Flow, Not Flo

This set of instructions comes from Hungarian writer Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi and his flow theory. Flow is about moving and working effortlessly, to the point that you lose track of time and are engrossed in your task. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? He lists a set of requirements for achieving flow, but we will focus on the elements of having your actions pointed toward specific goals, a balance of challenge and ease, and feedback to let you know that you are making a difference, thus keeping you motivated toward chasing that feeling.

  • Practical Self-Discipline: Become a Relentless Goal-Achieving and Temptation-Busting Machine (A Guide for Procrastinators, Slackers, and Couch Potatoes) By Peter Hollins
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We’ve spent considerable time acquainting ourselves with the emotional and psychological blocks that could be standing in the way of our action. You may have even started to remove some of these blocks in yourself. Should be easy now, right?

Unfortunately, there are never any shortcuts to anything that is truly worth having. Even once barriers are removed (or, realistically, when we simply become aware and know how they manifest in our daily habits), at some point or another you need to take action, and that inevitably means effort and sometimes outright sacrifice. There will always be a degree of discomfort involved.

Think of it in terms of a physiological example: you could definitely never succeed at a physically demanding task like training for an Olympic event or losing 200 pounds if you were physically battling an illness or were tired and sick throughout. You could only realistically begin once you had removed your physical limitations, but even still, you wouldn’t get very far without hard work. That’s the discomfort part.

Let’s now turn to tools that can help us make this hard work a little more manageable, once the barriers are removed. We’ll consider certain formulas that offer us a methodical way of thinking about how to tackle tasks and keep procrastination at bay.

A Flowchart to Action

Dr. Patrick Keelan’s flowchart approach is a way to guide yourself to taking the correct action with your task or procrastination issue, using a series of pointed questions.

There are four boxes in the flowchart, but you can also think of this protocol as a series of questions—remember, this is a model, so use what practically works for you. The question to answer in the first box is, “Have I made an action plan?” If your answer is no, then, you guessed it, your next step is to make one. This relates to a reason for procrastination we listed in the previous chapter—feeling overwhelmed with a complex task and not quite knowing how or where to start. An action plan means breaking down the task into manageable pieces and setting yourself some goals for completing each one.

It might seem painfully obvious, but deliberately begin by identifying the main aim you wish to achieve. Sometimes, immense clarity can be achieved simply by refining and nailing down your goal. Next, list out separate smaller goals that you have to achieve to reach the main one. Noting how long each will take to accomplish, give yourself a due date for each—remembering again that this is only a model and that you are at liberty to adjust accordingly without it being the end of the world!

Remember, too, that even if you’ve removed the emotional and psychological barriers to you achieving this task, you can still set yourself back by being too perfectionistic, too demanding and judgmental, or too hard on yourself in setting these goals. Shame, guilt, and fear may force a little action from you on occasion, but it will never be the same as working diligently and with passion on a project because you fundamentally want to get it done.

As an example, consider someone who wants to take on the daunting task of selling their car. To help them get it done, they consult the flowchart and ask themselves the first question, “Have I made an action plan?” to which they answer no and proceed to make one. They then list out all the various smaller tasks that need to be done to achieve the larger one—listing the car on some ad sites, speaking to secondhand dealers, chatting to friends to spread the word, deciding on how much to sell it for, checking that its service history is up to date, etc.

Crucially, it’s not quite enough to simply list these out—they have to be in some sort of logical order and have to be what you may already know as “SMART” goals. A SMART goal is specific (i.e., not vague), measurable (which means you can quantify it and tell when it’s been done), attainable (realistically something you can achieve), relevant (makes sense in the broader context), and time-based (due at some specific point in the future, and not just “someday”).

Many people wonder why their daily to-do lists never really help. If you have items such as “sort out tax thing” or “buy healthy groceries,” you can understand why this would be the case. What tax thing? How will you know when you can tick this item off the list? And what does “healthy” mean here? How much are you supposed to buy? So a goal like “find out precisely when tax return due date is by the end of today” is a smarter goal.

This leads to the next part of Keelan’s flowchart: the question “Are the actions in my action plan small enough?” Maybe you’re guilty of having a to-do list that goes, “Buy cat food, email report, fix life.” It’s clear: tasks that are too big simply don’t get done. They overwhelm and lead to procrastination. So double-check that the items you’ve listed are well and truly single actions, not many actions disguised as a single one. You need to schedule a specific action at a specific time. For example, tomorrow morning you will call a therapist and book an appointment. Then, the following morning, you’ll jot down some notes on what you want to discuss in your first session. The next week you’ll go to your first session, and so on.

One of the great things about setting up lots of smaller tasks for yourself is the sense of achievement and feeling “unstuck” that comes with completing the task one small piece at a time. Be conscious of this effect and acknowledge and praise yourself for completing small steps. Really appreciate that each task brings you closer and closer—this is essentially the emotional antidote to the stress and avoidance of procrastination.

Again, you have to actually tackle each task, but the beauty is now that, when they’re so small, you’ll find them far easier to manage and complete. Onto the next step of the flowchart: asking the question “Have I used the five-minute rule when my motivation to take action is low?”

Let’s look a little closer at what the five-minute rule is. Simply, you only have to commit to taking action for five minutes. Again, you trick yourself into getting started by lowering the stakes and committing only to getting started. Just force yourself to do the task for five minutes. If you’re feeling sluggish, you may even find yourself setting a timer. A little magic happens, however, once you’ve gotten over the initial hurdle and into the momentum of actually doing the task—i.e., you may notice that you’re okay with continuing and press on. This is a great feeling.

Even if you do choose to stop after five minutes, celebrate that it’s five minutes more than you otherwise would have done and try again later. The nagging sense of inertia that comes with procrastination can be so paralyzing at times—this rule gets you active again, even if only for a moment, and gives you a little motivational boost.

Another trick that some people find helpful is to quickly dispatch any tasks that only take a few seconds or a minute to do. While you want your tasks to be small, many that float into our daily lives would be better done immediately, without taking the time to dawdle and deliberate over them. If you receive an email that will only take 15 seconds to reply to, just do it, there and then. You might feel some relief at shaving down an enormous task by doing the really obvious, quick tasks right off the bat. This can sometimes be enough to have your motivation kick in.

As an example, someone who has to do a very boring task of sorting through a storeroom may have no real emotional blocks to doing so—it’s just a boring task they’d rather not do. They could commit to at least tackling a small corner of the room and set a timer. At the five-minute mark they’re in the middle of it and finding the clearing up rather satisfying, and so they push on for another 10 minutes before stopping. All in all, 15 minutes were done on a task that may have easily been put off until tomorrow.

Now, the last box. Ask yourself, “Have I addressed any rules driving my procrastination behavior?” Here, Keelan’s “rules” are assumptions, thoughts, or beliefs underlying our procrastination. Like many psychologists, he suggests that our rules will take the form of perceived gains we expect to achieve by procrastinating. This is a slightly different way of thinking about what we’ve already addressed in a previous chapter. We can think of the barriers to action in another way—as relative benefits of staying inactive.

For example, the barrier we considered earlier (i.e., the fear of being seen and criticized) can be reworked as a benefit (staying safe and uncriticized) or an unconscious rule (“if I play small and don’t put myself out there, then nobody will ever criticize me and I won’t have to feel bad”).

As in the previous chapter, the assumption is that “laziness” is there for a reason and serves a purpose. Find out why you procrastinate, then remove that reason/impediment. We’ve already covered many of the flavors of human avoidance and the “rules” we set up to protect us but which ultimately don’t serve us. However, your reasons for procrastinating are going to be uniquely your own, and only an honest appraisal of your own habits will reveal anything useful.

It may take time to unravel the mess of bad habits, low self-confidence, self-fulfilling prophesy, fear, genuine laziness, unfamiliarity, and plain-old being unskilled to get to the bottom of your procrastination problem—but it’s worth it. Be honest with yourself. Be gentle—you’re not going on an inquisition to catch yourself out—but be realistic too. A person may, as an example, find that behind their “laziness” is a handful of rules such as “If I don’t perform well, people won’t expect much of me in the future and I’ll be relieved” or “I don’t actually want to do this task but I’m unwilling to take the leap and not do it, so I’ll make excuses or avoid it for as long as possible” or “If I procrastinate and it inconveniences people, they may just end up doing it for me, which would be really convenient.”

In such a case, not only will this kind of honest examination shed light on why the procrastination is happening, but it may help you on a deeper level. You may be able to finally face an uncomfortable truth—that you need to make some changes in life and are not happy with the direction your career or relationship is taking, for instance. Here, pushing through procrastination and doing tasks you ultimately don’t want to do wouldn’t help—only considering the deeper reasons behind it would. Again, go in with curiosity and not with judgment. This flowchart places these psychological and emotional hurdles at the end, whereas you could also address them first—what matters is that you do address them, one way or another.

A final thing to bear in mind with models or formulas like this one is that, if you’re clever, you can inadvertently use the method to procrastinate further. Don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis or continuing to seek further information or organization before you act. This can waste time and be a convenient way to avoid taking action. After all, what better excuse is there for not doing your work than preparing to do your work? So again, it pays to remember that at some point, there’s no getting around the fact that if you want to achieve a goal, you need to act. Consistently.