When I met American author, entrepreneur, and public speaker Tim Ferris at an event this year he said something that stuck with me. ‘Reading is a great way to procrastinate,’ as if he knew my big secret. Later, I listened to an interview where the host asked Tim about his favourite podcasts. ‘I don’t have time to listen to podcasts,’ Tim responded. Those words slapped me across the face so hard that I had to write about it…
The thought hadn’t occurred to me – or at least no one had ever laid it out so bluntly for me. Tim Ferris isn’t spending his whole day (or even part of it) reading or listening to podcasts. How could he? He’s the master of creating great content, and the more time you’re making, the less time you have for creation. That’s the saying, isn’t it? ‘Be a creator, not a consumer.’
Easier said than done, especially nowadays. The never-ending slew of distractions in our lives is particularly troublesome for people who create for a living. Focusing on your work becomes even more challenging when you’re tackling a big project. It’s like crossing the Atlantic ocean in a bathtub! Creation is a journey for a future reward that is often uncertain. But we do it because we have to, because the world is a better place for it.
In the classic hero-novel The Alchemist, our protagonist knows exactly where he’s going. He’s got the map and everything, but he gets distracted along the way. Again and again. After a few years, he realises he’s distracted: ‘Oh yeah, I was going somewhere.’ This is the story of our lives.
How can we wake up? We can’t will ourselves into being more productive or attentive or focussed. We have to unplug the tubes from the back of our heads. That usually means getting rid of bad habits and forming good ones. In The Power of Habit I learned that you never really lose your habits, you just replace them with different ones. As long as you have a cue and a reward, then you’re golden.
As a writer, my job is straightforward: open up a blank word document and start typing. But how can I be better? How can I focus for longer? How can I be more creative? In the process of asking these questions I’ve experimented a lot. Eventually I realised I was doing everything else except for what I was supposed to be doing. You know, the actual writing part.
Here’s all the bad habits I’ve fallen into, which I tricked myself into thinking were good and got lost along the way. No doubt, certain habits were healthy in moderation. But mostly they distracted me from doing what I was supposed to be doing. So here’s six daily habits that you can eliminate (or do less of) and replace with… action!
#1. Don’t read
I read for inspiration before I write in the morning. But how much reading do I need to get inspired? One hour, two, three? All day? Try… 30 minutes. I found that just half an hour of concentrated reading is plenty to get the brain juices flowing. I can usually remember what I read, too.
I used to read every book I bought, cover to cover. It would be painful, but I’d get through it. Perhaps this was a bad habit from my school days. So I stopped doing that. Now, when I don’t like a book, I either forget about it or skip to the very end and see what the whole conclusion was. I don’t feel guilty anymore.
I trust Stephen King when he says you should be reading and writing a lot to become a better writer. And I do, during ‘down time’ that is usually in the afternoon before bed. Its just that reading for long stretches of time in the mornings doesn’t make sense; and reading as an excuse for not working becomes entertainment and a distraction just like anything else.
#2. Don’t email
Email is such a great way to convince yourself that you’re being productive. When you use your email as a checklist, you have a problem. Just sitting there staring at your email can feel good… you know what I’m talking about. When you use your email to guide your activities during the day, you’re being reactive. My suggestion is not to send emails, and if you need to check, slot out a time in the afternoon. Checking email particularly in the morning starts your brain off in a negative spiral of dopamine-firing that sets you up for constant distraction for the rest of the day.
#3. Don’t eat
When I eat anything I go into kind of a haze. Eating feels good. Eating is the biggest industry. When I do my periodic 4-5 day fasts and walk around Tokyo, I’m amazed. The entire city smells like food. It’s a trap. For most of human history we didn’t have three meals a day. Food is killing your productivity and your creativity.
I can increase the length of focus and mental clarity when I just drink coffee+ghee in the morning and the only one meal a day. I don’t have erratic changes in blood sugar. I still eat muffins and potatoes at night when I don’t expect to get work done.
You don’t have to go keto, you can experiment with intermittent fasting, which has been shown to improve cognitive function. Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, fasts once a week because it increases his creativity. Hemingway wrote that hunger made him a more disciplined writer. The ‘starving artist’ has some truth to it after all.
#4. Don’t exercise
Let me rephrase: exercise at the right times. Oh, and don’t get addicted to the gym! I knew a guy who had to go to the gym everyday and he was scared to travel because he feared there wouldn’t be a gym nearby. Anything can become an addiction if you become solely dependent on it for your well-being. In fact, researchers have even coined the term “exercise addiction“.
For me this means not exercising too early in the morning, and not every morning. I get my best writing done the first three hours of the day. Why would I replace my writing time with exercise time? You can go to the gym later. Try lunchtime or weekends.
Most of us are most productive in the morning and have an afternoon lull, so get important stuff done early and don’t schedule things in the afternoon.
#5. Don’t set goals
You have big dreams to write a sci-fi novel. You don’t have a habit of writing every day, and you’re really busy with work. How will you take the first steps? Wake up one day and just start writing two pages every day? No, that’s not realistic. Instead, you create a system; you set your alarm to wake up an hour early every morning to write. The first few days are tough and you don’t write much. But after a few weeks, you’re waking up naturally without the alarm. Your body has adjusted and it has become a habit. Now that it’s easy to wake up and write, you can set a specific goal to write 500 words a day, and a longer term goal to finish your first draft in nine months. Remember, systems trump goals!
Goals come to an end, whether we achieve them or give up, and rarely provide the climatic pleasure we so seek. Just because we make something a goal doesn’t mean it becomes a healthy habit, and it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable over the long run. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather focus on building great habits that make me a better person, instead of always chasing the next goal. Next year’s resolutions fail because they’re perceived as goals rather than changes in habit.
#6. Don’t buy stuff
Money is a big worry, in fact, one of our biggest worries. Eliminate worries. Don’t buy stuff you can’t afford. When you have car payments, mortgage and credit card bills, this kills your creativity. The more junk you have in your head, the more stuff you have to worry about, the more tense your mind becomes. When you have less monthly payments this will also increase the chances that you can actually make a living from your art, whatever that may be.
A common thread…
Everything I did when I wasn’t writing, rather than tools that led me to success, were tools for procrastination. It was easy to procrastinate because it was pleasurable. From feeling good after the gym to the dopamine rush of checking emails, all of those activities made me ‘feel good’ physiologically to some degree.
This drive to feel good comes from somewhere. Likely from a place of discomfort, i.e., ‘I want to feel better than I do now.’ Everything I’m doing, then, is a desired antidote to a feeling of displeasure. But what us that feeling of displeasure about? Where does it come from?
Often procrastination is fuelled by an unconscious fear of success. How do we explain this paradoxical tendency to sabotage our own potential? It could be the idea that change itself is scary, or the possibility that a person does not believe they deserve success, underlying self-hatred or masochism, amongst other drivers.
Of course, it depends on the person. Your situation might be different. You may have internalised negative feedback from the past that’s stopping you from being your best. Or maybe you’re afraid that true success is a lonely road and that first step implies big change on your part. Whatever it may be, it’s worth thinking about your drivers.
I’ll leave you with this question to ponder: What is that unconscious force which is driving you to procrastinate and drawing you away from achieving your goals? Think long and hard, because once you can answer this, you can start to make real progress.
About the author: Misha Yurchenko is a Japan-based recruiter, writer and entrepreneur. He has consulted startups, Fortune 500 companies like Amazon and Facebook on hiring strategy, and his work has been featured by Forbes, Inc., and Newsweek. He also writes on a range of subjects; from the job market and technology to Japanese culture. You can follow Misha on Facebook or subscribe to his newsletter here. For a more in-depth look at Misha’s career journey, click here.