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Fight Downhill Battles: Let Laziness and Inertia Make You More Productive

Fight Downhill Battles: Let Laziness and Inertia Make You More Productive

Magazines

    Did you know that you can cancel a magazine subscription at any time? Return unwanted Book-of-the-Month Club selections? Cancel unused credit cards? Put an end to unwanted junk mail?

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    You probably did know that, and yet you still receive magazines you don’t read anymore, have a stack of books or CDs from membership clubs that you’ve never even opened, pay yearly fees on credit cards you neither use nor want, and open your mailbox several times a week to a flood of flyers, catalogs, and local papers — all of which go straight to the trash.

    Why is that? There’s almost no work involved in doing any of these things — a phone call, a “return to sender” scrawled across the package, maybe a letter, and you’re free! The time, money, and hassle you would save would be more than the cost of a few minutes on the phone.

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    The sticking point, though, is the “almost” in “almost no work involved”. We humans have a tremendous capacity for keeping on doing whatever we’re already doing — even when it doesn’t make sense anymore. Remember your physics? An object in motion will tend to stay in motion — unless acted on by an outside force.

    That’s inertia. In behavioral terms, it means that once we settle into a course of action, it becomes harder and harder to change it. All that little stuff, especially, is so easily procrastinated, so easily forgotten, so unlikely to be subject to the kind of outside forces that might lead us to make a change, that lots of companies have created successful business models out of it.

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    Don’t believe me? Take a look around your neighborhood and see how many yards have more than one newspaper sitting in them. Maybe your own yard has a few days’ worth of newspaper buildup. Every day you or your neighbors think “I really need to cancel that newspaper subscription” — and then they move on. Three months later, the bill comes. And is paid! And the cycle repeats itself…

    I’m not going to tell you how to break the cycle. You know how — sit down, make a list of all the little annoyances in your life that could easily be stopped, and spend an hour or two stopping them. No big deal.

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    What interests me more, though, is the basic behavior itself — and how we can turn it to our benefit. An easy example comes to mind: automatic bill payment. Once you set up automatic payments, it becomes more of a hassle to stop them than to adapt to them — which is the whole point. Your bills get paid by inertia.

    What are some other ways that your innate laziness can work for you?

    • Automatic savings: 10% of your paycheck goes into a high-yield account with withdrawal penalties. Get used to it.
    • Set your alarm clock 20 minutes earlier: Yeah, like you’ll remember to change it. Too bad, you have to wake up now.
    • Subscribe to groceries: Amazon has a Subscribe and Save program that allows you to set up a subscription to common household goods (diapers, toilet paper, toiletries, non-perishable foods, etc.). You set up how many you want and how often, and they bill you when each new order is shipped. Plus, subscribed items are 15% off. Not everything is a great deal — your local grocery store might still be cheaper for a lot of things — but for things you need on a regular basis, a subscription can save you some last-minute dashes to the store (and shorten your regular shopping trips, since you won’t need to buy as much). And canceling a subscription is just enough work that you probably won’t.
    • Accountability partners: This is a good one for people working towards long-term goals — find someone to ask you regularly how you’re doing. Someone you won’t be able to lie to easily. It will eventually be more stress to not do something than to just do it. And won’t that be awful?
    • Habits, of course: Building any positive behavior into a habit — whether it’s writing first thing in the morning or going to the gym after work or always leaving your keys by the front door — is a great use of inertia. Once established, it becomes harder to break your habit than to just do it.

    It seems to me there is a great deal of power in inertia, if we could figure out how to take advantage of it. All too often we get stuck in negative inertia, those ruts that prevent us from fulfilling our potential. Why not turn that to our benefit and make our own laziness an asset?

    Do you take advantage of inertia in your life? What does laziness help you accomplish? Let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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