A while ago, I read an interesting book called The Magic Lamp: Goal Setting for People Who Hate Goals by Keith Ellis. Much of his approach is compatible with mine. Here is a clever tactic of his for using your skill at procrastination as a power for good.
What do you do when you don’t feel like doing the thing you believe is your most rationally selfish next action, or you are tempted to do something that you don’t believe is in your rational self interest?
The general solution to dealing with any resistance or temptation is to give contrary motivation a fair hearing. There are no out-of-context absolutes in action. Some new factor may have entered the picture, in which case, your priorities could have shifted.
But if while holding the full context, you still don’t feel like doing what you conclude you should, following through is the most important action you can take for your own overall happiness.
Ellis points out that at these times, the problem is that you are disconnected from the value at stake — from your “wish,” as he calls it. The life-giving value of this activity is not real to you at the moment because it is too far away. The goal is not immediate; it is in the future. You need some way to make it real now.
The general solution
Many people recommend just using willpower in these cases. Ellis agrees with me that you need to activate motivation, not pressure yourself to do what you think is good for you.
Pressuring yourself may get some short-term results, but it always reduces your overall happiness. When you pressure yourself to “do the right thing,” you motivate it by fear and guilt. This process causes you to develop an aversion to doing the tasks that are good for you! Which means you’ll feel even less desire to follow through the next time!
It is much better to motivate tasks that are good for you through love, desire, and joy. A compelling goal can be used to motivate all the less glamorous tasks that are a means to its end. But it takes a certain skill. I teach courses on various aspects of this skill, such as my freebie “Set Goals that Motivate.”
But if you don’t have those skills and you aren’t seeing the payoff in your mind at the moment, other actions will be more appealing.
Ellis’s procrastination switcheroo
Ellis offers a memorable tactic that can sometimes help you out of a specific jam.
When you are tempted to ditch your rational priority, Ellis suggests you bring the future goal to the present and make a choice between the goal and the “bad” choice.
Here’s his example:
Suppose your ultimate desire is to lose thirty pounds in six months, but your immediate desire is to inhale a hot fudge sundae that is melting in front of your eyes….
Instead of forcing yourself to toe the line, change the line. Make your ultimate desire and immediate desire change places. Turn the sundae into something you can put off. Then turn your ideal weight into something you insist on right now….
You can make this all-important switch simply by asking yourself a preference question: At this instant, would I prefer to be my ideal weight or have a hot fudge sundae?
Notice you aren’t asking yourself if you would like to reach your ideal weight sometime in the future. Instead, you’re asking yourself if you would prefer that weight right now, in place of a hot fudge sundae.
Under these circumstances, if you choose the sundae, you might as well give up your wish to lose weight. You have no intention of following through. If you don’t prefer your ideal weight to a sundae today, when will you?
And then what do you do about the sundae? Procrastinate on it! He says, “Don’t deny it. Don’t forbid it. Don’t threaten yourself. Just procrastinate.” What a great way to turn the tables. Procrastination is easy!
The tool helps you choose willingly to do something that you believe you should do, even though you’re resistant to it or tempted to do something else. It works by bringing the value of the “should” into the present and reconceiving the choice as being between the real value and the fake one.
This tactic reframes the question in a way that can motivate you immediately. It re-weights the value judgment, and makes it easier to dispel resistance and temptation and take that crucial next step toward your values. It does this in part by bringing you into the present and in part by finding something you are willing to do.
There are other, more powerful tactics. But sometimes a simple change in perspective can make the difference in whether you follow through on your intention — or not.
So maybe next time you’re tempted to lie in bed instead of going to the gym, procrastinate on lying in bed instead. You’ll lie in bed “later.”
Hah! I just finished off a long procrastination and put in my retirement paperwork. Does that count?