Pressure in the Pipes: An Unorthodox Strategy for Learning Discipline
There’s no day like tomorrow for getting things done. As we discussed last week, there are some ways to make the procrastinating impulse useful—but this week, we’re going to share one idea for helping to eradicate procrastination instead. In some ways, it’s the opposite of what you might expect.
We’re always made to seem busy. You’ve probably noticed that, whether you’re legitimately can’t-stand-it busy or just slightly occupied, all of your time gets filled just the same. You can be “busy” without great urgency—which, frankly, is most of us most of the time. During these times we’re not terribly efficient; the time is filled, but we could be more effective with how we use it.
But things can usually wait until the last minute, and without much penalty to you. If nothing needs to change, nothing changes. So you wonder: how do you force yourself to stay ahead of the work? How do you become proactive and disciplined and productive with your time? That’s a hard sell, and it’s hard to “force” yourself to do anything. It’s also hard to bait yourself with incentives since, well, you’re also in control of the bait (raise your hand if you’ve ever done the cheeseburger vs. running deal and then skipped the running). Making yourself disciplined, like anything, is a question of motivation; somehow, you have to truly want to be effective with your time.
Your dreams and ambitions help; people who are purposeful have more reason to be disciplined. But there’s another force behind productive people that we don’t usually talk about: fear of failure. That could mean failure to turn something in, failure to show up, or failure to meet expectations, but however you define it, it’s a feeling we fear and loathe. Why, ultimately, do things get done? Because we have to do them at a certain point—and more than anything else, we never want to fail.
This socialized fear of failure doesn’t exist without a psychological principle called “commitment and consistency," described by Robert Cialdini and others. As a rule, all human beings observe that they are obligated by commitment, that they have to be consistent in word and action to be trusted. When you don’t want to fail, it’s because you have made a commitment to succeed. These kinds of commitments that are everywhere in our lives, personally and professionally—and when you get down to it, managing yourself is largely a matter of managing your commitments.
So if you’re not efficient with your time, how do you “force” yourself to be better about it? Make more commitments. This is a strategy we call “pressurizing the system."
At first read, that might seem like a bad idea; you might think that adding commitments will only make the mess bigger. But because commitment and consistency (and fear of failure) are such strong psychological forces, making deliberate commitments is a reliable way to “steer” yourself and improve your use of productive time.
Here are some of the guiding principles that make this strategy work.
Commitments Can Be Fun
Notice that we didn’t say “add more work to your plate.” We just said “make more commitments.” Remember that the motivation source we’re trusting here—the fear of failure, in all its forms—is just as personal as it is professional. In the same way that you don’t want to fail an assignment, you don’t want to stand up your dates or disappoint your friends. Commit to doing something fun, and you'll have to have some fun. Even if you just have regular dates at the theatre, good—you're entertaining yourself, you're catching up on culture, and you're getting out of the house.
But this crosses over to work, too. Suppose you wanted to become more disciplined at work so you could leave the office early. Leaving early always sounded nice—but nothing ever forced you to work faster, so you didn’t. Suppose you then made a new commitment in the late afternoon—a gym routine with a friend, or a book club, or regular coffee with someone. Now something forces you to be effective at work, because you don’t want to fail your new commitment. You’re better with your time at work, you get to leave early, AND you get to do whatever you committed to, hopefully something you can look forward to.
As another example, think about college. Rowdiness aside, lots of (good) college students are, in terms of their time, very productive people. Speaking for ourselves, we had serious course loads, extracurriculars, part-time jobs, friends, significant others, and eventually the whole job search (or creation) process, and somehow we managed all of it surprisingly well. And we weren’t the valedictorians, or even close—it’s just that college is a structured environment in which you can make lots of non-exclusive commitments. College proved one thing to us: if you’ve chosen commitments that fit you and challenge you, whatever structure and discipline you need create themselves.
If only real life had more structure, right?
The Best Things Are Shared
When you add things to your plate, you want them to be things that enrich your life, or at least that serve some purpose for you. We’ve found that it’s harder to make commitments only to yourself. Even if you prefer your personal space and like to keep some habits in solitude, it’s usually best to find ways to connect to other people with these pockets of time.
In the first place, making commitments with other people creates accountability; you’re way more likely to show up if someone in particular is expecting you. You may also notice, though, that making a regular commitment is an excellent way to stay connected to people. Whether you have more consistent dates with your S.O., a regular poker night with friends, or Thursday afternoon coffee with different company every week, it can be time you spend investing in the most meaningful parts of your life.
When that block of time becomes a reason you’re wasting less time and spending more time purposefully, a single commitment has improved your life twice!
You Don’t Have Time Unless You Make Time
You begin to notice that “looking for time” no longer means glancing at the planner for an obvious empty spot (there are none); instead, it means finding the places where the schedule is most flexible. Sometimes, you literally don’t have time for things, but sometimes when we say “I don’t have time,” we really mean “I don’t think my schedule is flexible enough.”
When you "pressurize the system" and add small commitments to your life near the things that need turbo-charging, you find that it’s not always the schedule that was inflexible. Sometimes, after an unusually efficient day, you’ll realize you could have been doing it that efficiently all along—if only something had forced you.
You never have time unless you make time. But this is where you start to see commitments paying off, especially when they involve other people. If you consistently show up, if you make time for people, and if you are mindful of your own commitments and serious about the commitments of others, people trust and appreciate it. They will see that you’ve invested some meaning in the occasion and given your time to show up, and sometimes that will mean the world to you both.
We’ve chosen to discuss productivity and time management the past few weeks because we believe that doing good, meaningful, creative work requires us to respect the value and scarcity of time. We know that, for the sake of what we do, we have to be smart about our time, and that’s why we talk about managing it. But we also know that time is the best thing you can invest, and strategies like pressurizing the system can help us invest more time in the opportunities and people around us.
You can take our wholesome suggestions and join a book club, or go to the gym, but our Thursday version is a pub. Mark our words, we’ll see you at 5—and that’s why it still counts.
Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we'll be working on the principles of organization. (Last week, we talked about doing productive procrastination right, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page.