You have heard productivity gurus often say that in order to go to the gym the next morning, you have to lay out the clothes near your bed at night, or perhaps even sleep in them. This sounds like excellent advice. But despite that friction-busting move, here’s what happens in the morning.
Alarm clock: RRRRiiiinngggg!
You: Okay, let’s go to the gym.
Your brain: Whiiiiiiiiine…. I want to sleep. The bed is comfortable. I am not getting up.
Your brain, your biggest obstacle
You see, your biggest obstacle doesn’t always necessarily come from outside, but rather from within yourself. It may not be due to hard to reach clothes or shoes, or due to the distance to your gym. Sure, reducing external friction helps to some extent, since you will find less excuses not to go. But getting started is mostly due to an organ within yourself that sets up a big obstacle.
This organ was two years old when you were two years old. This organ behaves like a two-year old even through your school days, college days, job and marriage. Heck, you may yourself be the parent of a two-year old, but this organ of yours still behaves like a two-year old. Your brain. Despite all the maturity you developed over the years, when it comes to getting started and procrastination, your brain is a two-year old child.
You may spend all the time in the world setting up an external environment that coaxes you to do things. Your alarm rings on time, your clothes are set up the previous night. You may even set up a smart home system that blazes your room lights to full intensity as soon as your alarm rings. But in the end, you have to condition yourself to get up. The external environment is simply a series of cues or enablers for friction-free actions. But unless you condition yourself to get out of bed with your own body and mind, you are going nowhere. To succeed at your goals, first your brain must be conditioned to stop procrastinating and get moving. Everything else is secondary.
How do you do that? By constantly having a dialogue with your brain as if it were a two-year old child.
Your dialogue with your brain today
You: Okay, let’s write this blog post.
Brain: Whiiiiiine….. I am tired of this. Your blog posts are too long. 2000 words or more. Not interested.
You at 6:30 am: Okay, let’s go to the gym.
Brain: Whiiiiine….. I am too sleepy.
You: Okay, let’s read the next chapter from this book.
Brain: Whiiiiiine…. this book makes me sleepy. And look at this next chapter. 85 pages, with each page 27 lines long! Nooooo!
Forget about serious goals. Sometimes the brain doesn’t even want to have fun.
You: Let’s go for a trek in the mountains. It’s raining and the weather is beautiful*.
Brain: Whiiiiiiine….. you said it’s raining. I’ll get all wet and soggy. Also my legs don’t feel good today.
You: Let’s go choose an ice cream from the ice cream parlour.
Brain: Whiiiiiine…. The ice cream parlour is 5 km away. I don’t want to ride that far! Order from Swiggy!
What? Even a treat is an ordeal for you?
*To friends from temperate and frigid regions: In case you are wondering why the weather is beautiful when it’s raining, try spending some time in the hot and humid tropics 🙂 You’ll soon realise that lukewarm rain and pleasant winds are a blessing.
Flowchart for a dialogue with your brain
Step #1: Reduce the next action to something simpler than the original. James Clear, the master of habits, suggests a 2-minute rule to make sure that actions are made as ridiculously simple as possible. When facing a lot of friction from your brain, suggested actions should take 2 minutes or less.
Step #2: Check if your brain is ready to take that simple action.
Step #3: If the brain whines again, repeat step #1. Otherwise perform the simple action.
Step #4: If step #3 ended in action, then go back to step #1 with the next action in the process.
Step #5: If even the simplest step causes the brain to whine, then maybe it is better to give up for now. You may be really fatigued and discouraged. Try again half an hour later.
Step #6: This is not a step. It’s just a point to keep in mind. Do not assume that your brain will automatically accept the original action the next day. Your brain will most likely whine again, even if your action is a life-long habit. In an ideal world, no one would sleep in on weekends!
Yes friends. Step #6 is very important. Just because your brain agreed with you on day #20,000 doesn’t mean that it will agree with you on day #20,001. You need to master your dialogue with your brain EVERY day. Doesn’t matter if it is the first day of a habit or the 10th year. The most successful people in the world are those who succeed in their dialogue with the brain more often and fail less. You may think that habits once formed are automatic. To some extent they are. But your brain’s only goal is to conserve energy and do as little work as possible if it can. It can go on strike out of the blue even for a long-standing habit.
A better dialogue with your brain
Let’s try talking to our brain again, using the principles above.
You: It’s time to write a blog post. Let’s start.
Brain: Whiiiineeeee…. I am not in a mood to write. Let’s watch TV.
You: No way. We promised ourselves no TV until the blog is written.
Brain: I don’t want to write. You have no idea how much work it will be.
You: Oh, then say so. Alright, you don’t have to write the entire blog, just write one paragraph. The introduction. No more. We’ll think about the whole blog post later.
You: Okay, okay! Just log into the blog website and create a new post with a title and a schedule, will you? I ask nothing more of you.
Brain: Whiiiiiiine! You are tricking me!
You: No, no. I promise. Okay, here you go. Just log into the website and stay there on the page. Okay? That’s it.
Brain: Okay… sniff!
You: Good boy! Care to click on the ‘New post’ button? That’s it. No writing. Promise!
Brain: Easy peasy. Here you go.
You: Awesome! A blank page with a title and contents box. And here is the calendar to select on which day you want the post to go live. Would you be a good boy and schedule auto-posting for this Friday? Can you do that for me?
Brain: Alright. Scheduled.
You: See, you have put up a schedule. Can a scheduled blog have no title? Just write the title. No more.
Brain: Okay. Done.
You: Great. We will be writing this post soon enough, even if not now. Have you already thought of the subheadings and sections for this post?
Brain: Oh yes, yes. In fact I did. If you fish out your daily diary, you will see that I have noted down the sections and the points that will make up this post.
You (with a smile, sensing that the tide has changed and that the scale has tipped in your favour): Let’s get the diary, shall we?
Brain: Sure thing.
Without wasting a second, you fish out the diary and open the page you scribbled on yesterday.
You: Great, so I see the titles that make up this blog. Let’s read the points.
Brain: Yes, yes. See I was thinking we can start like this. Then segue into the next paragraph this way. This will tie up the two points nicely.
You: Hold on. Don’t just speak to me. Type whatever you are saying to me now.
Brain: Huh? What?
You: If you keeping speaking your wonderful ideas without noting them down on paper or on the blog post itself, they will be lost, not to be recollected ever again. Makes sense?
Brain: Oh yeah… you are right, it absolutely does.
And so… you start writing the outline of the blog post with full support from your brain. You heave a sigh of relief as your stubborn brain gets into the flow.
Brain: There, that’s all the points.
You: Look. The post is 70% written. It’s only a matter of putting in punctuation, prepositions and a few spelling and grammar corrections. Then we will put in the line breaks and do a little font styling. We’ll be done in 5 minutes. Let’s not keep this hanging. Get this done and I will never mention this post to you again. Our website is powered by WordPress. Everything will be taken care of. The posting, SEO, etc. etc.
Brain: Actually, you are right. We are so close to the finish. 5 minutes are all we need. I agree.
5 minutes later.
Brain: …. and done!
You: Good job. Pack up.
Brain: You know, this was fun. I can’t wait to do this again.
You: Yeah? Says you, the world’s whiniest kid. I don’t trust a word of what you just said.
Brain: No, really. I feel unstoppable. We will create another post next week and the week after that and so on, all our lives. Man, I feel motivated.
You: Dude… it’s the dopamine that you just received from getting a task done. That’s talking right now. Won’t last. I know you too well.
Brain: No, no, seriously. Want to write another blog post?
You: Don’t push yourself.
But, 2 minutes later as you review the post.
You: Hey, we forgot to add images to the post.
Brain: Whiiiiiiine…. you want to go all over Google Image Search and fish for images, that too the ones that aren’t copyrighted. Do you know how much work that is and how much time it consumes? No way. Get lost.
You: Hah… took all of 2 minutes to get you back into your whiny self. I knew it! All right, you did a good job completing the post’s content. You deserve a break. Let’s do the images tomorrow.
And so, much as you think that the world’s most successful people do their work effortlessly, I can’t even imagine what must be going through their minds everyday as they trudge from sleepiness, boredom and fatigue to show up when we need them, doing what they do best for years and years. They create the world’s best products, produce the world’s best art, manage the payroll of thousands to millions of people, and manage their jam-packed schedules. All the while, bribing, cajoling and when required, reprimanding the two-year old child in their heads!