First things first: We all procrastinate. From time to time, we all put things off. Even the things we really need, or want, to accomplish. In fact, the bigger the task or project, the more likely we are to put it off.
Clearly that doesn’t make sense. Why would we find ways — passively or actively — to avoid starting the tasks we think will make a huge difference in our professional or personal lives?
For one thing, we’re built that way.
The Science Behind Procrastination
The limbic system — Seth Godin calls it your “lizard brain” — is the part of your brain that helps control behavioral and emotional responses, and plays a key role in survival adaptation.
The limbic system focuses on right now. Feel thirsty? Drink. Feel scared? Hide. Feel attacked? Run away or fight back back.
About to do something hard or difficult? Put it off.
Even if your neocortex — the part of your brain that deals with higher-order functions like cognition, spatial reasoning, and, most relevant, making decisions about your future — has decided that doing something hard or difficult will be really good for you.
That’s why we put off starting that business plan. Or making a bunch of cold calls. Or dealing with a problem employee. Or starting an exercise program. Or any of the things your neocortex knows will pay off down the road — but seem too hard, or daunting, or painful for your limbic system to allow you to start doing.
That’s why we procrastinate: Not because we’re lazy (okay, I’m a little lazy), not because we lack willpower, not because we don’t have what it takes… but because our limbic system and our neocortex constantly at odds.
And, since the limbic system is more powerful — logic rarely stands a chance against terror — it often wins.
And we procrastinate, at least until the fear of not doing something important is stronger than the dread of getting started.
The 30-for-30 Plan
So how do you overcome your limbic system’s focus on the short term so your neocortex’s long-term vision can come to the forefront?
The 30-for-30 plan is simple:
- Choose something meaningful you want to do. Start a new business. Develop a new product. Start exercising. Start reading more. Choose something you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t.
- Commit to putting in 30 minutes of focused effort every day for 30 consecutive days. Work on your business plan. Chip away at your new product. Sit in a quiet place and read. Go for a walk or jog.
- Add a little positive pressure, if that’s your thing. Tell someone your plan. Loop in an accountability buddy to hold you accountable not for a particular outcome, but for sticking to the plan.
- Track daily execution with a calendar. (Similar to the Jerry Seinfeld Method, a goal achievement approach I’ve written about before.)
Why 30 days? According to Bloom, that time frame creates a commitment “razor.” Thirty days isn’t a lot, but it’s more than a little. If the goal isn’t meaningful, you’ll struggle to commit 30 days.
Why 30 minutes? Bloom calls that amount of time “light intimidation.” Starting a huge project — surveying the distance between here, where you’re starting, and there, where you someday hope to be — can feel extremely intimidating, but 30 minutes isn’t so daunting.
Your lizard brain automatically balks at the thought of having to put in tens or hundreds of hours — much less a lifetime — of effort. But 30 minutes? No threat there.
The result? At the end of 30 days, you’ll have put in 900 minutes of focused effort. You will have made a serious dent on your business plan. Your new product will be approaching minimum-viable. You will have read a number of books, articles, or journals. You’ll be in much better shape.
And you will have put procrastination behind you.
As Bloom writes, “Giant leaps forward are simply the macro output of tens, hundreds, or thousands of tiny daily steps. Intensity plus consistency equals progress. Small things become big things.”
But What if 30 Minutes Sounds Too Daunting?
Turn 30 minutes into five minutes. Do what Instagram founder Kevin Systrom does and make a deal with yourself.
“If you don’t want to do something,” Systrom says, “make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”
Why does that work? For one thing, while your limbic system may balk at the idea of 30 minutes, five minutes is no big deal.
And then there’s this: Once you get started, something magical usually happens: Your mental or physical muscles warm up. Endorphins kick in. You realize that what you were afraid of starting isn’t so scary after all.
Think about a time you’ve put off a task, finally gotten started, and then once into it thought, “I don’t know why I kept putting this off. It’s going really well. It isn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be.”
Your limbic system loves that feeling — and instead of trying to hold you back, will encourage you to keep going for the full 30 minutes.
And once you’ve done that… 30 minutes tomorrow won’t seem like a big deal at all.
And after 30 days… you’ll have made significant progress towards a meaningful goal, one that will make a major difference in your life.