All too often it's just us, standing in our own ways. We compromise our own progress for nebulous feelings of doubt and confusion. A simple approach to self-worth, peace of mind and accomplishment.
Who am I to write this post?
I've had 0 EUR income for the past six month. But I haven't failed - I've found dozens of ways that do not work. Early in this year, we set out to create a company called DayCaptain. It's a personal time planning tool which we have created for ourselves. We have been using DayCaptain daily for four years now - and we thought it might be of value for others as well. It's entirely bootstrapped - so there's not a single external force pulling us in any direction. We knew it wouldn't be an easy ride - and it wasn't and isn't. It's like getting up every single morning - day after day, week after week, month after month - trying to figure out what we should be doing differently. Hundreds of emails that went unanswered. Dozens of calls with potential users that only resulted in being told that it's cool - but not for them. It's a dry journey. By now, we were only three times in the position to celebrate a new paying customer. Three times in six months - it requires some endurance and belief. Time and again I came across the challenge of running such a project. And ironically, it's the very foundation of itself.
What are valuable goals?
If we think about a valuable goal for us to pursue, we usually come up with something that challenges us. I believe we have a natural intrinsic drive to improve ourselves, or our situation. If this wasn't true - what's the point of setting a goal? So, in conclusion, the goals we pick are slightly out of reach and that's why we want them in the first place.
Having such a goal inspires us and lets us focus in one direction - but they are also hard to pursue.
Why are valuable goals hard to pursue?
We are the only ones to hold us accountable. We take full responsibility for the results. It is up to us to make progress. If we don't, no one does. There are usually no external forces like a paycheck or an investor to hold us accountable. We own the results and we own the work.
There are no immediate rewards. Most valuable and worthwhile goals take time to grow and manifest themselves. No instant gratification - only work. They require persistent action over a long period of time. In the beginning, there will be little to no rewarding results to keep us motivated.
It's easy to lose trust in the value, and confidence in the approach. The lack of early results could easily lead to doubts about the usefulness of our endeavour, or the effectiveness of our approach. It is not clear to see if we are doing anything of value or if we are only wasting our time. A decent amount of such trust and confidence is necessary to pursue our goal for an extended period of time - especially in the absence of results.
Procrastination is an inability to act.
The aforementioned traits of our goal form fertile ground for procrastination. Procrastination is an inability to act single-mindedly and focused on a task which we know we should be doing. We fear failure - because it's challenging. We are uncertain about our approach - because we cannot know better. And we are unsure about the value - because no one cares.
So, what happens is: We fall into a kind of paralyzed state of inaction, questioning anything and everything. We might default to obviously far-off activities like cleaning the kitchen, watering the plants, or scrolling social media. Or to more seemingly productive, but familiar things like reading a paper, listening to a podcast on the topic, or working on low-priority issues.
In any case, we don't do, what we should be doing. Or put differently, we waste time, which could have gotten us closer to the desired results, and therefore to the reinforcing reward we need the most.
Procrastination has another malicious effect: It facilitates the manifestation of limiting beliefs, and therefore damages the image we are carrying about ourselves. Just like we are forming a picture of someone else by watching his actions - we form a picture about ourselves. We observe our actions (or not-action) to form our self-belief. This even amplifies the fears and doubts that led to our inaction in the first place, and we experience a self-reinforcing effect.
At some point when motivation strikes us for some nebulous, non-reproducible reason, we finally break through our feelings and get into the work. Sometimes after weeks, sometimes at night, or after watching an inspiring video. Then, we realize that it was fun to work on the task and that we are actually capable of doing it.
The question usually following our emotional high of accomplishment is: How much could we have accomplished more if we hadn't procrastinated so much over the past week? Over the past month? Over the past year? Over the past 5 years?
How can we overcome this paralyzed state?
Rule 1: Split planning and execution time
During the planning time, we make decisions about what to work on next - we don't have to execute. As we don't have to act immediately, we can leave our feelings of unworthiness, or fear of failure aside, and have a clear vision about our situation.
If we ask ourselves today fearlessly what we should be doing tomorrow, we probably know exactly what to answer. Chances are, we can formulate an entire sequence of steps that lead exactly to where we want to end up. It might not be the global optimum - like if we knew everything about the world. Rather, it's a local optimum: A decision based on where we stand and what we know right now. As we take action and progress, we may learn from experience that it wasn't the best thing we could have done, and we start to understand why. But that's because we've learned a lesson - and we won't get to that point of learning until we act out the plan we currently have.
During planning, we simply trust our intuition and ask fearlessly what we should be doing. But we have to make decisions for the days ahead.
I personally have two types of routines to do my planning. Of course, I use DayCaptain, but a sheet of paper is also fine.
- Week planning: On Sundays, I take an hour to review my goals and decide what tasks I want to complete to accomplish them. I create tasks that are derived from my goals. They are vaguely defined week goals, rather than small, actionable tasks. I also review my calendar to see where I have time to work and go through my todo lists to not miss out on anything.
- End-of-day routine: I take five minutes each day, right before I leave work, to do my planning for tomorrow. The tasks I schedule are derived from my week goals. Based on the current progress, I create a new actionable, small, next step for tomorrow. Ideally, I also assign a time budget to the tasks to indicate how much time I plan to spend on them. I also review my calendar and todos to stay on top of things.
A “plan” often gets confused with a schedule. When I tell others that I plan each of my days, some say things like: “Man, you gotta work like a robot! 🤖” However, for me, a plan is a “statement of deliberate intention”. It's merely a statement of my deliberately made decisions what I want to accomplish today and an assessment of the time I have. But as this definition is so unwieldy, I continue to call it “plan”.
Rule 2: During execution time we don't make decisions.
Once planning time is over, we execute without second-guessing. We will have doubts and resistance against the tasks in our plan. The feelings of fear will inevitably come. It's all too tempting to do something different - anything is good enough. There are no limits to the ways our brains will try to trick us, to get us out of this very life-threatening situation.
When I sat down to start this post, I recall that mine came up with: “Should I maybe walk to a coffee shop, because I'm more creative there?”
The single most important rule is: We do not change our plan ad-hoc. We have to trust our plan and intuition even - and especially - in the face of our rawest feelings. We thought it was a good idea yesterday and the day before - probably for quite some time. Right now is exactly the wrong moment to challenge our decision.
Rule 3: Start with the tiny-most, first step.
Once starting with a task, don't sit down and say: “I'm gonna finish this huge, ugly task - that scares me, and I don't feel good enough to accomplish - right now.” It won't work. Rather, we ask ourselves: “What is the smallest possible first step that I can accomplish in 25 minutes?” Emphasis is on smallest possible and first. If we don't know, the first step is to write down all steps required. Too often we start with trying to get the task done, while exploring simultaneously what we need to do. To be honest, for me, it is often the 3rd or 4th step to start with the actual work.
For example, when I started to write this post I sat down and brainstormed for 25 minutes what I would like to write about. The second step is to group the content, the third to create a storyline, the fourth to start writing.
Rule 4: Set a timer for 25 minutes and don't allow yourself to do anything else.
Having our task broken down into tiny steps we start to work on the first one. I do it in 25-minute increments before I take a 5-minute break. During this time, I won't allow myself to do anything else. Phone is off, social media is closed - it's only me and the task.
Writing a blog post (for me) can be challenging. Writing one about something I can only vaguely articulate, is tough. Thinking about it feels much like looking at a tightly-knit nest of interconnected experiences and beliefs - maybe let's not do it.
Brainstorming about the content for 25 minutes is easy - I can do it. After 25 minutes, when the timer rings, it already feels much clearer. It was fun. I'd like to continue. Usually, the fear is already gone, and I start to feel some excitement in anticipation of the results, instead of fear of failure.
25 minutes into working on this post that I have been putting off for days, I have an entire sheet sketched with the things I want to put into it. What do you think I'd have felt if I had gone out to visit a coffee shop? After 25 minutes? I'd probably only arrived. What do you think my brain would have learned about myself, watching me do this? Is that the picture I would like to have about myself?
How can we make it stick?
If you find this helpful and like to try, please, don't make the mistake of thinking that it will all magically change. Even though we created an entire tool and company around this - sometimes, like these days, I fall off that habit. There was a two-hour call with my co-founder and best friend Basti to get me back onto my track.
We are talking about establishing a new routine which we do every day - actually multiple routines. It's natural to fall-off from time to time when things start to get busy - so don't be too hard on yourself. However, I strongly believe that we can make such habits stick by having some reliable anchors throughout our day, and by making our habit easy and fun to do. Both are the reasons why we created DayCaptain as our daily guide.
It may be true, that the company is not going as expected - yet. I don't make money at that point in my life, and it's been tough to reduce myself to what is left in absence of any external rewards. However, pursuing it provided me with great opportunity to learn much about myself. It has led to undisguised and forthright thoughts about my life. I experienced more than ever before what it takes to pursue our goals.