I just learned a new business term, and that is the phrase “bias toward action.” It refers to a decision to take action quickly even in the face of insufficient information. This trait is also the secret behind how to beat procrastination. We have a tendency to overthink everything. We hesitate to take action, sometimes because we just don’t want to DO THE THING, but also because we make simple tasks part of some incredibly convoluted mental contraptions. We mull things over and wait for optimal conditions. What we rarely do is to simply GET UP and DO SOMETHING.
What to do? Where to start? It doesn’t matter. Take any action that will move you closer to any goal.
What’s important is what not to do:
Sitting. Sitting is to be avoided. Sitting is bad for the human body in many ways.
Ruminating. Make a rule that if you want to ruminate, you have to multi-task and do it while you complete a task of some kind. Worry only when putting away laundry. Stew over what that person said while cleaning the floor. Criticize yourself only while packing lunch.
Q4 activities. Quadrant 4 is anything defined as neither urgent nor important. Many of us spend most of our time in Q4, staring at screens or pages. Q4 includes any form of passive entertainment and all the weird non-actions we create that we think fit into some kind of loophole.
Once you eliminate an attractive nuisance, a seductive time-waster and brain drain, it is no longer available to distract you. It creates a void that becomes very boring. One very effective anti-procrastination technique is to stop allowing yourself to do anything at all other than the project you’re supposed to be doing. You can work on it or you can stand there and stare at the wall. B.O.R.I.N.G..
Procrastination is about “temporary mood repair.” Thinking about DOING THE THING makes us feel bad, and we let ourselves off the hook so that we can get away from that bad feeling. I don’t want to! I don’t have to. Yay. This “giving in to feel good” reinforces itself. We reward ourselves for exactly the behavior that we think we’re trying to eliminate. It’s like giving your dog a cookie for biting you. Future Self gets screwed over once again. We push off our duties over and over, creating significantly worse pain, stress, and dread for ourselves to experience slightly further down the timeline.
JUST GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY!
Let’s talk more about the bias for action, because it is ripe for skepticism. How is taking any random action going to help move me forward?
Let’s say all I do is pace around in circles. How is that going to help? It will help by getting your blood circulating, for one thing. Sedentary behavior is physically and mentally draining. Pacing around the room for more than a few minutes also starts to seem a bit ridiculous. Once you’re up and moving, a lot of small, easy tasks start to feel less aversive. Put items away. Take out the trash. Clean out the fridge. Hang up some clothes. Basic chores start to get done. This creates a sense of momentum and a more organized space. More importantly, it restores mental bandwidth.
Taking any action at all is very positive when you focus on completing anything that can be done in under five minutes. This includes most household chores, informational phone calls, and email responses. I can scrub a bathtub in five minutes. What can you do?
The five-minute exercise can be a real eye-opener when you work with an actual stopwatch. A timer is fine, too, although the two are really different sorts of exercises. Timers are good for playing Beat the Clock and racing to see how much you can get done. Stopwatches are good for finding out how very little time most tasks take. I despise making customer service phone calls, but I’ve found that most take under two minutes. I just remind myself of this fact, take a breath, and start dialing. It takes me longer to brush my teeth than it does to get an annoying phone call out of the way.
Hustle is what I call it. My goal is to create a sense of momentum from when I get up through the end of the workday. Action instead of decision points. Routine instead of decision points. Habit instead of decision points. I only needed to make one decision about working out every day. I only needed to make one commitment to eat micronutrient-rich foods and avoid eating junk food. I only needed to make one decision to put my health first and have a realistic bedtime. I stay “organized” by having a set routine that includes cleaning one room each weekday. All I have to do is get up and start working my way through my reminders as they come up in my phone. When I’m already dressed, wearing shoes, and physically moving around, it’s no big deal to add in one more chore. Many things, like putting a dirty dish in the dishwasher or tossing junk mail, take under 10 seconds.
The trouble comes in when I’m contemplating a more complex project, such as writing my book. It isn’t always obvious what to do. That’s where I start. I get out a piece of paper and start rapidly free-writing all my stuck points. What questions do I need to resolve? What research do I think I need to do? What parts am I worried need to sound more realistic? What do I think doesn’t work? What am I trying to accomplish with this section? Then I branch out and brainstorm as many possible solutions to a particular, fine-grained question as I can. I’ll make a mind map or a flowchart or a timeline or a diagram or a map. Usually, an answer emerges that seems like it should have been obvious – but wasn’t.
The two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health problems. I once met a man who turned out to have had an untreated hernia for three years. Imagine the pain. The greatest mystery in life is how we manage to carry on with our burdens while avoiding action that would relieve the misery. I think it’s because we don’t always know what to do next, and there are no clear signals to show the way. If PAIN isn’t enough of a sign, what would be? The man with the hernia could have done anything at all. He could have simply groaned and leaned against a wall, and someone probably would have come over and asked, “Buddy, are you okay?” He could have asked anyone he knew, “Have you ever had a feeling like a gopher was gnawing its way through your entrails?” He didn’t have to know what a hernia was, or how it was treated. He just had to do something: ask a question, go to a doctor, hail a cab. Even a reference librarian would have helped him.
I’ve done a lot of things since I started forcing myself to work through feelings of resistance, reluctance, and distaste. I realized that I was annoying myself and that the results I was getting were not anything I would want. When I first took action, I had no idea where it would lead. I never knew what would work or not work. I just kept doing and trying and experimenting. When I started running, I only planned to be able to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks. I didn’t plan to shrink my thyroid nodule through strenuous activity; I was simply procrastinating on getting the biopsy and working out my terror through exercise. I rode around town shouting, “F.U., thyroid gland! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!” I guess it worked. When I realized it had been several months since my last night terror episode, I chalked it up to my running routine. It took several months more before I realized the key factor was actually whether I ate too late at night. Blood sugar, not exercise. I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption, not realizing that it would cure my migraines. Micronutrients, who’d have thought it? I hurl myself full force into a new habit, experiment with it, and generally get unanticipated positive results. Not knowing what I’m doing keeps me keenly interested in the process. I stick with the behavior long enough to figure out what it does, and that tends to sell me on why it’s a good idea.
Overthinking is a tendency I still have. I’ve learned, though, to start with the action and indulge in the mental exploration afterward. When I started running, I couldn’t make it around the block. I started reading books of running lore before I could run a mile. By the time I ran my marathon four years later, I was informally coaching my friends. It’s been the same with my explorations of nutrition, motivation, habit formation, personal finance, and everything else. I start from the place of DUH and fill that void with experimental action, research, and writing. Not knowing how to do something is ideal for the curious and the adventurous.
Build the bridge while you’re crossing it. Unless you’re the first person on Mars, whatever it is you’re trying to do has been done by someone else. That means it can be done. Millions of people have run a marathon, and every single one of them started out as a baby who couldn’t even roll over in bed. I’ve been passed by octogenarians, blind people, and a para-athlete with a colostomy bag. Maybe that isn’t such a great anecdote to support how running has worked out for me. It does give me something to aim for. How can I run as fast as that 80-year-old man? What does he do that I’m not doing? It goes to show the benefits of maintaining momentum.
Acknowledge that you don’t want to do something, state why, and then do it anyway. Do something. Do anything. You already know that the brain rut you’re in is not fun, not productive, and not sexy. Procrastination is like always walking down a dark back alley full of trash bags. Surely you’d rather go the other way, the well-lit main street? Maybe you find yourself at the alley entrance again. Simply pause and think, “I smell garbage,” and use the reminder of ickiness to turn away and stay on the main street.
Recognize the resistance. Notice the feeling of I DON’T WANNA. Catch yourself when you settle back into your familiar nest and prepare to pretend that time does not exist. Pick up the phone and call Future Self, see what’s up. Maybe hold the Future Phone a few inches away from your ear first. Have a heart. Show some compassion for Future You. Get it done, whatever it is. Dive in and do it.
Just get started.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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