Stop procrastinating! Your Future Self will thank you.
Motivation is an elusive state-of-mind. Why do today what you can put off for tomorrow? Because you’re only hurting yourself, that’s why. Since life is always easier when you don’t procrastinate, here are some tips and tricks to keep you on the motivational straight-and-narrow.
Of course you should make a list of what it is you have to do, but be as specific as possible. Write down step-by-step exactly what it will take to complete the task. Decide exactly where you will do it and when. It will be a lot less intimidating if you break the bigger project down into smaller, more manageable pieces. And by planning ahead, you can facilitate all the right conditions for getting a job done. Keep your list close by and stay organized by ticking off each step as you finish it.
When you put something off, however big or small, your Future Self suffers for it somewhere down the line. Whether you’re undertaking a difficult job move that might require a significant sacrifice of your personal time or simply deciding whether to do the laundry now or later, think about your Future Self. Won’t 40 year old Amy be grateful that 25 year old Amy moved to Houston and worked 70 hours a week to start down her dream career path and pay down her student debt? And won’t Wednesday Josh be happy that Sunday Josh did that load of laundry, ensuring that there would be clean underwear mid-week?
This one’s easy. The old “carrot-and-stick” method has proven effective time and again. In The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People, researchers found that:
“Perceived self-interest, the rewards one believes are at stake, is the most significant factor in predicting dedication and satisfaction toward work. It accounts for about 75 percent of personal motivation toward accomplishment.” – Dickinson 1999
So 75 percent won’t get you all the way to your goal, but that’s a lot of help. If your goal is to ride out the week without any junk food, reward yourself with some decadent brunch on Sunday (assuming you achieve your goal, of course).
Negative reinforcement methods of motivation have largely fallen out of favor, but they still have their time and place. For example, if you miss your workout one day out of an irresistible desire to sleep in, add an extra three minutes to your HIIT routine the next morning as “punishment”.
Generally, the best way to use negative reinforcement is to set up a “commitment device”. Make a commitment to do something, and if you blow it, you suffer the consequences. For example, tell your friend you’re going to run five miles tomorrow. Tell him or her that if you don’t do it, you owe them twenty dollars.
The fear of losing twenty dollars is perhaps not as strong as the fear of letting someone down. If someone else is counting on you to have something done, then you’ll be much more likely to do it. Twenty dollars comes and goes, but dedicated running buddies are harder to come by. Find a running partner to meet up with in the morning, and you won’t oversleep your morning run.
“The first step is the hardest to take” is not just a trite piece of advice – it’s measurably and observably true. When you’re depressed, bored or otherwise dissatisfied with your life, it’s a lot harder to take the first steps to change, because the reward you get from putting off a difficult task, simply eating another doughnut and hitting play on Netflix is immediately rewarding.
However, when you’ve just achieved something – like cleaning your apartment – you feel happy from the rush of completing something. When you’re happy because the reward of achievement is still fresh in your mind, it’s much easier to tackle another project.
In The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile contextualizes this phenomenon in the workplace:
“Of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress – setbacks in the work…[F]acilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life.”
It’s a catch-22, to be sure: it’s harder to motivate yourself if you don’t regularly motivate yourself. It’s harder to progress in the future if you aren’t progressing right now. But that means you have to lay the groundwork to create the habit. You have to create success to breed more success. In other words, it really is true: “first steps are always the hardest”.
Here’s the hardest part about motivating yourself – you have to really, genuinely want to achieve your goal. Even if you say you want to quit smoking, even if you can wholeheartedly admit that smoking is a terrible, nasty habit – if you don’t really, really want to stop smoking cigarettes, you’ll always go back to them.
That in itself requires motivation – finding a reason to really, really want something. If it’s a health-related issue and you can’t find motivation within yourself, you might trying looking to loved ones – your partner, your children – for motivation to really want to improve yourself. After all, your health issues do not only impact you.
Always make sure you’re progressing towards the right goals. Sometimes we set objectives for ourselves, follow them faithfully, and eventually lose track of why we were pursuing them in the first place. It’s hard to achieve mental clarity when you’re working all the time, so every now and then you need to give yourself a good, long break. Getaway to the mountains, hit the road or escape to a beautiful beach somewhere remote. Just make sure you unplug to allow yourself time for genuine and honest reflection – what do you really want? Re-evaluate your goals to keep yourself on track.