8. Adopting the Three Productivity Behaviors: A Process for Creating Behavioral Change

The seven steps for creating desired behavioral change are:

1. Educate yourself.

2. Marshal needed resources and support.

3. Break the change down into a series of modest and attainable goals; then tackle those goals one at a time.

4. Maximize your positive response to any “success.”

5. Minimize your negative response to any “failure.”

6. Anticipate, and cope with, plateaus and backsliding.

7. Keep at it!

The overall process is one of empowering yourself to take continuous small steps toward the behavior you wish to adopt.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Educate yourself. To solve a problem, you first need to understand it as fully as possible. You also need to understand the process of problem-solving itself. Jumping into a solution feet-first, without prior study, reflection and strategizing, rarely works; just ask the millions of people who fail at their New Year’s resolutions every year. By reading The Lifelong Activist, you’re fulfilling this educational requirement relative to your procrastination problem. Good job!

2. Marshal needed resources and support. The next step is to gather everything you need to beat your procrastination problem and have those resources readily available. This ranges from time and money (say, for therapy or a workshop), to a supportive community
(see Chapter 25), to mundane office supplies. Although it’s best to have everything you need ready at the outset of the process, if there’s something you can’t get, don’t let that stop you. Creatively brainstorm around the problem and see what you can come up with. Activists who need but can’t afford a therapist, for instance, may be able to do group therapy, which is cheaper, or join a support group at a nonprofit agency, which is often free. A spiritual advisor, if you are so inclined, may be another good alternative. At the very least, you can borrow some relevant books from the library, starting with those listed in the Bibliography. Fortunately, you don’t need much in the way of resources to solve your procrastination problem: just this book, a quiet place to work, and a stopwatch or kitchen timer to time yourself for Productivity Behavior #3.

3. Break the change down into a series of modest and attainable goals; then tackle those goals one at a time. This step is key because setting over-ambitious goals is classic self-sabotage. Someone whose New Year’s resolution is to lose ten pounds in a month is likely to fail, for example, whereas someone whose more sensible resolution is to lose a pound a week for ten weeks is much more likely to succeed.

Here’s what I mean by “modest and attainable”:

• You practice the Three Productivity Behaviors on only one or two tasks at a time.

• You practice on simple, low-stress tasks, not big, scary ones.

• You aim to make many tiny improvements in your current work habits, instead of a few big ones.

• You set very lenient deadlines for achieving those tiny improvements.

Only after you are successfully “not-procrastinating” (i.e., employing the Three Productivity Behaviors) on a couple of tiny tasks—and give it a week or two to be sure—should you move on to practicing on two new tasks. And only after you’ve mastered those tasks should you move on to two others. It’s simply a process of learning how not to procrastinate on an ever-widening range of tasks until, eventually, you are hardly procrastinating at all. If you are having trouble achieving your modest goals, then you should set even more modest ones. If, for instance, you want to build your work endurance beyond your current level of five minutes, then set your kitchen timer for six minutes. If you can’t handle that, set it to five and a half minutes. As that example indicates, if the goals you are setting seem trivially, even embarrassingly, small, then you are doing it exactly right. And if you are worried that setting such tiny goals means that it will take forever to solve your procrastination problem—don’t! The beauty of this process is that it accelerates: your first few improvements may take a while, but the more you practice the Three Productivity Behaviors, the better you will get at them and the faster you will make progress. Haste and pressure are your enemies, as they almost always result in fear and backsliding.

4. Maximize your positive response to any “success.” When you succeed in even the tiniest way, celebrate it! Pat yourself on the back, indulge in a treat, and generally make a fuss over yourself. As mentioned earlier, this kind of positive reinforcement is key to behavioral change; not only does it boost your confidence, it helps imprint your achievement in your memory so that you can call on it when needed—so that, for instance, when you one day find yourself about to procrastinate, you can suddenly think, “I’m feeling tired and anxious and I really want to ditch my work. But—wait a minute!—I felt exactly the same way last week, and managed to get past it and have a productive afternoon. If I did it then, maybe I can do it now.”

5. Minimize your negative response to any “failure.” If you fail to meet a goal, DON’T criticize yourself or put yourself down. As discussed earlier, this depletes your self-esteem, undermines your self-confidence, and only makes the problem worse. Instead, be a compassionate observer and analyst of your situation, and come up with a plan to try to do better in the future. For example: “Gee, I didn’t get much work done today. What happened? Oh yeah, I was upset after that lunchtime phone call with my parents. Well, it was an upsetting call. OK, so I won’t blame myself—but next time, I won’t call my parents until after I’ve finished the day’s work.”

6. Anticipate, and cope with, plateaus and backsliding. A plateau is when you remain stuck at a level of achievement despite repeated efforts to move ahead. Backsliding is when you actually lose ground. Both are discouraging, and yet both are an inevitable part of any personal growth process. If you have an off day, or an off week or month or year, don’t criticize or shame yourself, just simply accept it for what it is, and hope to do better soon.

Plateaus and backsliding often indicate that you are setting too-ambitious goals. If that is indeed the case, the solution is to go back to a prior level of accomplishment you’re comfortable with, and stay there for a while until you regain your confidence. (See the Case Study at the end of this chapter for an example.) Then, remember to set more modest and attainable goals in the future. Plateaus and backsliding can also mean that you are experiencing personal or other problems that are interfering with your ability to work on your procrastination problem. Most of us can tackle only one major problem at a time and, let’s face it, many problems, including illness (your own, or a loved one’s) or a financial crisis, trump procrastination. Narrow your focus down to your most urgent problem and put the bulk of your time, energy and other resources into dealing with it decisively. (This is yet another variation on Peter Drucker’s dictum, to “do first things first and . . . do one thing at a time.”) Eventually, you will be able to return to dealing with your procrastination.

7. Keep at it! What can I say? The people who succeed are always those who persevere. Sometimes, they have to temporarily put their dream aside while they work on other priorities. But they always come back to it. They never give up—and neither should you.

The next chapter offers seven tips that will aid your success in using the Behavioral Change Process to adopt the Three Productivity Behaviors. First, however, here’s a little story from my own experience that shows how the process works in real life.

Case Study:

Getting Past a Plateau

While writing this book, I went through a period of several weeks when, due to personal issues, I was getting little done.

I was frustrated, but knew to keep self-criticism to a minimum. I kept reminding myself: “This procrastination problem is a problem I need to solve, not a reflection of who I intrinsically am. The situation will improve when I’m ready for it to improve.” The lack of shame, blame and negative self-labeling meant that I was able to maintain my self-confidence, which aided me in solving the problem sooner rather than later.

After a few weeks of struggle, I eventually had the presence of mind to do what I just told you to do in case of backsliding: return to a prior level of productivity. I dug deep into my computer hard drive and resurrected a program I hadn’t needed in a couple of years—my software stopwatch. I set it for five-minute intervals and, during those intervals, committed to focusing on my work. (In between those intervals, I could be as distracted as I wished for as long as I wished.) This is the third Productivity Behavior—sustained focus. At the same time, I also practiced the other two behaviors: starting work exactly on time, and working on exactly what I was supposed to be working on.

Having to use the stopwatch again was a little humiliating—like putting training wheels back on my bike—and having to set it at mere five-minute intervals was more so. But guess what? The strategy worked, and worked quickly and spectacularly! In fact, it took only a few hours of stopwatch-practice for me to return to my normal level of productivity.

The strategy worked primarily because the five-minute time limit I selected was so small that success was more or less inevitable—and my tiny successes motivated me enough so that I was able to get past my block and keep going with the process.

There’s one more important lesson to be learned from my story—the difference between solving a problem and dithering over it. I discuss that in Chapter 10. But first, some tips to aid you as you go through the Behavioral Change Process. . . .

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