075: Five Simple Ways to Boost Your Happiness–#2: Do Something You’ve Been Putting Off

Note: I am republishing this because I published it in the wrong category last time. You have likely already received it, and if so, ignore this new version, as it is the same. I apologize for my error! david

Use the Anti-Procrastination Sheet!

This the second of five Feeling Good Podcasts on simple things you can do to boost your happiness. Procrastination is one of the most common causes of unhappiness, and this bad habit is almost universal. We all put off the tasks we dread because they make us anxious, and because we’re tempted to do other things that are way more rewarding. But the longer you procrastinate, the worse you feel, and this robs you of motivation. As a result, you fall into a vicious cycle where procrastination triggers negative feelings like depression, anxiety, and guilt, and your negative feelings, in turn, reduce your motivation and trigger more procrastination. A vicious cycle.

Fabrice and I are going to show you how to break the cycle and boost your happiness. To get started, please think of ONE thing you’ve been procrastinating on. It could be anything, such as working on your taxes, cleaning your garage, filing papers, working on a paper or presentation you’ve been avoiding, reading something you have to read for school or work–anything at all.

Now I want to ask you a question. Would you like to overcome the procrastination so you can get started on that task? If your answer is no, you can come back and listen later when you do want to solve this problem.

If the answer is yes, then I have a second question for you. WHEN would you like to overcome your procrastination and get started? Today? Or later on?

If your answer is today, then we’re ready to rumble. If you say, “tomorrow,” or some later time, then I’d encourage you to come back to this podcast when you are ready to solve the problem. I can ONLY help you overcome your procrastination today! NOT tomorrow.

Finally, I want to know if you’d be willing to devote a very small amount of time to getting started TODAY. I’m asking you to invest something like five minutes, and I’m also asking you to agree to limit your work this small amount of time. This is crucial, because if you tell yourself you have to do the entire job, that may take hours, and you’ll probably feel so overwhelmed that you won’t do a thing!

Finally, I want to know if you’d be willing to get started for five minutes even if you’re not “in the mood,” and even if you’re completely unmotivated, and EVEN if the very thought of the task makes you anxious and guilty. If the answer is YES, then we’ve got a deal. But if you want to wait for the motivation, I urge you to turn off the podcast and come back to it at some later time.

One philosophical principle is the approach we’re going to teach you is NOT to wait for motivation. Most procrastinators think that motivation comes first, followed by productive action, but this is an illusion, because you’ll probably NEVER feel motivated to do some awful task you’ve been putting off. If you’re waiting for motivation, you’ll be waiting forever!

As I wrote in my first book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,  highly productive people know that ACTION comes first, followed by motivation. In other words, you have to get started on some task before you’ll feel motivated. You’re not entitled to feel motivated until you’ve start accomplishing something! Waiting for motivation is the trap that keeps your procrastination alive and prospering.

I’m going to make things simple for you using a tool I created years ago called the Anti-Procrastination Sheet! To make this podcast experiential, think about the specific task you’ve been putting off, like filing papers, preparing your taxes, cleaning the garage, a paper or report you have to prepare–anything at all.

Now take a look at the Anti-Procrastination Sheet. As you can see, it has five vertical columns, but they’re different from the columns on the Pleasure Predicting Sheet that we discussed in last week’s podcast. In the first column you break the task into small, or even tiny, steps, and number them. Make sure that each step can be completed quickly and easily–for example 30 seconds, or a minute or two.

You don’t have to outline the entire task, just the first four or five steps. And make sure the steps are small enough so you can complete all or most of them in five minutes or so. The philosophy behind this is called “little steps for big feats!” If you aim to do just a little, you may end up doing a great deal. But if you aim to do it all at once, the odds are high that you’ll just end up procrastinating, because the task will seem overwhelming.

After you’ve outlined the first few steps, predict how satisfying or rewarding each step will be in the second and third columns, on a scale from 0% (not at all satisfying) to 100% (tremendously satisfying.) Make sure you complete this column before you do the activity. And make sure you do it on paper, and not just in your head!

Now complete the first step, and indicate how satisfying and rewarding it turned out to be on the same scale, from 0% to 100% in the fourth and fifth columns. That’s all there is to it! Now do the same thing for the second step of the task.

You are welcome to print the attached copy and use it personally, but distribution or reproduction electronically is not permitted. Therapists who want to use this and hundreds of other assessment and treatment tools can purchase my Therapist’s Toolkit–you’ll find the order form on my website, www.feellinggood.com.

Now I’ll show you how the Anti-Procrastination Sheet works using a personal example of a task I hate and typically put off–and since this is something that I’m procrastinating on right now, we’ll see if the method works!

The task I’ve selected is listing my business expenses for our annual meeting with the accountant who prepares our taxes. This is something I always put off because it seems hard, boring, and anxiety-provoking.

Throughout the year, I save my receipts in file folders for various types of expenses–mailing expenses, professional entertainment expenses, software expenses, and so forth. So I have to list and total up all the expenses in each category, which involves a lot of busy work. I also have to do some complicated things like downloading our yearly charge card business expenses so I can list them as well, and I also have to download my PayPal receipts for sales of Therapist’s Toolkits and other things I sell on my website. And I nearly always have to call the help lines to figure out how to do the downloading, since I find it a bit complicated and confusing.

Yuck! No fun!

Take a look at my Anti-Procrastination Sheet. As you can see, I listed the first five steps of this task, beginning with something really simple–turning on the computer.  I made sure the next four steps were reasonably quick and easy, too.

Then I predicted how difficult and satisfying the first step would be, on a scale from 0 (not at all difficult or satisfying) to 100 (extremely difficult or satisfying. As you can see,  I did not expect it to be especially difficult or satisfying, since I turn on my computer all the time. But I thought it might be slightly satisfying because I could tell myself, “hey, I just got started!”

Next, I made my difficulty and satisfying predictions for the next four steps. Again, my estimates for the difficulty of each step were fairly low, as were my expectations of satisfaction, as you can see.

Once you’ve listed the first few steps and predicted how difficult and satisfying each step will be, go ahead and complete the first step, and record how satisfying and difficult it turned out to be in the third and fourth columns, on the same scale from 0 to 100. As you can see, my predictions for the first step were fairly accurate. It wasn’t at all difficult, but it was twice as satisfying as I had anticipated.

Then, I got a little boost in my mood–since I was facing the task I’d been putting off–and completed the next four steps, which were surprisingly easy, and somewhat more satisfying than I had predicted, as you can see. I’m sure you’ve heard the old Buddhist proverb that the longest journey begins with a single step–or, if you’re using the Anti-Procrastination Sheet, three or four small steps!

That’s all there is to it! Give it a try and email us to tell us how it worked for you!

Now let’s just suppose you’re not sold on what Fabrice and I have been teaching you in this podcast, and you’re telling yourself, “Oh, this is too hard for me, I just can’t get myself to outline the task on the Anti-Procrastination Sheet.” What should you do then?

Well, I have a suggestion for you, and another cool tool you can use. My suggestion is to stop telling yourself, “I can’t,” because this is not a valid statement. It isn’t true that you CAN’T get yourself to use the Anti-Procrastination Sheet. For example, if I held a gun to your head and told you to outline a task you’ve been putting off, you’d suddenly discover that you CAN do it!

But what is at issue here is that you may not WANT to do get started–for a whole variety of reasons! If that’s where you’re at, I would suggest that you list all the really GOOD reasons NOT to use the Anti-Procrastination Sheet today.

In fact, you may not even want to do that, so Fabrice will do it for you, and you can just look at this list that he and I came up with:

Really GOOD Reasons to Keep Procrastinating

  • Tomorrow will be a better day
  • I need more sleep
  • There’s something really good on TV right now
  • I’m not in the mood
  • I’ve done enough work for the day
  • I need some time to relax
  • It’s not necessary to do it right now
  • It will take too much time
  • It will be too hard
  • It will be too upsetting
  • I have other more important things to do.

Once you’ve complete your lists, or simply reviewed the list that Fabrice and I created for you, I would like to ask you this question: “Given all those many wonderful  advantages and benefits of procrastination, and all the really good reasons NOT to get started right now, why in the world would you want to get started? Your procrastination makes all the sense in the world!”

Oh, I forgot to tell you how my own Anti-Procrastination Sheet worked out for me. Doing the first few steps got me into a flow, and over the next several days, I completed the entire task fairly easily, working a couple hours a day, even without having to outline any more steps on my Anti-Procrastination Sheet. I’m ready for the meeting with our accountant, and my wife informed me that I’m actually a month ahead of schedule. The whole secret was getting started, taking that first small step.

And DID it boost my happiness? Absolutely! I feel relieved, proud,and happy with what I’ve accomplished. That awful chore is no longer a heavy stone I have to carry around on my shoulders all day long! No guilt, either!

Next week, we’ll have another cool and simple tool you can use to boost your happiness–by confronting a fear. You may have a phobia, like the fear of cats or dogs, or heights. Or perhaps you’re shy and fear opening up in groups of people, or maybe you have public speaking anxiety. Since I’ve had and defeated tons of fears in my life, and since I’ve had thousands of therapy sessions with individuals struggling with every conceivable form of anxiety, this is one my favorite topics. I can’t wait to see you at next week’s Feeling Good Podcast!

Fabrice and I hope you enjoy our Feeling Good Podcasts, and also hope you can leave some positive comments for us and some five star ratings if you like what we’re doing!

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10 thoughts on “075: Five Simple Ways to Boost Your Happiness–#2: Do Something You’ve Been Putting Off

  1. Hi David,

    I’ve been using my old PC at work and have been procrastinating setting up my new one (Fortune telling: “Something will go wrong.” Should Statement: “I’m so busy doing my real job someone in IT should do this for me.”)

    I’ll spend 5 minutes and report back at 5PM EST.

    Am I right that in anti procrastination techniques we are less interested in “uncovering ” the reason for the procrastination (E.g. I’ll feel like a failure if I don’t do X, or I’m not smart enough to do X, Someone will yell at me if I don’t do X right), and more interested in exposure (Doing the thing we are afraid of)?

    • That’s right Rob, and thanks for your thoughtful comment! Although people are all different, so other methods might be helpful to certain individuals. Ultimately, though, the exposure approach I have described will probably be necessary! Sometimes, you can talk about reasons for things forever and still not get anywhere. The late Dr. Albert Ellis was very controversial, but I admired him and learned a lot from him. He had the concept of “whyners.” A “whyner” is a person who wants to talk and talk endlessly, and keeps asking, “Why am I like this?” without doing anything to change. It is a bit disrespectful, and he often confronted his patients, but it does epitomize a certain human tendency. In addition, it is my belief that we don’t really know the causes of most, or perhaps all, psychiatric / behavioral problems. There are tons of theories about the causes of depression, or panic attacks, and so forth, but when you test these theories with a good data base, using rigorous statistical modeling techniques, in most cases you will learn that the data tends to refute the theory / hypothesis being tested. But this kind of result usually is ignored by those who enthusiastically promote this or that theory.

      I am rambling too much, I fear, but I’ll give a brief example if anyone is interested. There is a somewhat popular school of interpersonal psychotherapy for depression, and it is based on the theory that depression results from a lack of love, from a lack of support in intimate relationships, or the lack of loving relationships. So they treat depression by helping the patient improve relationships. Other experts with a more cognitive therapy leaning have promoted the opposite theory, that depression causes problems intimate relationships, due to the distorted thinking about yourself and others. So they might treat the depressed person’s negative thoughts, expecting an improvement in relationships to result from the improvement in depression.

      I tested this theory in several hundred individuals treated at my clinic in Philadelphia, using structural equation modeling techniques, and the data strongly indicated that neither theory had much validity. Although there were circular causal loops (depression did have a tiny negative effect on relationships and troubled relationships did have a tiny effect of increasing depression), the sizes of the causal effects were so small as to be trivial and unimportant clinically. For the most part, depression does NOT result from problems in relationships, and problems in relationships, for the most part, do NOT result from depression.

      But that article, which was published in one of the top research journals in 1994, has almost never been quoted by proponents of either theory! Perhaps the findings were inconvenient. Here is the reference:

      Burns, D. D., Sayers, S. S., & Moras, K. (1994). Intimate Relationships and Depression: Is There a Causal Connection? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(5): 1033 – 1042.

  2. I’m sending this from my new computer. Its been somewhat painful setting it up and mapping to printers and shared directories. Also, the old monitor doesn’t plug into new docking station. It’s been painful, and I’m not done yet, but it’s something I had to get started.

    • yes, new computers can be a big hassle, and sometimes old computers too! I was in computer hell for months about two years ago. It was one of the worst times of my life! I had a new costly computer that kept crashing, and hundreds of hours on the phone with help folks from Dell. Finally, they sent a replacement which works great. But it was SO stressful as my whole career, really, is on my computer! Always good to hear from you, good luck getting the new one to purr like a kitten for you! david

  3. Hi David,
    I have had a huge pile of clothes on a chair in our bedroom for months. Everest is smaller than that pile!

    Anyway, I wanted to use the Anti-Procrastination worksheet and see what would happen when I broke the task into tiny bits. My predicted difficulty (hang up suit, put away folded clothes, fold/match socks, etc.) was 5-25%. After I finished my Actual Satisfaction scores were 50-90%! Plus, I managed to even fold king size sheets – by myself! – which I hate to do! I also found a hat that I’ve been looking for and some reading glasses. I also realized that I have WAY too much crap and will donate a bunch of clothes to the community center. All this because of your awesome Podcasts which are the highlight of my week! Can’t thank you enough for all your time, energy and commitment for everyone. What a gift you have! I will continue to spread the word and give my best to Fabrice…

    Phil McCormack

    • That’s right Rob, and thanks for your thoughtful comment! Although people are all different, so other methods might be helpful to certain individuals. Ultimately, though, the exposure approach I have described will probably be necessary!

      Sometimes, you can talk about reasons for things forever and still not get anywhere. The late Dr. Albert Ellis was very controversial, but I admired him and learned a lot from him. He had the concept of “whyners.” A “whyner” is a person who wants to talk and talk endlessly, and keeps asking, “Why am I like this?” without doing anything to change. It is a bit disrespectful, and he often confronted his patients, but it does epitomize a certain human tendency.

      In addition, it is my belief that we don’t really know the causes of most, or perhaps all, psychiatric / behavioral problems. There are tons of theories about the causes of depression, or panic attacks, and so forth, but when you test these theories with a good data base, using rigorous statistical modeling techniques, in most cases you will learn that the data tends to refute the theory / hypothesis being tested. But this kind of result usually is ignored by those who enthusiastically promote this or that theory.

      I am rambling too much, I fear, but I’ll give a brief example if anyone is interested. There is a somewhat popular school of interpersonal psychotherapy for depression, and it is based on the theory that depression results from a lack of love, from a lack of support in intimate relationships, or the lack of loving relationships. So they treat depression by helping the patient improve relationships. Other experts with a more cognitive therapy leaning have promoted the opposite theory, that depression causes problems intimate relationships, due to the distorted thinking about yourself and others. So they might treat the depressed person’s negative thoughts, expecting an improvement in relationships to result from the improvement in depression.

      I tested this theory in several hundred individuals treated at my clinic in Philadelphia, using structural equation modeling techniques, and the data strongly indicated that neither theory had much validity. Although there were circular causal loops (depression did have a tiny negative effect on relationships and troubled relationships did have a tiny effect of increasing depression), the sizes of the causal effects were so small as to be trivial and unimportant clinically. For the most part, depression does NOT result from problems in relationships, and problems in relationships, for the most part, do NOT result from depression.

      But that article, which was published in one of the top research journals in 1994, has almost never been quoted by proponents of either theory! Perhaps the findings were inconvenient. Here is the reference:

      Burns, D. D., Sayers, S. S., & Moras, K. (1994). Intimate Relationships and Depression: Is There a Causal Connection? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(5): 1033 – 1042.

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