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It has never been easier to start a business, connect with an audience or develop yourself as an individual. Digital tools, access to information and walkthrough examples are abundant and delivered across every medium like no other time in human history. So why is it so easy to put things off, dream about what could happen or wistfully complain about missed opportunities?
It took 10 years from my first day of medical school to the day I was able to lead an operative team performing a hip replacement. Over these 10 years, I also built three businesses by teaching myself everything from how to code, to how to hire a team, to how to develop a winning company culture so that the team was as aligned to the mission as I was.
But this isn’t an article about how to form successful habits, stay motivated or maximize your learning. This is a laser-focused look at how to get started at anything and understand what is holding you back. After all, “the first step is always the hardest,” and as we know from Newton’s first law of motion, “objects at rest tend to stay at rest.”
The science of pain
Homeostasis is defined as “any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival.” As humans our physiological feedback loops, such as the fight or flight response to danger, actively keep us safe, comfortable and pain free. Although this worked great for cave people hunting for food in the wild and still keeps us safe today from physical threats, feedback loops combined with perception and modern life often mean that if we believe something is going to cause us pain or discomfort, we immediately try to avoid it through internal reasoning or inertia.
Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm.” When we combine these two definitions, it becomes apparent that procrastination, hesitation and inertia can often be attributed to the fear of something related to the task. Think about the last time you put something off or didn’t do something. Did you fear failure or that the outcome might be criticized? Were you worried the process itself was going to cause you physical pain? Was it just the fact that you were more comfortable watching Netflix than the perceived stress of doing the work?
Luckily this complex physiological mechanism, with a little mental reframing, can actually be your biggest ally in getting started, overcoming fear and moving you outside of your comfort zone to allow you to grow.
Author Steven Pressfield writes in his book The War of Art “At some point, the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it.” When I made the difficult decision to leave my job as a trauma and orthopedic surgeon to go full time on my corporate training business, it wasn’t because I disliked medicine. Quite the opposite: I loved it. The two main drivers behind this decision were in fact:
- the fear of missing out and what would happen to myself and the business if I didn’t quit my job and go full time
- the mission and wider impact I could have to society if the business was a success
This re-framing of fear from change avoidance to inertia avoidance combined with a strong underlying mission gives you both leading and lagging goals to help get started.
This methodology can be applied to pretty much anything. For example, the next time you procrastinate, first recognize and acknowledge this is happening, then note down what you’re feeling and try to interrogate your internal belief that’s driving your fear. Let’s now move on to the lagging goal and macro mission.
A lagging measure tells you if you’ve achieved your goal, while a lead measure tells you if you are likely to achieve the goal. Although pain and micro goals are leading measures, your macro mission is your long-term focus that everything should align to. The lagging goal of mission is equally as important as understanding and then re-framing your fear. Having a purpose and striving for something bigger than yourself helps to frame and align everything you do. For scaling businesses, a strong company culture aligned to a mission statement can be the difference between success and failure. Your mission must be personal and something which you are passionate about. It needs to be able to focus you and, in moments when you feel like procrastinating or not taking action, to remind you about your why and the reason you need to move outside of your comfort zone.
Finding your mission at the macro level can be difficult, and your mission might change as you grow. In his book Start with Why, author Simon Sinek suggests that people can define their purpose by examining their past actions in terms of what they’ve done, how they did it and why they did it to help interrogate their purpose and core values. Reflection on past experiences is key, but the better news is that we live in a time when you can earn a living by doing anything you are passionate about thanks to services such as YouTube, Patreon, Twitch and startup ecosystems. My advice on identifying your own mission is to be as introspective and personal as possible. Really think about what makes you as an individual tick and where you find most enjoyment, and then be as bold as possible in your mission.
Motivation happens last
Motivation is not the solution to procrastination as much as it is part of the journey from procrastination to your micro goals and macro mission through consistency. Immersing yourself in a group of like-minded action-takers will certainly encourage and hold you accountable, and seeing an example of someone making a change or performing an action might give you the external encouragement to do the same (think about seeing an Instagram before and after weight loss picture), but this is very much an external or passive motivator.
Motivation really becomes powerful when you have first taken a small step or action and have seen the results of your own actions at a micro level and internalized this, such as going to the gym for the first time, which gives you a feeling of achievement through dopamine release. This mechanism of a trigger followed by a reward leading to a long-term habit is well known in psychology and is outlined in books such as Hooked by Nir Eyal. Motivation can be nurtured through planning, routine, positive reinforcement and habits and rituals.
Micro goals and kindness
Now we know that motivation really comes after achieving a small, internalized personal goal, the next step in getting started is to set yourself an easy and quick micro goal that is achievable. This breaks down your lagging mission goal into smaller bite-size chunks and helps you to focus on the journey over the outcome. Make your first steps as small as possible; to paraphrase Neil Armstrong “one small step for you, one giant leap for your macro mission.”
In sports psychology, performance coaches encourage athletes to focus on process over outcome and on what they can control. Be kind to yourself and ensure you celebrate small, achievable goals and have fun rather than considering the task or mission as a chore. And if you miss a goal, don’t dwell on it. Acknowledge this is part of the process, and aim to hit your goal next time. Now an example of how to apply this: Write down something you consider a really easy win in the context of your mission and goals. If you are struggling, assign a time limit of five minutes to whatever it is your are doing. Read a book for five minutes, jog for five minutes, meditate for five minutes, record a five-minute YouTube vlog and then build from there after celebrating your success.
Be like Nike (or Sir Richard Branson)
My last piece of advice is simple: Just. Do. It. Don’t give yourself time to think — live in the moment and silence any inner voice or dialogue. Books like The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle expound the virtues of clearing your mind and focusing on what your body is doing and what’s going on in the moment over any self-talk. This is also a concept used widely by performance coaches. A practical example you might wish to try is setting yourself a four-second time limit to take action after a thought or possibility enters your mind. If you contemplate anything other than taking action you have already lost. Just. Do. It.
The Nike slogan and Sir Richard Branson’s biography Screw It, Let’s Do It all speak to the same concept of being in the moment, ignoring internal and external detractors and negative self-talk and moving immediately to take action over long-term analysis of the situation. My personal tip here is to move your focus onto the taking action part and celebrate this over the outcome. Ask yourself Did I take action? regardless of whether the result was good or bad, and celebrate this part of the process over the outcome.
As we noted at the beginning of this article, once a task has begun it is much easier to keep it going. “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion” as outlined by Newton’s First Law of Motion. Or if you prefer a quote from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight: “As you know, madness is like gravity…all it takes is a little push.”