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How to Eliminate Procrastination (The Surprising Strategy One Man Used)

How to Eliminate Procrastination (The Surprising Strategy One Man Used)
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In 2009, Fred Stutzman was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. He was trying to grind out some important work on his thesis. But there was a problem.

His favorite coffee shop, which had previously been a quiet sanctuary where he could escape distraction and get work done, had just added a new and very dangerous feature.

Wireless internet.

Now Stutzman found himself constantly distracted by the endless supply of entertainment and social media on the web — even if he really wanted to get something done. He tried disconnecting from the internet, but it wasn’t that simple. He was always clicking it back on to “take a break.” He was constantly fighting the urge to check his messages and updates.

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Thankfully, Stutzman happened to be a programmer studying Information Science. When he went home that night, he decided to create a software program that would solve his problem.

The program he created was simple. You turned the application on, told it how long you wanted to focus, and it prevented your computer from going online for that amount of time. If you wanted to get back on before your time was up, you had to turn your computer completely off and reboot.

The program was called Freedom. Not long after Stutzman created it, the application went viral. It was picked up by NPR, The Economist, The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, Time, and nearly every major news outlet you can imagine. More than 500,000 people downloaded it.

It seems that many people were struggling with online procrastination.

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Why did Freedom work so well? And what can it teach us about sticking to better habits and mastering our willpower?

The Power of Decision Elimination

Making decisions over and over again will drain your willpower. This is true even if it’s the same, tiny decision — like constantly resisting the urge to check your email. (Another example is continually trying to follow a new, strict diet.)

You might be able to resist for 5 minutes or an hour or maybe even a week, but eventually, your willpower will begin to fade and you’ll give in. This is known as decision fatigue. In a previous article I discussed how it has a measurable impact on your willpower and the choices you make throughout any given day.

The Freedom app that Stutzman designed is effective not only because it prevents you from reaching the web, but also because it reduces decision fatigue. It eliminates your options and, as a result, doing the right thing becomes much easier. In other words, the application places a constraint on your behavior.

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This brings us to an important point: constraints can make it easier to stick to good habits by eliminating the number of decisions you need to make to move forward.

Constraints are a Good Thing

People often say that they want options. When it comes to getting things done, however, options aren’t always a good thing. When everything is a possibility, it actually becomes harder to make the right choice (or any choice at all). This is the paradox of choice.

Meanwhile, when we place a constraint on ourselves, it can become much easier to get something done. This is especially true if it is a constraint that forces us to start small.

  • If you want to start exercising, set a rule for yourself where you are not allowed to exercise for more than five minutes. You have to stop exercising after five minutes. I talked with a reader named Mitch who used this strategy to make his first six weeks of exercise very easy and then gradually built up to doing more. He ended up losing over 100 pounds. (Nice work, Mitch!)
  • If you want to become more creative, you can use constraints to drive your creativity. For example, you could write a book by only using 50 different words. This is the strategy Dr. Seuss used to write Green Eggs and Ham. (Full story here.)
  • If you want to eat more vegetables, you could limit yourself to only one type of vegetable this week. By limiting the number of choices you have to make, it’s more likely that you’ll actually eat something healthy rather than get overwhelmed trying to figure out all of the details of the perfect diet.

We often think that we want an open road and the ability to choose any direction for ourselves. But sometimes, what we need is a tunnel that can reduce our choices and send us in a focused direction.

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How can you eliminate the need to make the same decisions over and over again? How can you use constraints to drive your habits forward — even if it’s in a very small way?

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: Lynn Friedman via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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