I’ll do it when I’m in the mood

?I’ll do it when I’m in the right mood?

The first thing to notice when you say this is that the decision to put off doing the Task has already been made and it isn’t getting done. The second is to notice that this is a self-soothing statement because its purpose isn’t about making a plan but serves to make you feel better about yourself for not having started. You have just put off doing the Task but once you’ve said these magic words to yourself, it feels better, it feels like you have just made yourself a promise.

The third thing to notice is that it’s not true either. If you’re not in the mood now, you’re never going to be in the mood. What does being in the right mood to do the Task look like anyway? So there is another purpose in saying this to yourself, it avoids dealing with the real reason why you don’t want to do it – perhaps it’s hard, or boring, or requires application, or you think you might not do it well, or you don’t know how to start, or it is something that makes you anxious even thinking about doing it.

The secret here is to recognize that you are procrastinating and to notice that you are just soothing yourself. If you can’t persuade yourself to start it now (and you probably can’t) then you could think about replacing the thought of doing it “when I’m in the mood” with something a bit more concrete. Arrange with yourself a time that you really will start it, perhaps set an alarm so that you know that time has arrived and notice now that when the time comes you aren’t going to be in the mood to do it then either. But at the appointed time, there will be a slight difference. Whereas before, when you told yourself you would do it when you were in the mood, the decision not to do it had already been made, when the appointed time comes around and the alarm goes off and you think about doing the task, the decision to put the Task off won’t already have been made. If the thought pops into your head now, it won’t soothe you. Your ready made excuse has gone away. You might still put it off though, we have plenty of defences.

More on this in the next post.

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How do I motivate myself?

❝How do I motivate myself?❞

“How do I motivate myself to do this?” is a common thing to say to ourselves but doesn’t really mean what we think it does. What we think we’re asking is “how do I make myself want to do this?” or, if we want to be kind to ourself, “how can I persuade myself to want to do this?”. But there is a problem with this question for two reasons.

Firstly, it might not even be a question that we’re attempting to answer and actually we might be aggressively saying to ourself “oh why can’t I motivate myself” which is telling ourself off rather than trying to encourage ourself. Say it out loud and does it sound like something you are trying to answer or are you just beating yourself up? Say it again, but this time as “hmm, why I can’t motivate myself” and making sure there is a question mark at the end. Does it sound different?

Secondly, even if it is a question, it is not the right one! There isn’t a way to make yourself want to do something that you know you don’t want to do right now. But that’s not what “motivate” means. “Motivate” means to move and with that in mind, the answer to the question “how do I motivate myself?” becomes clearer: how do I go from the stationary position I find myself in to a different state in which I am moving? Or, less politely, how I do get off my bum? Answer: start moving.

What we’re really asking is how do we overcome our inertia to stay where we are in order that we become motivated. Maybe if I start reading this book or writing this essay or doing this task that I don’t at the moment appear to want to do, that I might find myself doing it and might even find some satisfaction or pleasure or enjoyment in doing it. And that really is the order of events. I need to start doing it in order that I be motivated and once I am doing it I might enjoy it. Or, even if I can’t actually enjoy doing it, I might enjoy or be satisfied or be pleased that I have done it.

And then we need to notice that this is how it happened, to pat ourself on the back for having been able to do something we didn’t want to do, because tomorrow, tomorrow we will be in the same position, but tomorrow we will be able to remember that he have been in this place before and that the answer last time was to get off our bum and get going, at which point we are going.

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Procrastination, an introduction

There is no single reason why we procrastinate (and I say we, because we do all procrastinate). Rather, there are many reasons and most of us do some of them, and we will be using different reasons for putting off doing different things. It is unlikely that you put off doing the washing up for the same reason that you put off doing your tax return or writing that essay and putting off that decision will be coming from a different place too.

We can understand why we are procrastinating about doing a particular thing by looking at what we say to ourselves, the thoughts that pop into our head, the emotions that those thoughts cause, and the arguments and self-soothing things we then say.

Procrastinate comes from Latin and means to put off until tomorrow, which is very apt. How often have you actually said that to yourself of a task, “I’ll do it tomorrow”. Think about the last time you said this to yourself and the task that you then put off. What actually happened? Was it something along the lines of you remembered that Task still needs to be done and that was almost immediately followed by your thinking to yourself that you’d do it tomorrow (or later, or next week, or whatever) and then the thought of doing the task has gone away. If this was the case, exactly when did you decide that Task wasn’t going to be done now? Wasn’t it actually that by the time you said to yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow”, the decision to put it off, to not do it now, had already made itself somehow and that when you say to yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow, you’re not really forming a plan to do it tomorrow, but you’re soothing yourself that it’s okay not to do it. It feels like a plan. Any anxiety you might have felt at the point you remembered there was Task to do and you didn’t want to do it goes away. The only bit that you actually attended to, the only bit where you have your voice in your head, isn’t about making a choice as to whether you are going to do Task but is at the point where you say the right thing to yourself to soothe yourself and say that it’s okay.

This patterned form of thinking is how we deal with almost everything that happens to us. We have algorithms or recipes or scripts or heuristics (which all mean more-or-less the same thing here) which allow us to deal with almost everything that happens to us fairly automatically and without having to attend to or think about it. Daniel Kahnemann wrote a book, Thinking, Fast and Slow which is mostly about these two different forms of thinking. Thinking fast the is the lazy, easy, inexpensive, automatic and reactive form of thinking that we use almost all of the time. Thinking slow is the attentive, expensive, hard, thinking that we use as little as possible (and when we do, we get a lot of it wrong, as we shall see). Kahnemann, who is a psychologist, got the Nobel prize for Economics for the research he did (with Tversky, who died before the Nobel Committee awarded the prize) that led to the book, which says something of the importance of the work.

We need to do three things to learn how to overcome this form of patterned thinking. The first is to be more present at the time we put off doing Task for the first time so that we are aware that we have done it. We need to learn to recognize what is stopping us wanting to do Task right now and learn to deal with it differently now. And we need to set ourselves up so that the next time we are in the same position and putting off the same Task that we can learn a new script so that we don’t have to fight ourself. Because by the time we get to think about Task and whether we are going to do it now, we are approaching it from the position of thinking “shall I do this thing now?” but from what is actually happening now: I have already decided I am not going to do this task so if I now have to unmake that decision. And that is much harder.

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