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Get started - the key to everything

I believe I am lazy, my biggest struggle is doing anything.

I don’t believe that now of course. Now I accept I am a chronic procrastinator with a terrible taste in boxsets...

My urge to get started is non-existent. I will do anything, apart from doing anything.

This is my single biggest obstacle.

I constantly reduce my effectiveness, productivity and success by a combination of a lack of self-belief, a smattering of laziness and not having the tools I needed to get me going.

In his book — Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A concise guide to strategies for change — Dr Timothy Pychyl devotes a whole chapter to the power of getting started.

Even a regular person when faced with a task that they don’t want to do because it is unpleasant, boring, tedious or perceived as too difficult, will want to walk away, put it off for another day or procrastinate.

A chronic procrastinator metaphorically runs for the hills and reverts to type. In my case I waste time, usually watching mindless crap, until it is too late to begin. This cycle repeats the next day and the next day and so on. 

Nothing ever gets done.

Get started

Dr Pychyl put forward, what to me sounds like a radical (I accept it isn’t…) idea. When you have an urge to run for the hills, do the exact opposite and get started.

When I first read this I put down his book in disgust and quietly ranted that he didn’t understand that I am different.

This ‘strategy’ wouldn’t work for me. I guess that's called an expected reaction. You hear something that you don’t want to hear and you rebel.

Yes, expected but also stupid.

So, even though I didn’t think it applied to me, I read the chapter in full. Essentially, he says that the strategy is important for a number of interesting reasons.

Once you start a task, it is rarely as bad as you thought and your stress levels relating to the task go down.

Some Interesting Psychology

To confirm this Dr Pychyl and his team used pagers to gather ‘experience-sampling data’ from a number of participants over the course of a couple of weeks.

Participants were paged randomly throughout the day and asked questions.

For example ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Is there something else you should be doing’ and ‘How are you feeling?’.

They rated their responses on a scale of zero (no stress) to ten (extreme stress).  

At the beginning of the week the response from participants was as they had anticipated.  Tasks were being avoided with comments like "I feel more like doing that tomorrow" or "I work better under pressure". Towards the end of the week there was a change in perception towards the task.

On Monday the task was perceived as stressful and unpleasant. When the participants actually started and engaged with the task their responses to the questions showed a reduction in the amount of stress, perceived difficulty and unpleasantness.

A Little More Psychology

Ken Sheldon of the University of Missouri, Columbia demonstrated that making progress on a goal when you feel happier and more satisfied is more effective. The positive feelings help to motivate us to stay with a difficult or unpleasant task through to completion.

Essentially, by getting started on anything that you don't want to do will change your feelings about the task requirements and make you perceive it in a more positive light.

I'm finding that following Dr Pychyl's advice, just starting anything that I'm avoiding, even if I don't finish the task or job, I'll feel better about myself, more positive as at least I achieve something. I then feel more inclined to get started again the next day. 

Using a small reward helps

Combine this approach with an if … then statement.

For example:

If I finish writing this article then I'll allow myself to watch an episode of my favourite box set. 

This increases the likelihood that I will do what I need to do as it will make me feel better about myself and get me a reward.

When I first read about this it sounded childish and a little puerile. I'm here as the lab rat, so I gave it a go. I have since found this strategy to be far more powerful than I expected and has gone some way to not only getting me started but also to keeping me on track.

Give it a go, and discover how by "just getting started" everything seems more manageable, less frightening and actually more enjoyable.

Suggested Reading

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