I read a couple of really great books last week and I want to share some of the key points with you because they deal with the power of habit and the issue of procrastination which I think everyone struggles with at some point in their career and life.
Just let me start by saying that I read ALOT. I actually have trouble describing it as reading, its more like consuming or devouring. I also read really fast so it’s easy for me to go through two, three, or four books a week. I attribute my success in university to my ability to absorb content at lightening speed, I wasn’t smarter but I could actually get all the reading done. I actually have to put myself on a reading diet sometimes so it doesn’t become all consuming. Thankfully I have managed to transition to eReading because my house was starting to fill up with books. I wasn’t sure I could do it because of the real attachment I felt to the paper copies but it worked and I would never go back. I’ll come back to this transition in a minute but meanwhile onto the books.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg describes why we fall into certain routines and why we continue to do them, even when they become incredibly detrimental to our lives. His theory revolves around the idea that habits are formed in the primitive part of the brain and don’t involve conscious reasoning, somewhere just above breathing in the ‘fight or flight’ region. He hypothesizes that a habit has three parts, a cue, an associated routine, and a reward and that by creating some consciousness around those parts for a limited amount of time(two or three weeks) it is possible to rewire the brain into a desirable habit.
So let’s look at my reading habit as an example. The ‘cue’ for me to read something is usually a need for distraction. I generally look to buy a new book when I am stressed out about work or family, need a break from real life or just generally want to escape. The ‘routine’ used to be a trip to the bookstore to browse through the shelves and look for something appealing. I would pick up several books at a time, often a whole series, and take them home. The ‘reward’ was blissful escape from all life’s daily grind.
Now, the change I made to this habit was from paper books to ebooks and it happened pretty effortlessly but why? The ‘routine’ phase of the habit was disrupted so there should have been some resistance but there wasn’t. Instead of a trip to the bookstore all I do now is go online and download something. I often download multiple previews, read some reviews, and then ultimately pick something to purchase, all in a matter of ten minutes or so. I don’t miss the actual books and in fact have gotten rid of most of my physical collection.
According to Mr. Duhigg the reason it worked is because of the continuity of the ‘reward’. If the reward I was seeking was really a trip to the bookstore to browse the shelves and chat with other readers about the books or even just the collection of the physical copies, then my switch to eReading would have failed. According to him any habit can be modified by changing the ‘routine’ associated with the ‘cue’ and the ‘reward’. The only trick is to truly understand the underlying motivation. Fascinating stuff and I will be doing my own experiments for sure. One final tidbit is the idea of key habits such as exercise. A key habit has a wide reaching effect on other habits and areas of life so someone who manages to create a strong positive key habit like exercise will soon be eating healthier and become more productive at work. Food for thought.
The other book I read last week was The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel. I was a little surprised to find many similarities in the two books but really procrastination is a habit of sorts, so it makes sense. Professor Steel’s theory is that procrastination is extremely detrimental to people and society because of the lost production it creates and that it is possible to train oneself to stop. His theory also connects procrastination to the same primitive brain area below conscious reasoning and links it to the concept of instant gratification versus delayed reward. He believes that success in modern society is often related to an ability to delay reward but that it is a relatively new phenomenon. His theory suggests that the people with the most procrastination trouble are also the most impulsive and so seek instant gratification. He actually created a mathematical equation that predicts the behavior of a procrastinator.
Boring chores like financial planning for retirement or writing a term paper due in four months are seen as tasks with long term rewards but no immediate benefit and are then delayed to the point where the benefit is closer. That’s why there are so many students who brew a pot of coffee and write their term paper the night before its due. Its also why the vast majority of people don’t have a will even though they know it will create problems for their family. The reward for writing a term paper at the beginning of the semester is the time gained at the end of the semester and that delayed gratification is not enough incentive for most students.
Professor Steel suggests trying some visualization techniques to retrain your thought process and end the procrastination. There is usually something that kickstarts the work at the last minute such as the looming reality that missing the deadline will result in public humiliation or a missed bonus cheque. So, the theory goes that visualizing that dreaded event in great detail with a few other added unexpected events will prompt an earlier start. For example, waiting until the last minute to work on a presentation but then being assigned an unexpected urgent report thereby making it impossible to complete the presentation. Visualizing the fallout of not having control over one’s time during the allotted last minute hours should prompt an earlier start. I actually did this awhile ago to help me get out the door on time. I imagine my boss and the the rest of the management team all sitting around the boardroom table, while I have to walk in ten minutes late and the total embarrassment I will feel. It works every time.
There are also an array of typical time management techniques with the most important ones being to remove distractions and excuses. Using internet browsing blockers, cleaning the clutter out of your workspace, and setting short deadlines are some of the tactics described. Really though the idea is to rewire the procrastination habit into a way to get things done better and more efficiently. All good suggestions for a huge procrastinator like me!
I chose these books because I am really trying to change my whole life routine from a nine to five gal to an entrepreneur. What I am finding is that the motivation to get down to work is really easy for some tasks and not so easy for others. I am not good at dealing with routine and I lose interest in the mundane pretty quickly so I need to find some tactics for powering through those types of chores. I am certainly going to give these techniques a try and would recommend these books to anyone looking for some solid tactics for making changes. Changing my whole life seemed a bit daunting but changing a few habits seems more reasonable and I see now can have some really positive effects on all areas of my life, so I’m up for the challenge. First habit on the list–exercise!