Procrastinating? Use These Jedi Mind Tricks to Meet Your Goals

Writing and Investing

Procrastination hits everyone, although perhaps that wording is wrong. It’s an internal force rather than an external one that acts on you – and that’s great news because it means getting past the thumb-twiddling is just a matter of having an actionable plan.

Entrepreneur, podcast king and writer Tim Ferriss has spent the last two years interviewing world-class performers and leaders (including Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Diamandis, NAVY seals, and black-market biochemists) and from those interviews he has crafted his latest book, Tools of Titans. What has made each of these individuals successful? What are the attitudes, techniques, and tricks that set them apart – and how do they combat the most-dreaded of roadblocks: procrastination?

Ferriss runs through several of these tools for Big Think, such as applying specific positive constraints to your project, setting micro goals, underestimating yourself (that’s right), using websites to enforce your goals, creating competition, making bets, and they get more creative as the video rolls.

There are so many ways to not suffer from project intimidation and avoidance, the trick is to experiment with these techniques and find the ones that work for you. You might even concoct your own. Ferriss recounts a technique thought-up by comedian Mike Birbiglia, who noticed that he was always on time (if not early) for appointments with other people, but when it came to the time he'd allocated to write his screenplay he was constantly standing himself up and procrastinating. He realized he set different expectations on himself when a second party was involved, so he did something crazy and brilliant: he imagined himself as another person. Birbiglia wrote a note in his calendar – with three exclamation points – that he had a meeting with himself at 7am at this particular café -- and it worked. Finding the psychological quirks that make you respect your own goals is a matter of time, so if you’re whiling away the hours anyway, at least while them away by trying out a few of Ferriss’ recommendations.

“Keep it small, keep it defined, rig it so you can win, and when in doubt figure out a way to create a loss or [sense of] shame if you don't actually tackle your task and achieve some type of measurable goal by a specific point in time,” says Ferriss.

Tim Ferriss' most recent book is Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers.

  • Transcript


Tim Ferriss: Procrastination. Let's talk about it. It's a big topic. And by the way we all face it. It is a ever present evergreen issue for a reason and even the people you see on magazine covers, most of them, there are a few mutants, but they all have things they put off. And there are a few different tactics, approaches that I found very helpful that I've borrowed from, whether it's guests on the Tim Ferris Show or people I interviewed for Tools of Titans my newest book, here we go. So down the list. So one is break it down into the smallest action conceivable. And there are a few different types here. So if you have a macro goal, which is double the number of podcast downloads per episode. All right. I'm just giving that as an example. Well, we need to modify that to make it really actionable. So the first is making it hyper, hyper specific so we need a timeline at the very least. So let's say within six months doubling, and this is a real example for me, doubling the number of podcast downloads. Well, downloads are ongoing so by what point in time?

All right, I want to double the number of podcast downloads per episode by week six after publication and I want to accomplish that within six months. All right. And then we can borrow from David Allen and just ask what are some of the prerequisites, the component pieces of doing that? Let's break it out into say content and organic. You could have it paid acquisition, you make a long list of these potential buckets of activities. From there you would look at next physical actions, and this is directly from getting things done. And you could apply that to any number of these, let's just say it's ten buckets but you would ask yourself, this is a question I ask myself very often when I'm procrastinating because there is indecision, and this is a particular breed of procrastination. In other words if I have ten things on my to do list or ten potential products I could pursue what to do in that situation? And what I ask myself is which one of these if done will make the rest the relevant or easier? This is a key question I ask all the time, which one of these will make all the rest easier to do if done first, or all the rest irrelevant, don't even need to do them. That is how I will hone in on one piece of the puzzle.

And this can be applied all over the place. But let's just say it's the doubling podcast, it could be losing weight, you can see that's very, very amorphous. We need timelines. We need an amount to lose. And then you want to make it as small as possible. So I'll give you a different example. If you want to start flossing your teeth, who likes flossing your teeth? Pretty much nobody. So how do you start flossing your teeth? Well, you want to make it as easy as possible to develop as part of your routine, to make it as automatic as anything else that you do consistently. And you could borrow from the say BJ Fogg who's done a lot of research at Stanford and elsewhere, make it as small as possible, meaning in the beginning do less than you're capable of doing. So this is another key when you think something is too big or onerous, so it's too intimidating or it's too much of a pain in the ass.

So for flossing you might say I'm only going to floss my front two teeth. That's three gaps. That's all you're going to do. And you want to make it, again, as easy as possible. So you might use a WaterPik or you might use those disposable flossing gadgets so you don't have to do tourniquets on your fingers, which is also one of the side effects of flossing that deters people. Make it as easy as possible. Now this applies to a lot more than flossing. So I've talked to many of the people for say Tools of Titans, people who are eight time New York Times best-selling authors or prolific musicians, prolific music producers like Rick Rubin who is legendary, and it all comes down to tiny homework assignments. So Rick if he has a stuck artist, for instance, he will say can you get me one word or one line that you might like for this song that you're working on by tomorrow, is that possible? Many, many homework assignments. So with the creative project in the beginning that's one. It's related to a piece of advice that I got from Neil Strauss, eight times New York times best selling author, he has written for The New York Times, he's written for Rolling Stone Magazine, and that is lower your standards. So he doesn't believe in writer's block. He says your standards are just too high. You're creating performance anxiety for yourself.

So the advice that I got from another writer, which matches with that, is two crappy pages per day. So a lot of people are like I'm going to kill it. I need an ambitious goal. Let me do 1500 words, 2000 words per day for this book I'm working on. Well, there is a very high probability that you're going to fall short of that and then you will get demoralized, then you will get intimidated by the task and then you'll start procrastinating. So make the hurdle, make the success threshold really, really low. That's what I've done for my last three books is two crappy pages per day. That's all I need. If I don't end up using them that's fine I just need to get out two crappy pages. What ends up happening? With the flossing, with the writing, with say exercise, if you're going to exercise you're making a New Year's Resolution, don't make it an hour a day four times a week, no, no, no, and if you don't have an exercise habit five to ten minutes at the gym three times a week, plenty. And in all those cases you will feel successful because you've checked your box for success and then very often you will exceed that for extra credit. You'll be like oh I'm already at the gym I'll go for an extra ten minutes. Well, I'm already flossing my teeth I'll do an extra four. Well, I've already hit my two pages but I'm feeling great and I'm in the flow, maybe I'll do ten, maybe I'll do 20. But it prevents you from feeling like a failure. This is very, very important. That is what derails a lot of people and it also makes the task list intimidating.

So those are a few recommendations for avoiding procrastination. Some of them are time related. So if you are looking at a task, and we've already talked about chunking it down, if it looks gigantic an onerous and you calculate in your mind well that's probably going to take me a hundred hours or three weeks, however you look at it, you don't take the first step because it's like taking a bite out of a whale or something like that. So you can use the technique, for instance, like the pomodoro technique. And people have interpreted this in different ways but it effectively means sprints of say 20 to 25. Some people do 23 minutes where you're like all right I know I'm not going to get this done but I'm going to sprint for 20 minutes, 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. And then I will sprint again for 20 to 25 minutes. And the magic of those time constraints, I've talked about this a lot has Parkinson's Law, but the complexity of a task swelling to fill the time that it's allotted. Once you have these positive constraints, which by the way for a creative person, very important to have positive constraints.
Being able to do anything you want all the time is a recipe for disaster and paralysis and procrastination. And I'll talk about one or more constraint that you can apply. So you have something like the pomodoro technique. If it's email related you can actually use a tool called Email Game. I won't go into a long description but is the URL. You can check that out. It avoids the inbox view and forces you to answer sequentially. So I'll let people check that out. That will probably cut down your email clearing time by 40 percent or so.

The next way that you can apply positive constraint is by building in incentives and consequences. All this means is make yourself socially accountable. And you can use a site like, you can use Coach.tome, having someone else to hold your feet to the fire and keep you accountable for whatever goal you've set for yourself. That could be a check in via phone, it could be a bet, so a financial component, which is very effect. I've seen high ranking folks at Google lose a hundred plus pounds because they had a bet with a friend, this is what got them started, their gym buddies if someone didn't show up they had to pay the other person a dollar. So it's incredible what a small amount of money can do. You could also put together a betting pool say five people each put in $100 and the person who loses the most of body fat or improves their body fat percentage using say DEXA Scan by the end of the first-quarter gets the $500. That is hugely, hugely effective.

And I think in part not because the money you will win but the money you will lose. People will work a lot harder to counteract loss eversion it turns out. So those are a few things that you could utilize. And I'll give you one kind of wacky one that is from Mike Birbiglia who's one of the most successful comedians on the planet, has done tons of TV, tons of movies and is fantastic at standup does, lot with This American Life. And when he was procrastinating working on his screenplay, his latest screenplay, we noticed that when he was accountable to someone else he had a meeting he was never late, he was always early. But when he had a commitment to himself to write he might put it off for hours. So he took a Post-it and he put it next to his bed, and this sounds ludicrous, but it said, Mike, and I think it was three exclamation points, you have a meeting with yourself at 7:00 a.m. at café whatever it was where he intended to work and that actually for whatever weird quirk of human psychology got him to stay on track for his meeting with himself to write his screenplay. So that's another Jedi mind trick that you might try on yourself. There are many tools in the toolkit but keep it small, keep it defined, rig it so you can win and when in doubt figure out a way to create a loss or shame if you don't actually tackle your task and achieve some type of measurable goal by a specific point in time.