As we change seasons, whether it’s from summer to autumn or winter to spring, it’s easy for our to-do lists to keep getting longer and longer. For some of us, as our list of tasks and priorities begin to grow, so does our urge to procrastinate.
This happens because willpower, self-control and discipline are exhaustive resources. The more we spend on one area, the less we’ll have for other areas in our life.
So how do we stay productive and complete what we’ve set out to do?
It starts by understanding ourselves and how we make decisions.
In Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he uses a metaphor of an elephant and its rider to describe how we operate and make life choices. The rider represents our conscious mind controlled by reason while the elephant symbolizes our unconscious or automatic mind controlled by emotion. The rider can control the elephant through training but not by force. But no matter how much training an elephant has had, when it decides to override the rider, there is nothing the rider can do. This explains why we frequently behave in ways we rationally know to be detrimental: eating junk food, staying up late and procrastinating.
The rider in us knows that procrastinating will only lead to all-nighters and more stress. The reason we procrastinate is because when the elephant sees the amount of work that needs to be done, it doesn’t want to get started. It would rather focus on easier activities with quick payoffs such as watching TV or organizing our office or inbox.
But there is hope.
If you can properly train the elephant and keep it from losing control, you can harness its power to do amazing things. Here are a few tips to strengthen your rider’s control over your elephant:
Get Ample Rest
The less sleep you get, the less control your rider has over the elephant. Think back to days when you lacked sleep. I can bet that those were the same days when you skipped the gym, snapped at a close friend or family member or procrastinated on your work.
How much sleep are you getting on average each night? If it’s below 7 hours, you may want to get more sleep before you do anything else.
Choose the Right-Size Task
Your inner elephant hates to fail.
When it is faced with a daunting task, it quickly loses motivation and will decide to do something else. It’s up to the rider to break up the task into more manageable pieces for the elephant to even attempt it. When choosing tasks, monitor your energy levels. Although it may make more rational sense to always choose the most impactful activities, you may want to start with something easy to accomplish to get your elephant warmed up.
Look at your list of activities. Which tasks are the most important? How can you further break them down to more manageable pieces? Which ones can you cross off easily?
Analyze Your Environment
There will be times when your elephant will act against your rider’s wishes. This may not be the elephant’s fault. It may be the environment that you’re in.
Elephants are easily distracted and tempted. You won’t be able to change that. What you can change is your surroundings.
Take a close look at your environment. What distractions or temptations can you remove to make it easier for your elephant to listen to the rider? For example, removing all junk food from your home, deleting time-wasting applications on your computer, closing the door to your office, etc.
Don’t give rational thinking too much credit. When push comes to shove, the elephant will always have its way. Learn to manage your inner elephant using these three methods and it will help you better achieve what you want.
Photo by Stil Epsilon
Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.
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