When I met Tim Ferris at an event this year he said something that stuck with me. “Reading is a great way to procrastinate,” he said, as if he knew my big secret. Later, I listened to an interview where the host asked Tim about his favorite podcasts. “I don’t have time to listen to podcasts,” Tim responded. Those words slapped me across the face so hard that I had to write about it.
The thought hadn’t occurred to me — or, at least no one had ever laid it out so bluntly for me. Tim Ferris isn’t spending his whole day (or even part of it) reading or listening to podcasts. How could he? He is the master of creating great content, and the more time you’re making, the less time you have for creation. That’s the saying, isn’t it? “Be a creator, not a consumer.”
Easier said than done, especially nowadays. The never-ending slew of distractions in our lives is particularly troublesome for people who create for a living. Focusing on your work becomes even more challenging when you’re tackling a big project. It’s like crossing the Atlantic ocean in a bathtub or chewing a pile of glass and staring forever into the abyss. Creation is a journey for a future reward that is often uncertain. But we do it because we have to, because the world is a better place for it.
In the classic hero-novel The Alchemist, our protagonist knows exactly where he’s going. He’s got the map and everything. But he gets distracted along the way. Again, and again. After a few years, he realizes he’s distracted, “Oh yeah, I was going somewhere.” This is the story of our lives.
How can we wake up? We can’t will ourselves into being more productive or attentive or focused. We have to unplug the tubes from the back of our heads. That usually means getting rid of bad habits and forming good ones. In The Power of Habit I learned that you never really lose your habits, you just replace them with different ones. As long as you have a cue and a reward, then you’re golden.
As a writer, my job is straightforward: open up a blank word document and start typing. But how can I be better? How can I focus longer? How can I be more creative? In the process of asking these questions I’ve experimented a lot. Eventually I realized I was doing everything else except for what I was supposed to be doing. You know, the actual writing part.
Here are all of the bad habits that I’ve fallen into, which I tricked myself into thinking were good and got lost along the way. No doubt, certain habits were healthy in moderation. But mostly they distracted me from doing what I was supposed to be doing. So, if you’re an artist, musician, painter, writer, entrepreneur — a creator of any sort — here are six daily habits that you can eliminate (or do less of) and replace with … action.
#1. Don’t read.
I read for inspiration before I write in the morning. But how much reading do I need to get inspired? One hour, two, three? All day? Try…. thirty minutes. I’ve found that just half an hour of concentrated reading is plenty to get my brain juices flowing. I can usually remember what I read, too.
I used to read every book I bought, cover to cover. It would be painful, but I’d get through it. Perhaps this was a bad habit from my school days. So I stopped doing that. Now when I don’t like a book, I either forget about it or skip to the very end and see what the whole conclusion was. I don’t feel guilty anymore.
I trust Stephen King when he says that you should be reading and writing a lot to become a better writer. And I do, during “down time” that is usually in the afternoon or before bed. It’s just that reading for long stretches of time in the mornings doesn’t make sense; and reading as an excuse for not working becomes entertainment and distraction just like anything else.
#2. Don’t exercise.
Let me rephrase: exercise at the right times. And don’t get addicted to the gym. I knew a guy who had to go the gym everyday and he was scared to travel because he feared there wouldn’t be a gym nearby. Anything can become an addiction if you become solely dependent on it for your well-being. In fact, researchers have even coined the term “exercise addiction” in it’s own category.
For me this means not exercising too early in the morning, and not everymorning. I get my best writing done the first three hours of the day. Why would I replace my writing time with exercise time? You can go to the gym later. Try lunchtime or weekends. Don’t eat into your productivity time so you can run like a hamster.
Most of us are most productive in the morning and have an afternoon lull, so get important stuff done early and don’t schedule important things in the afternoon. There, that’s the entire book summary of Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Now you don’t have to spend two hours reading it.
I went to the gym and read every day, but accomplished nothing
#3. Don’t eat.
When I eat anything I go into kind of a haze. Eating feels good. Eating is the biggest industry. When I do my periodic 4–5 day fasts and walk around Tokyo, I’m amazed. The entire city smells like food. It’s a trap. For most of human history we didn’t have three meals a day. Food is killing your productivity and your creativity.
I can increase the length of focus and mental clarity when I just drink coffee+ghee in the morning and the only one meal a day. I don’t have erratic changes in blood sugar. I still eat muffins and potatoes at night when I don’t expect to get work done.
You don’t have to go keto, you can experiment with intermittent fasting, which has been shown to improve cognitive function. Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, fasts once a week because it increases his creativity. Hemingway wrote that hunger made him a more disciplined writer. The ‘starving artist’ has some truth to it after all.
#4. Don’t email.
Email is such a great way to convince yourself that you’re being productive. When you use your email as a checklist, you have a problem. Just sitting there staring at your email can feel good…you know what I’m talking about. When you use your email to guide your activities during the day, you’re being reactive. My suggestion is to not send emails, and if you need to check, slot out a time in the afternoon. Checking email particularly in the morning starts your brain off in a negative spiral of dopamine-firing that sets you up for constant distraction for the rest of the day.
#5. Don’t set goals.
You have big dreams to write a sci-fi novel. You don’t have a habit of writing every day, and you’re really busy with work. How will you take the first steps? Wake up one day and just start writing 2 pages every day? No, that’s not realistic. Instead, you create a system; you set your alarm to wake up an hour early every morning to write. The first few days are tough, and you don’t write much. But after a few weeks, you’re waking up naturally without the alarm. Your body has adjusted, and it has become a habit. Now that it’s easy to wake up and write, you can set a specific goal to write 500 words a day, and a longer term goal to finish your first draft in 9 months. Systems trump goals.
Goals come to an end, whether we achieve them or give up, and rarely provide the climactic pleasure we so seek. Just because we make something a goal doesn’t mean it becomes a healthy habit, and it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable over the long run. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather focus on building great habits that make me a better person, instead of always chasing the next goal. New year’s resolutions fail because they’re perceived as goals rather than changes in habit.
#6. Don’t buy stuff.
In To Rome with Love, Woody Allen overhears Giancarlo singing opera in the shower. He’s a natural, a real star. The problem? He can only sing this good when he’s in the shower. Sounds familiar? Maybe you get a breakthrough in the shower when you have a little bit of peace. But there’s no need to relegate your creative powers to just the shower. Why not have those quiet moments that cultivate in creative sparks more often? In order to do so we have to be relaxed and not worrying and freaking out about everything.
Money is a big worry, in fact, one of our biggest worries. Eliminate worries. Don’t own stuff. Don’t buy stuff you can’t afford. When you have car payments, mortgage, credit card bills and yada yada, this kills your creativity. The more junk you have in your head, the more stuff you have to worry about, the more tense your mind becomes. When you have less monthly payments this will also increase the chances that you can actually make a living from your art, whatever that may be.
A common thread
Everything I did when I wasn’t writing, rather than tools that led me to success, were tools for procrastination. It was easy to procrastinate because it was pleasurable. From feeling good after the gym to the dopamine rush of checking emails, all of these activities made me “feel good” physiologically to some degree.
This drive to feel good comes from somewhere. Likely from a place of discomfort, i.e., “I want to feel better than I do know.” Everything I’m doing, then, is a desired antidote to a feeling of displeasure. But what is that feeling of displeasure about? Where does that come from?
Often procrastination is fueled by an unconscious fear of success. How do we explain this paradoxical tendency to sabotage our own potential? It could be the idea that change itself is scary, or the possibility that a person does not believe they deserve success, underlying self-hatred or masochism, amongst other drivers.
Of course, it depends on the person. Your situation might be different. You may have internalized negative feedback from the past that’s stopping you from being your best. Or maybe you’re afraid that true success is a lonely road and that first step implies big change on your part. Whatever it may be, it’s worth thinking about your drivers.
I leave you with this question to ponder: What is that unconscious force which is driving you to procrastinate and drawing you away from achieving your goals? Think long and hard, because once you can answer this, you can start to make real progress.