Breaking free from the Guilt-Distraction Feedback loop

It comes up gradually. You are trying to work through something, and face some distractions. Then there are more distractions. Instagram, email and oh look, I should really clean up the kitchen.

It gets to the point where you are hours behind in your progress. What should have been done today stretched into tomorrow. Then, oh look, its next week and you really should have had that all wrapped up last week.

Then Guilt shows up. Its Saturday but you didn’t get the thing finished so instead of going out with friends or to the ski hill, you stay at home to “work.” But you never do, distractions and lack of motivation hits again, and oh, there’s more guilt coming on top of it. And it cycles like this until you are feeling worse and worse and getting less and less done.

But how do you break free from it?

Start small

The worst thing you can do is try and hit the entire task head on. i.e “tonight is definitely the night I finish “. At best you’ll get through 1/3 of it (and still feel crappy about yourself when it’s not done). But lesser outcomes are much more likely.

So instead break something off that is both short in duration and easy to complete. The motivation is much easier to overcome when you know it will just take a few minutes.

Some examples:

  • Write one page of a book (instead of trying for multiple chapters)
  • Commit to running for 1km instead of going for the full 10km
  • Write one function of code in a module (instead of trying to write an entire feature)

When you break down the larger effort, the motivation hill gets smaller and easier to get over. And once you gain some traction and have a tiny win, the momentum often builds. You will end up writing much more code than just the single function. You will probably power through the entire chapter. And once you’ve run 1km, well, you’re already sweating so you might as well keep going.

One other mistake to avoid is starting off by breaking the task up into a complex bunch of parts or map it all out (over-planning is just a “meta” version distraction. You need less distractions, not more.) Have you ever been planning a project and find yourself hours into selecting the best project management tool? (I have.)

Make a deal with yourself

If you’ve broken the task own into a small piece but still can’t seem to get through it without finding something else to do, make a deal with yourself. “I can’t go get another coffee until I write a page of the book.” “I’ve been avoiding that proposal all day, but if I proofread it one last time and send it, I can meet up with my friends for a beer.” It doesn’t take much, bu t like the above tip once you get some movement, the momentum builds. This is a version of Habit Stacking that James Clear talks about in Atomic Habits which I highly recommend.

Just do the fun thing

Keep your routine. Don’t keep putting off the other things in your life to spend time on the task (I.e. outside your work day, etc.) Don’t work in the evenings or on a Saturday if you don’t normally do. If you have a trip or fun event planned, GO! (And be as guilt free as possible.) These are the things that will fill you back up with energy to make over the motivation hump. This doesn’t mean you should take off in the middle of your work day or fit in distractions that are out of place. But if the depression and self-loathing is starting to pile on, this is a great way to break free of it.

There you have it. What techniques do you use when you’re stuck? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Additional reading: Related to “start small” is a motivation technique called No More Zero Days ( read about it here ).

*Note. In the middle of writing this post, I got sidetracked on Flickr for half an hour trying to find the perfect photo 🙂 Cover photo (c) David Fulmer

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