The Most Glossed Over (But Important) Step Towards Becoming More Productive

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Every time you sit down to do some work on one of your projects, you have a seething doubt in the back of your mind. It weighs down on you and makes work impossible when it’s already hard, and hard when it should be easy.

You’re not convinced that this is what you should be doing. That this is the route you’re supposed to be taking. You have all these other ideas for possible routes to take in life, for things you could be pursuing right now, and you simply can’t let go.

Sometimes procrastination happens for a reason. Your brain is trying to communicate that you have better things to do than what you’re putting off. Things that are more important.

In essence, when you’re not certain that you’re doing, you’re adding another choice on top of the choice to work. You have to make a decision about what you should be doing as well, making it significantly more difficult, and mentally draining, to get started every day.

So how do you know that you’ve chosen the right option? Or at least, how do you convince yourself?

Be Brutally Honest With Yourself

Do you truly want to, and currently have the capacity to work on the ideas that seem more appealing at the moment, or are you simply dreaming because the work itself is more tedious than you had imagined (as work often is in the beginning)?

While there comes a time when moving on from a failed idea is a good choice, but if you haven’t actually done that much work, 90% of the time it will be too early to say.

Remember Why You Picked This Route

There’s usually a reason why you picked this project over the other 15 ideas you had. Remember that reason. Write it on a post-it and wake up to it every morning. Write it on your to-do list.

If your goal with the project is to help someone with something, step in personally and help someone. Go to forums and answer a difficult question nobody else wants to touch. Help a friend achieve what your service/book/blog/product is supposed to help people achieve.

Not only does this put you back in touch with your reason for starting, but it can offer you initial insights that can help shape what you’re working on.

The Almost Kinda Ben Franklin Effect(Identity-based Habits)

The “Ben Franklin effect” is a term that refers to how you can reprogram how someone feels about you by having them do you a favor. After doing the favor, they will rationalize that they actually like you, otherwise why would they have done you the favor?

By always, and I mean always, prioritizing doing the work for what you suspect to be your best bet, even if you’re nowhere near sure, you could possibly rewrite the way your mind thinks about it. Because you’re always working on it, it might seem only logical that this project is indeed your best bet.

James Clear introduced me to a concept called identity-based habits. Tiny, consistent behaviors that change how you see yourself. That change your own internal identity. So you could for example start out taking super small steps in the right direction, focusing only on what you decided to work on, and gradually you will start to think of yourself as more aligned with the goal.

Conversely if you’re always procrastinating about working towards your current chosen goal, you’re teaching yourself that it’s not a priority to you.

Dismiss Your Other Options Without Delving Further To Avoid Regret And Doubt

In a very illuminating post about why many people fail at changing bad habits, Tyler of riskology.co touched upon a very surprising truth. The more deeply you consider each of your options, the more information you gather, the less likely you are to make a good choice. And so the more you focus on what you’re not doing (your other ideas/goals) the harder it gets to work towards your current one.

To make matters worse, in Tim Ferris essay about the choice minimal lifestyle he mentions that the more you consider different options, not only do you have less mental energy to spend on taking action, the more likely you are to have buyer’s regret(idea from the book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less”). This is perhaps especially powerful when there’s no real way of knowing the correctness of any choice.. like when you’ve chosen a particular goal or even a career path out of x options you were considering.

Ironically, this means that the more you try to be logical and rational about making your choice, not only are you less likely to make the right choice, but the more you will work against yourself later in the form of buyer’s regret (in this case, wishing you had pursued a different goal).

Don’t Mix Decisions And Work, Make Decisions, Trust Them And Do The Work

This is a concept that was first introduced to me over at Fizzle(great learning resources/a community for people interested in starting their own online business) and it revolves around separating the acts of planning/decision making, and doing the actual work.

When you’re working, you don’t second guess your decisions to put this and that in that order on the to-do list. You just work through it. You trust your recipe.

If you’re always thinking and planning ahead, it gets increasingly hard to actually get stuff done.

Borrow Someone Else’s Judgement For Confirmation

Now you can do this by actually describing your options to someone who you respect and trust and ask them what they would choose, or you can go back to the book, article, blog, interview or whatever helped you make the decision in the first place.

Be careful to only ask for the opinion of someone who is able to make an informed statement on this particular issue, not just someone who you respect in general.

Realize That Your Dilemma Might Not Be As Much Of A Dilemma After All

Cal Newport has a very, very freeing idea for this kind of dilemma. In his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” he suggests that passion doesn’t come first. That passion doesn’t lead to skill, or excellence, or enjoying your work, but that excellence leads to passion and enjoying your work.

What this means for you is that, it doesn’t really matter what you choose. In essence, there is no “right choice”, whichever choice you make will become the right one as long as you stay true to it, and actually do the work. The further along you get, the more you will enjoy the process, and the more sure you will be that indeed, you made the right decision.

The difference this conviction makes is significant. Instead of there being a tough layer of resistance to getting started every single time, it makes it easy to keep going when it should be, and possible to keep going when it’s hard.

And while I still have some ups and downs(hence I wrote this post), I’m starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. And through a combination of diligence, laser focus and outside confirmation, I’m confident I can slowly reduce the doubt and procrastination that often comes along with it. And so can you.

Picture by Alden Jewell

3 Responses

  1. Eileen May 27, 2014 / 7:15 pm

    Thanks Ragnar, this is just what I needed to read as I am floundering at the beginning of my dissertation; with all that seething doubt in my mind just as you describe. I’ll mull over what you have written and begin again tomorrow and stick at it. Thank you!

    • Ragnar Miljeteig May 28, 2014 / 3:24 am

      Happy to be of assistance Eileen! I actually needed this myself too, which is why I started to write it in the first place, to collect my thoughts and outside ideas on the subject, haha.

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