2/23/14

How to Make Yourself Work When You Just Don't Want To

There’s that project you’ve left on the backburner – the one with the deadline that’s growing uncomfortably near.  And there’s the client whose phone call you really should return – the one that does nothing but complain and eat up your valuable time.  Wait, weren’t you going to try to go to the gym more often this year?
Can you imagine how much less guilt, stress, and frustration you would feel if you could somehow just make yourself do the things you don’t want to do when you are actually supposed to do them?  Not to mention how much happier and more effective you would be?
The good news (and its very good news) is that you can get better about not putting things off, if you use the right strategy.  Figuring out which strategy to use depends on why you are procrastinating in the first place:
Reason #1   You are putting something off because you are afraid you will screw it up.
Solution:  Adopt a “prevention focus.”
There are two ways to look at any task.  You can do something because you see it as a way to end up better off than you are now – as an achievement or accomplishment.  As in, if I complete this project successfully I will impress my boss, or if I work out regularly I will look amazing. Psychologists call this a promotion focus – and research shows that when you have one, you are motivated by the thought of making gains, and work best when you feel eager and optimistic.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Well, if you are afraid you will screw up on the task in question, this is not the focus for you.  Anxiety and doubt undermine promotion motivation, leaving you less likely to take any action at all.
What you need is a way of looking at what you need to do that isn’t undermined by doubt – ideally, one that thrives on it.  When you have a prevention focus, instead of thinking about how you can end up better off, you see the task as a way to hang on to what you’ve already got – to avoid loss.   For the prevention-focused, successfully completing a project is a way to keep your boss from being angry or thinking less of you.  Working out regularly is a way to not “let yourself go.”  Decades of research, which I describe in my book Focus, shows that prevention motivation is actually enhanced by anxiety about what might go wrong.  When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action.  The more worried you are, the faster you are out of the gate.
I know this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, particularly if you are usually more the promotion-minded type, but there is probably no better way to get over your anxiety about screwing up than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of doing nothing at all.    Go on, scare the pants off yourself.  It feels awful, but it works.
Reason #2     You are putting something off because you don’t “feel” like doing it.
Solution: Make like Spock and ignore your feelings.  They’re getting in your way.
In his excellent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman points out that much of the time, when we say things like “I just can’t get out of bed early in the morning, “ or “I just can’t get myself to exercise,” what we really mean is that we can’t get ourselves to feel like doing these things.  After all, no one is tying you to your bed every morning.  Intimidating bouncers aren’t blocking the entrance to your gym.  Physically, nothing is stopping you – you just don’t feel like it.  But as Burkeman asks,  “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?”
Think about that for a minute, because it’s really important.  Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea – without consciously realizing it – that to be motivated and effective we need tofeel like we want to take action.  We need to be eager to do so.  I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100% nonsense. Yes, on some level you need to be committed to what you are doing – you need to want to see the project finished, or get healthier, or get an earlier start to your day.  But you don’t need to feel like doing it.
In fact, as Burkeman points out, many of the most prolific artists, writers, and innovators have become so in part because of their reliance on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how uninspired (or, in many instances, hungover) they might have felt.  Burkeman reminds us of renowned artist Chuck Close’s observation that “Inspiration is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
So if you are sitting there, putting something off because you don’t feel like it, remember that you don’t actually need to feel like it.  There is nothing stopping you.
Reason #3   You are putting something off because it’s hard, boring, or otherwise unpleasant.
Solution:  Use if-then planning.
Too often, we try to solve this particular problem with sheer will:  Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner.  Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place.   Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.
Do yourself a favor, and embrace the fact that your willpower is limited, and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or otherwise awful.  Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.
Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project – it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.
If it is 2pm, then I will stop what I’m doing and start work on the report Bob asked for.
If my boss doesn’t mention my request for a raise at our meeting, then I will bring it up again before the meeting ends.
By deciding in advance exactly what you’re going to do, and when and where you’re going to do it, there’s no deliberating when the time comes.   No do I really have to do this now?, or can this wait till later? or maybe I should do something else instead.   It’s when we deliberate that willpower becomes necessary to make the tough choice.  But if-then plans dramatically reduce the demands placed on your willpower, by ensuring that you’ve made the right decision way ahead of the critical moment. In fact,  if-then planning has been shown in over 200 studies to increase rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200%-300% on average.
I realize that the three strategies I’m offering you – thinking about the consequences of failure, ignoring your feelings, and engaging in detailed planning – don’t sound as fun as advice like “Follow your passion!” or “Stay positive!”  But they have the decided advantage of actually being effective –which, as it happens, is exactly what you’ll be if you use them.

Check out my latest video via 99u:

1/7/14

FOCUS in Paperback - Preorder Now!

Very excited to announce that FOCUS is now available for preorder in paperback, and ships January 28th!  To check it out on Amazon, click here:




Click on this link to download the free FOCUS companion workbook!

Here are some of my favorite posts on promotion and prevention focus:


How to Get Better at Spotting Opportunities (HBR)

Is Your Focus Promotion or Prevention?  (Dan Pink)

Master Your Motivation to Boost Your Career (CNN)

How to Walk Away (The Atlantic)

How Happiness Changes With Age (The Atlantic)

Do You Play to Win or Not Lose?  (HBR)


And here's the book trailer:


12/16/13

New Research: Rituals Make Us Value Things More

Rituals in the workplace can reinforce the behaviors we want, create focus and a sense of belonging, and make change stick.  I have gone on and on in the past about the benefits of established rituals and routines for personal productivity – how they capitalize on our brains’ ability to direct our behavior on autopilot, allowing us to reach our goals even when we are distracted or preoccupied with other things. And there are plenty of companies who’ve been smart enough to harness this power. At Google, for example, new employees have a ritual now made famous by the Vince Vaughn/ Owen Wilson film The Internship­ – they wear beanie hats in the Google logo colors with propellers on top that say “Noogler.”  Far from feeling ridiculous, Google employees feel that the ritual of the Noogler hat marks them as part of an exclusive group.
But new research demonstrates that the power of rituals goes even further – they can increase our perception of value, too.  In other words, if employees perform rituals as part of their jobs, they are likely to find their jobs more rewarding.  And if consumers use a ritual to experience your product, they are likely to enjoy it more and be willing to pay more for it.
Kathleen Vohs and Yajin Wang of the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota, along with Francesa Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, conducted a series of studies looking at how ritual changed the experience of consuming a variety of foods.
In one study, participants tasted chocolate, either ritualistically (i.e., with the instruction to break the bar in half without unwrapping it, unwrap half the bar and eat it, and then unwrap the other half and eat it), or as they normally would.
Those who performed the ritual reported finding the chocolate more flavorful and enjoying it more.  They also took more time to savor it, and were willing to pay nearly twice as much for more of it.
In another study, the researchers found the same pattern of results for a decidedly less glamorous food: the carrot.  This time, participants used their knuckles to rap on the table, took deep breaths, and then closed their eyes before eating the carrot.  And yes, that is weird.  But it still made them like the carrots more.
How does ritual increase value?  Vohs and her colleagues found evidence to suggest that personal involvement is the real driver of these effects. In other words, rituals help people to feel more deeply involved in their consumption experience, which in turn heightens its perceived value.
This makes a lot of intuitive sense when you consider the success of some iconic brands.  Oreos, for instance, aren’t just two chocolate cookies with some vanilla cream inside – the way you eat an Oreo matters, too.  As everyone knows, you twist it, lick it, and dunk it.
The Oreo ritual is as famous as the cookie itself  – and no small part of why it is the world’s best selling-cookie.
Then there’s Guinness – the best-selling drink in Ireland and a global powerhouse available in 100 countries, with nearly two billion Guinness pints consumed annually.  And it all starts with the proper Guinness pour – at an angle, allowing it to settle for two minutes when only three-quarters of the way full, then gently topping off.  Guinness fans will fervently swear that a proper pour elevates the stout to heavenly heights and will riot when the pour is botched.

So when you’re thinking about how to market a product, consider how you might add a bit of ritual to the experience.  For instance, if you’re selling a state-of-the-art tablet or smartphone with a new high-resolution display, try packaging it with some screen-wipes and make giving the screen “a nightly rubdown to maintain the dazzling display” part of your ad campaign.  Customers who are ritually cleaning and caring for your tablet will value it more, and are more likely to become loyal fans of your brand.
Or think about how this might change the way you use incentives, since these results should also apply to how employees value rewards. For instance, if you’re giving them a bonus, don’t just leave the check in their mailbox — find a way to give it to them that involves some formality. The ritual doesn’t even have to make sense – after all, what does knuckle-rapping have to do with carrots?  So when doling out rewards or celebrating milestones, get creative.  Bang a gong, do an end-zone dance, hand out your own version of the green “Masters” jacket that the employee wears for a week.
Simple rituals like these will make whatever you have to offer – to your customers or to your team – look and feel like more.  Wrap it in a ritual, and you will have created added value right out of thin air.