And only once in my life had I ever just not showed up without calling anyone (and that was because I fell asleep in the middle of the day after pulling an all-nighter the night before).
But pretty good isn’t good enough. This was a difficult lesson for me, and it’s easy to dismiss as legalistic or neurotic. But I’d like to invite you to imagine how your life would be different if you had never broken a single commitment–not even one. What would that look like?
Start thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. Imagine that you kept every single one of them. You quit smoking. You got to your ideal weight. You learned French. You found more time to spend with your wife and children. That big, creative project you had always wanted to tackle–the novel you wanted to write, the business you wanted to start–you finished it. And people make commitments to better themselves all the time, not just on New Year’s Day. If I had kept all mine from the past year or so, I’d know Classical Hebrew, I’d be training regularly in jiu jitsu and crossfit, and I would have started this blog months ago.
Is the picture of who you would be if you had kept all your commitments starting to come into focus? Think about procrastination. Procrastination is a broken commitment. How many thousands of times in the course of a year do we see that something needs to be done, agree in our own mind to do it, and then put it off? Imagine if you had never procrastinated. You’d probably move through more projects in a month than most of us do in a year or more. You would have had a vast array of experiences that remain in other people’s incubators for most of their lives.
This series is about business, so how would your professional life be different? How deeply would your boss trust you if you had been on time to every single appointment, and delivered on every single promise you had ever made? And if you have employees of your own, how would their attitudes toward you and their work be different if you had never broken a commitment to them? How would your customers view someone with that kind of honor?
And of course, we make commitments to other people too. How would our relationships be different if we had never broken a commitment to anyone? There are the big commitments, like marriage vows. And then there are the seemingly small commitments, spoken and unspoken, that can be just as damaging when they are broken. Missing a child’s baseball game or piano recital. Calling someone back. Staying in touch with old friends. Being less critical of a loved one.
I think it’s safe to say that each one of us would have a radically different life today if we had kept every single one of our commitments. We’d be healthier, happier, more productive, more fulfilled, and have more and better relationships with everyone. The difference between your current life and how your life would be if you kept all your commitments, I’m going to call the “commitment gap.”
And here’s why keeping promises/commitments, no matter how insignificant they may seem, is important: every time you break a promise, you weaken your honor and devalue your word. People start to trust you less when you don’t call them back. When you resolve to do 50 pushups every morning and then quit on day 3, you start to view yourself as weak and ineffectual. The commitment gap widens.
If, on the other hand, you cultivate an iron-clad sense of honor that will not allow you to break a promise, not even once, the commitment gap disappears. People will trust you like you’ve never been trusted before. And personal change becomes easier.
Commitments may be the closest thing to magic words that we have. For the man of iron-clad honor, a promise is almost like a spell to bring about a desired result. When he makes that promise that he knows he must keep, it summons up from within him a resourcefulness, ingenuity, and genius that can move mountains. Once he commits, nothing is beyond his grasp.
That is the power of commitment. And that’s the man I’m striving to be–in my business, in my self-discipline, and in all my relationships.
Thinking about how life would be different if we kept our commitments can be painful, but pain is often necessary to spur us to become better. In closing, think back to the picture of that person you would be had you kept your commitments again. And rather than thinking of that vision as a missed opportunity, think of it as a new possibility.
A trustworthy man, who can find? Proverbs 20:6