What you should know about Habits and Procrastination
I want to kick of this read with an insight that has been the most interesting for me from what I have learned so far this year. It has it’s roots in the The Dunning–Kruger effect. The definition:
“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to accurately evaluate their own ability level and fail to recognise genuine skill in others.”
More interesting though, by turning the effect upside down, the opposite becomes true as well. So the more you know – the more you acknowledge that there are so many facets to life you don’t know and maybe never will. This could make you more humble on your opinion.
TL,DR: The stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
You can see this phenomenon everyday, in political discussions on Facebook, in TV or while playing games, where the worst players always seem to know it all better. There are also studies that show, that smarter people often have less confidence, because they assume others to be always on their level.
The verdict here, is because knowledge is quite high on my list of values and after years of excessive reading and research I feel very confident in a lot of topics (productivity, nutrition/health, working out …) but I don’t claim to be an expert (an already vague term, we will try to demystify another time) on any of those fields and I reverently accept that the more I know – the more I yet have to discover or won’t ever fully grasp. So feel free to take my advice with grains of salt. Or tablespoons. I am just a guy recognizing different themes and connecting some dots.
I decided to fill this text with quotes that are important to drive home some of the points made. Quotes have a bad reputation because they feel esoteric or just stupid sometimes. But if one is able to lay down the mask of sarcasm and try to embrace them without prejudice and a clean mind, one might get more out of them.
Disclaimer: Feel free to dismiss this lengthy read, when you’re amazed with your life, your productivity is skyrocketing, you’re career advances by the minute and you found inner peace or heroic glory. Enjoy the rest of your day my friend, there is not much to be gained for you. In case you feel like you already wasted your click, enjoy yourself and take a look at this happy hamster.
(in case you still with me, welcome to the Dark Playground)
In July 2015 I wrote a post on Instant Gratification, tackling our media consumption among other with self chosen restrains in pleasure activities. It was labeled Monk Mode. Since that experiment I kept track of the behaviour of me and my friends regarding this subject. My opinion is almost the same, but travelling down the rabbit hole has shown me that it’s roots are often deeper and effects more people than guessed. The discussion is still about the removal of Low-Value- or Junk-Activities, but way more in depth and it is fuelled by the idea that everything that brings instant gratification has a two-pronged negative long term effect.
1. A lack of the development of the will-power to withstand delayed gratification activities and 2. Creating life patterns designed to err on the side of ease and comfort.
I put my head far out of the window and like to add: Create a more hedonistic society where pleasure seeking is the Number 1 Goal in life. If this is your truth, don’t feel criticized, it is just a different set of values I carry with me.
We are living in times in our western civilisation where almost everybody can build the lifestyle he wants but oftentimes fall prey to the easy addictions life has to offer, especially now that everything is accessible with the click of a button. For clarity sake, I will again, list a handful of these activities, feel free to identify them with your own situation or add necessary ones needed:
- Social Media (on different media)
- Binge Watching (Netflix, sports, youtube)
- Mindless Web Browsing (Reddit, News, Gossip)
- Video Games (yes, Candy Crush Saga is a game)
- Drugs (weed, alcohol, sugar)
- Slacking around
- Porn/Masturbation (not much to add here)
“Heaven is on the other side of that feeling you get when you’re sitting on the couch and you get up and make a triple-decker sandwich. It’s on the other side of that, when you don’t make the sandwich. It’s about sacrifice…. It’s about giving up the things that basically keep you from feeling. That’s what I believe, anyway. I’m always asking, “What am I going to give up next?” Because I want to feel.” – Jim Carrey
Why do I have such a big urge to enlighten people on this topic?
The average Millennial spends most days involved in a combination of the things listed above. Few have advanced level hobbies, even fewer are truly proficient at any part of their life. This is a direct result of the rewiring of the brain through the effects of instant gratification. The following paragraph with linked sources is taken from an article called “Instant Gratification is Poison”
Scientific studies have shown the economic, physical, and social effects of a society based on instant gratification, and it’s not good.
The attention span of humans has dropped to shorter than a goldfish. Source
Marketing strategies are being built around being instantly gratifying. Source
Lets make up some fancy names:
Instant Will-Power Degradation: The reduction of will-power to engage in delayed gratification activities, developed after constant exposure to low-effort, instantly gratifying activities.
The idea of Instant Will-Power Degradation will be plainly obvious to most. But the result of extended periods of time spent in this mode will also have a secondary effect on the mental wiring of the brain.
Insta-Life Mode: Creating a life centered utterly around a constant stream of instant gratification. Removing any activity which does not provide an immediate surge of dopamine.
These two concepts are interrelated on both a psychological and physiological level. As you engage in low effort, high-reward activities (like the examples above, your brain will undergo Instant Will-Power Degradation, enough time spent only seeking out low effort, high-reward activities and your life will go into Insta-Life Mode. This affects your brain on a physical level, by actually creating new neural pathways that can only be activated through your Vices. Source
Putting Procrastination in the mix
For some people this might not be that big of a deal. But for people that devoted a lot of years to Instant-Gratification- Activities ( from now on IGA ) they might have a hard time when they feel it is time to turn there lives around for the better. Besides these exceptional hard cases, procrastination is something that effects all of us to a certain degree. For a remarkable entertaining in depth read you should take a look at Tim Urban’s Trilogy about Procrastination.
A short summary:
Try imagining your brain with 3 residents. The IGA-Citizen and the Rational-Decision-Making- Citizen (RDM). Both are trying to fight over the steering wheel, which directs your actions and decisions. For Procrastinators, the IGA is on the wheel most of the time, while the RDM is sitting behind and having a bad time. Only when an important Deadline approaches, the 3. citizen awakes, called the Panic-Monster. It screams of the IGA from the steering wheel and lets the RDM overtake it. If this sounds way to dry to you, here is a stick figure picture by Tim Urban. The Monkey being the IGA. You’re smart and will figure out who’s the rest.
That is the reason students often hand in there thesis at the LAST possible minute. How often we allow the IGA to take over the wheel is what separates a problematic procrastinator from the normal person that procrastinates occasionally. The other difference is that procrastinators spend most of their time with leisure or junk activities. I want to make clear hear, that I don’t mind the occasional leisure time or some slacking around, but for the normal person, these activites come after a hard day of work and because of that feel earned. The Procrastinator never earns these activities which make him feel even worse about himself in the long run, which starts a spiral of self fulfilling prophecies that can become hard to get out of.
The worst part: The RDA has not a very good short term memory. After a small success, the battle for the wheel begins each day again. As we have learned so far, IGA promote this kind of behaviour.
When starting a new task like learning a language or to make it more simple putting out the trash, the unpleasant feelings about that task outweigh the pleasant ones, and so we avoid the unpleasantness, even if we’re making our lives worse in the process. It is only until the trash starts to smell like rotten flesh (a disguised deadline), that the motivation is big enough to do something about it. Putting Deadlines throughout your life is starting point but does not address the core problem.
Famous Author Robert Greene supports this view with the following quote from one of the best reads I had so far:
“The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise. Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents—will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction? Much as with physical exercise, you can even get a kind of perverse pleasure out of this pain, knowing the benefits it will bring you.”
There are other forces at work while we often choose to take the path of least resistance. Most of the time it is a deep underlying fear. A fear of failure, fear of success, or fear of vulnerability. I, for one, find a blank page excruciating. Some mornings, as I’m on my way to my desk, my hands tremble with fear. The fear, of course, is that I’ll sit down at the desk and discover that what I am about to create is trash. Fear inevitably leads to procrastination. The Story we project in to us or “positive thinking”, can hinder us even more in making progress. “Is there ANY solution?” a desperate procrastinator may ask. There is hope.
The Habit Approach:
Why Monk Mode is a great start but not the perfect long-term solution: It’s premise is a little bit like the New Years Resolutions that are made by almost everyone at the end of the year. Big motivations arise and plans are made, gym cloths are bought, Coke is off the grocery list, books are piled near your bed and you “plan” on learning that new language. Usually after about 2 months, people go back to there old behaviour. This is explained by scientist that our willpower is not endless. A person can only restrain him self so much for a short amount of time, before finally breaking in again. Monk Mode is great to keep your IGAs in check and develop an introspective feel for what you really need and want out of life. But 1 month is not enough to change all negative habits in ones life.
“Do one thing at a time or else you will build a house of cards.” –Unknown
I am a big fan of habits, call me the Habit Activist. Because they rule our fucking life’s. They can make or brake a man. From small stuff like brushing our teeth, the morning coffee to more meaningful stuff that change your life in the long run. They become automated and can be programmed. Forget about specific goals, it’s habits that bring you closer to the person you want to be.
Personalities are not set in stone. You may think a morning coffee is the most enjoyable thing in the world, but it’s really just a habit. Thirty days without it, and you would be fine. Krishnamurti, a great Indian sage, once said: “You can take a piece of wood that you brought back from your garden, and each day present it with a flower. At the end of a month you will adore it, and the idea of not giving it an offering will be a sin.” In other words, everything that you are used to, once done long enough, starts to seem natural, even though it might not be.
If you feel like this makes sense to you, there is no way around the following read, The Achievement Habit. Sadly I can not put a hole book into one article (actually I am putting about 10 books into this article), but I will try to give you a starting point.
It is not easy, but if you want to become a person of value your RDM has to take over the steering wheel. For some people this might be the hardest challenge of there lives. There is no shortcut, no cheatcode, no lifehack. Only dedication, discipline and hard work. Because this sounds quite daunting you have to acknowledge that change should happen in baby steps. Forget about drastic 180 degree New Years Eve Hercules changes. Aim for a slow, steady progress and your story will write itself one page at a time. Oh Boy the following quote is so old and worn out, and yet it took me years to fully internalise it and give it the credit it deserves.
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.” — Will Smith
You have to choose your bricks today. Some habits, so called keystone-habits, can snowball quite fast and make other habits more easy. Becoming an early riser or working out for example. Early risers might plan there day better and get important stuff done in the morning. People that workout usually care for there nutrition and health as well and so on. Imagine how small changes accumulate over time. Imagine two people, one starting to raise early at 6 and gets his ass to the gym, while the other sleeps until 11 and starts with an unhealthy breakfast. In a few years these two people will not be the same anymore. The author who writes one page a day has written a book after a year. Success or failure is earned through the consistent habit forming practice of making smart choices over time, culminating into what Einstein called the 8th wonder of the world: compound results, or The Compound Effect.
Whether you want to address positive habits or want to get rid of negative one is up to you. Choose one that is important for you and get yourself some marker and papers. Your only job should be to not Break the Chain. This will be hard. That’s why it it good to start with something small. Below is a list of possible habits and activities ranking from easy to more challenging:
read, meditate, tidy your room, floss, cold showers, doing 10 push ups, go for a walk, swap soda for tee, show gratitude, let go of 1 vice, don’t watch TV, get 8 hours of sleep, quite social media, learning a new skill, work on a personal project, do martial arts or strength training, do one thing that scares you every day, learn to code, eat paleo, waking up at 6 or 7, disable your phone.
Choose a timeframe during the day and follow through with your habit. (a 2 minute meditation is fine for starters). Put it in the calendar and when the time comes, shut down your phone and do your task. Nothing should be more important than doing the task, don’t try to find excuses.
”Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” –Arnold Schwarzenegger
When the urge for IGAs arrive, you have to be able to tap into yourself. That is why meditation is one of the best habits to start with. It helps to silence the brain chatter and makes you more conscious. Recognising the need for IGA rise in you is the first step! The resistance is the strongest when trying to start a task. Calm Down, take a deep breath. Recognise the need, get curious about it. Say NO and feel the joy of letting go. Repeat if needed. The Power of NOW – say No, Observe the feeling, and get to Work. Monk Mode can clear up your mind about what you want and lessens the urge for constant distraction as a starting point.
You may want to build you habits upon the cue -> routine -> reward tactic. For the sake of yours and my mind Il will not talk about this here but feel free to google it. A typical cue would be to have the running shoes next to your bed.
IMPORTANT: Do not wait for inspiration or motivation. They operate on the erroneous assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task. That’s completely the wrong way around. Discipline, by contrast, separates outwards functioning from moods and feelings and thereby ironically circumvents the problem by consistently improving them. The implications are huge. Successful completion of tasks brings about the inner states that chronic procrastinators think they need to initiate tasks in the first place. Put in simpler form, you don’t wait until you’re in olympic form to start training. You train to get into olympic form. Productivity should not have a required mental states. For long-term results, discipline beats motivation big time, runs circles around it, eats its lunch and bangs its mom.
Because it is so important I want to emphasise this again:
Starting as small as you can manage, even microscopic, and gathering momentum, reinvesting it in progressively bigger changes to your routine, and building a positive feedback loop.
People want reality to be like a Rocky montage. You decide you want to achieve something, you work hard for a few minutes with Eye of the Tiger playing in the background, and you’re done. When they face the reality (if they ever even do) that it takes years to make significant life changes, they give up on their aspirations. While this realisation is bitter at first, life is clearer after.
My personal system for building habits and killing vices: The 7-30-90 Habit Re-Programming.
7 Days: Take a single week, and a single goal (positive or negative goal). Focus all attention and determination for change on that single goal. Allow all other Vices to exist without remorse.
30 Days: The first seven days focused on a single goal. The second seven days focused on another goal while still maintaining the first goal, and so on with the third and fourth week. By the 30 days you have effectively started implementing 4 separate themes. This snowballing effect is very gradual, and as momentum of change is picked up, goals are more easily attained and maintained.
90 Days: By this point, the very first goal set the first week can finally be considered reached. It takes 90 days to consider any goal a habit. Time to feel proud.
This approach is pretty hardcore and not for “beginners”. I’d say you should start with a 30 day habit cycle.
“Commitment is doing the thing you said you were going to do
long after the mood you said it in has left you.” –Darren Hardy
The crux of positive thinking
A last advice is to not get lost in planning out the coming weeks in to much detail. Procrastinators LOVE planning, it is the doing that is the hard part. Sit down 1 day and make a Plan. Than start with that plan on that day. Or even better, right now. Don’t fall in the “I start on First of March” trap. Another concept made up by Tim urban is the “Future You”. The ace up all Procrastinators sleeves is the imagination that the “Future You” will be handle all the things on your to do list with ease. It is just not time yet. People start to build a picture about themselves in their head that is too good to be true. A quote from his article:
“When my alarm goes off and I don’t want to wake up, I just press the snooze button, which doles out the job of getting out of bed to Future Tim instead. My to-do list has two parts—a short, easy one for me, and a long one, full of all the things I can’t imagine ever doing, because they’re so icky-seeming. Future Tim always handles that one, without a complaint. Future Tim also has no problem with even the vilest of social obligations. I was recently invited to attend a feedback-giving session for a three-hour-long play written by someone I barely know—I certainly had no intention of ever doing that, but I would also have felt guilty just saying no, so I explained that I have a busy couple months, but that I’d be more than happy to join when it happens again this summer, a time when it’ll be Future Tim’s problem, not mine.
Future Tim also has a discipline and balance to his lifestyle I could only ever dream of. I’ve never been much of an exerciser—but Future Tim belongs to a gym and does all the jogging for both of us, and I love how into cooking healthy meals Future Tim is, because I personally don’t have the time. Future Tim is the kind of guy we all want to be like—I suggest getting to know him yourself, which you can do by buying his books, since he’s a prolific author.”
The Problem is, the Future You does not exist.
Everybody has its on set of believes about themselves. Our inner voice and the IGA-Citizen wants to protect these believes. If you believe to be a nice guy, you will avoid situation that contradict that belief. If you’re only good at video games, you will avoid anything that doesn’t involve video games. The hardest things for us to do in life are full of emotional resistance.
There is a certain kind of danger involved with making positive visualisation about yourself, an often heard recommendation. “You are amazing, you can do anything you want. You will become the best painter in the world. Just believe in yourself.” If you talk yourself up like this the more you attach your identity to superlatives like being the “best” and “most talented” the more any action you would take has the ability to threaten that belief.
Because of that you’re less likely to actually act than you were before. Again, letting go is the solution.
Author Mark Manson recommends the following: “I have some good news and bad news for you: there’s very little that is special about you or your problems. Redefine yourself in mundane and broad ways. Choose to see yourself not as this rising star or unheard genius. Choose to see yourself not as some horrible victim or dismal failure. Instead, see yourself as just a few simple things: a student, a partner, a friend, a creator.
This often means giving up some grandiose and pleasant ideas about yourself: that you’re uniquely intelligent, or spectacularly talented, or intimidatingly attractive, or especially victimized in ways other people simply could never imagine.
We like telling ourselves these stories. They make us feel good. But they also hold us back.
Define yourself in the simplest and most mundane ways possible. Because the narrower and rarer the identity you choose for yourself, the more everything will begin to threaten you. And with those threats will come the avoidance, the fear, and the procrastination of all of the things that really matter.”
Why the long text? Defeating procrastination and IGAs is on par with gaining control over your life and building a rock solid frame. It’s one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and it’s toll on success, happiness, confidence, fulfilment, regrets and free time is heavy.
The time for improvement is now, your Future You will thank you. Bye recognizing who’s in control of the steering wheel of your life you’ll be able to balance out it’s default state. Someday in the future you might find yourself ignoring that urge for IGAs. You will say “No, not now”. Your Life than has forever changed.