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Read This Now! Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done — or Else!

Read This Now! Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done — or Else!

Start. Now!

    OK, I’m done with procrastinating. I’m done with the guilt, anxiety, stress — and, of course, the not getting stuff done. I’m tired of answering “what’d you do today” with “nothing…”. Of course, it’s a lie — I did do something, just not anything important. Not anything that made me feel happier, more complete, or more relaxed. What I did today was spend 8 hours kicking myself, putting myself down, and telling myself “I’ve really got to do…”

    Why procrastination is always easy to do right now

    Psychologists tell me that the reason I procrastinate is because it feels so darn good. Can you believe that? All that guilt, stress, and bad self-image feels good?

    It does though, doesn’t it? Not the self-recriminations, but the excuse-making and the excuse-fulfilling. Here’s why:

    1. When we procrastinate, we tend to do stuff that we know how to do — there’s no risk. And avoiding risk feels good — our brain loves it when we don’t do stuff that puts us out in the open, stuff that makes us vulnerable.
    2. Most of the kinds of things we do while we procrastinate are fun, offering an immediate payoff — instead of the deferred payoff of the routine, boring, or lengthy projects we’re putting off. A little thrill now makes us feel better than a bigger thrill at some point in the distant future.
    3. Procrastination helps to prevent success, and we fear success. Success at anything important means change, it means becoming someone different, it means growing as a person — and all that stuff is really, really hard. Futzing around, on the other hand, rarely accomplishes anything important, so I can stay comfortably me.

    I can’t tell you how much I hate knowing all that about myself! I bet you’re not all that thrilled about it yourself. And I didn’t even mention the part about how we hate our parents and would hate even more for them to see us succeed, since that would validate their years of torturing us into passable adults.

    So what’s a poor, lazy sod to do?

    I can’t tell you how to deal with your obvious childhood resentments, but maybe there is a way to get around procrastination without expensive and time-consuming therapy? Therapy that you’ll probably just use as another excuse not to do whatever it is you’re procrastinating in the first place? (“I can’t write my novel until my analyst says I’m ready…”)

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    Sure there is. When it comes down to it, all we have to do is a) minimize the rewards of procrastination, and b) maximize the rewards of non-procrastination. How hard could that be?

    OK, maybe a little bit hard. So how do we do it? What’s the program? Let’s see if we can’t figure this out.

    1. Make lists.

    You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? You know I love the lists. Lists are good — they’re fun to make, and even funner to throw out when you’re done. And they help us deal with at least two of the three factors that cause procrastination risk-aversion and rewards. Here’s how:

    1. Making a list feels like you’re doing something. Bing! You’ve got your reward.
    2. Crossing something done off your list feels ood. Bing! Another reward.
    3. Making a list reduces the risk that you’ll forget to do something — and therefore that you’ll screw up and fail. Bing! Your brain likes that, a lot.

    You can’t make just any list, though. As I never tire of saying, lists should be concrete, granular, doablethe first item on your list should be something you can glance at and immediately do. Don’t know how? Then it shouldn’t be the first thing on your list; figuring out how to do it should be the first thing on your list. Or, rather, “Use Google to find out how to do x” or “Go to library to get books on x” or “Take class on x” should be first on your list.

    Then the next thing on your list should be something you can glance at and immediately do, and the third thing, and the fourth. If you can’t start doing something within two minutes of reading it on your list, it’s not concrete enough. Call it “The Other Two Minutes Rule”.

    2. Get motivated.

    There’s lots of advice on how to get motivated; whatever it takes you to be motivated, do that thing. Here’s one idea: play the best-case/worst-case game. What’s the best possible outcome of whatever it is you’re (not) working on? Visualize it. Daydream about it. Ok, put that aside for a minute. Now, what’s the worst possible outcome? Don’t be afraid — spill it. You finish your project and… what? Now ask yourself — how likely is that? Really? Be honest here — chances are you haven’t undertaken something that you’re wholly unsuited for. OK, that’s better. Now, ask yourself if the best-case scenario makes the worst-case worth the risk? I’ll bet it does (note: if there’ a chance that successfully completing your project might well kill you, please, try un-motivating yourself. I kinda like having you around!)

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    Another way of getting motivated is to relive past successes. How did you feel he last time you finished a project? What did you have to do to get that one done? How closely did the outcome match your fears? Yeah, not too closely, right?

    Moving on.

    3. Reward yourself.

    There are those who say that rewards aren’t good motivation. Don’t you believe it. Those people are probably criminals.

    OK, maybe not — but they’re only right about external rewards, a.k.a. “bribes”. As it happens, offering rewards to employees often doesn’t increase motivation. But offering rewards to yourself — well, that’s just good common sense. You need that Bing! moment — you are, after all, simply a giant hairless ape with a yen for gourmet coffee and a laptop.

    Researchers places monkeys in a cage, with a button that, when pressed, dispensed a piece of food. “Yum!” said the monkey when he pushed the button. So he pushed it again. And again. Monkeys are, of course, just small hairy people without coffee or laptops, so they learn pretty fast.

    Then the researchers added a twist: every third time the monkey pushed the button, he’d get an electric shock! “Ouch!” said the monkey — then he ate his treat. “Ouch ouch!” he said, the next time — then he ate his treat.

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    The moral of this story is that we’ll put up with quite a bit of crap, as long as we get our treat. Your challenge, then, is to find a treat good enough to hit the button for, even though you know it’s going to hurt like heck.

    4. Be accountable.

    Shame, guilt, humiliation — they can be effective motivational tools. The problem is, when they’re directed at ourselves, they’re corrosive, undoing motivation as fast as they create it. It’s hard to convince yourself you’re not going to fail when you’ve also convinced yourself you’re a no-good lazy stupid son-of-a-… badger.

    My advice: outsource your guilt and humiliation to someone you love and respect. The world is flat, after all. It’s what Tim Ferriss would do.

    What do I mean, exactly? Simple: tell someone — tell lots of someones — what you’re doing, when you’re going to be done, how excited you are about it, how important it is to you, and so on.

    Now you’ve got risk. You fail, and everyone is going to know. Put that fear of failure to good use! Now what’s going to prevent the negative payoff of everyone knowing what you want to get done: a couple solid hours of work, however boring, or “just one more” round of Desktop Tower Defense?

    5. Do it for three minutes.

    Aside from, say, breathing poison gas or watching reality television, you can do anything for just three minutes, right? Get a kitchen timer (I don’t actually advocate stealing from your grandmother, but you do what it takes), set it for three minutes, and work. Since you aren’t likely to be procrastinating something you could do in less than three minutes, you have no reason to fear the successful completion of your project. And you can promise yourself whatever you want when the timer goes off — a cup of coffee, a game of Minesweep, a half hour of porn surfing, whatever. BIng! You get your reward — and guess what? Having gotten three minutes of work done will feel pretty good, too. Bing bing!

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    Next time, shoot for five. Then ten. Eventually, dare I say it, you might be able to put in as much as 25 minutes of solid work without dying — all in a row!

    There’s something else, though: sometimes, once we start working, it feels so good to be working towards our goal, we don’t stop when the timer goes off. We start making excuses — “just one more sentence, I promise, then I’ll play Minesweep” — in effect, procrastinating our procrastination. Bing bing bing bing bing!

    6. Learn to embrace change.

    Last but not least, you need to get past the whole fear of success thing. Jonathan Fields, a guest contributor here at Lifehack, offers some tips in his article How to Sell Yourself on Lifestyle Change, and he should know — he’s had quite a few successes in his life, and all of them have drastically changed his life. For the better. It can be hard to imagine coming to terms with what success will mean for you, but here’s my promise: you’ll know how to deal with success when you get there, even if you can’t imagine it now.

    It is traditional, of course, to end a post on procrastination with a sly joke about how you should start putting these tips into action, first thing tomorrow. But you know what? Procrastination can be serious stuff, so I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you to turn off your monitor for a minute, get out a piece of paper, and write a list of what you should be working on next. And then start doing it. Because, believe me, you’ll be a better person afterwards. And that’ll feel great.

    Bing!

    More by this author

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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