Discipline through Doing the Minimum

This is the second installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. We all would like to be able to think a little clearer, feel a little better and enjoy the things we need to do in life a little more. No matter where you are when it comes to being disciplined, these thoughts can help you better achieve your goals and continue along your path of being disciplined.

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Of all the things that get in the way of discipline, the biggest is procrastination. Procrastination is one of those things that really isn’t fixable with a pithy statement or motivational poster. (Plus, you probably still haven’t even hung that poster up yet, have you?)

If procrastination is first, a close second is perfectionism. Combine these two and you have a force that can’t be beat by the best of intentions mixed with positive thinking piled on top of Jillian Michaels screaming in your face.

There are three things here working against the perfectionist-procrastinator. (From here on we’ll refer to him as “PP”.) I’ll list them here and then we’ll take a look at them one by one.

  1. Having a big enough block of time to complete an entire project
  2. Waiting for the moment to “feel right”
  3. Having the energy to “do your best”

Perfect, from start to finish

PP will only start working on a job if he can foresee it being completed perfectly within an unbroken, solid chunk of time.

This means everyday tasks like brushing his teeth or putting food in his body or driving to the store are no problem. PP can envision the amount of time it takes and visually see himself arriving at the store within that modest time frame and successfully finding a parking space. Perfect.

But give PP a task that in reality should take several days of focused work and PP will immediately grab a Pop Tart, open up his Netflix account, and curl up in the fetal position.

How does PP break out of his tough, candied shell? He must lie to himself about the scope of the project.

If PP focuses on reality, his perfectionistic side is not going to allow him to get started, so what he must do instead is create several small fantasies.

At this point PP asks himself, “What is the very minimum I could do on this project right now?” Let’s look at a few examples:

Project The very minimum
Write a 10 page history paper Get in the car and drive to the library
Clean the house Take the vacuum cleaner out of the closet
Type, collate and send a report to your boss Open your e-mail

Most big projects are impossible to complete in one uninterrupted swoop. Not only that, but as PP works on his big project, he is going to be interrupted by his kids, the phone, another e-mail, a request from his boss, having to eat lunch, and a million other little things. Thus, he’s required to begin again and again.

This is terrible news to PP because even thinking about getting started on a big project just once causes him to turn into a pool of sweat and seep into the floorboards.

This is where tricking himself into thinking about the minimum allows PP to finish short bursts of the project in between interruptions.

Feel good, feely feelings

PP is a feeler. He goes with his gut. And his gut usually says, “Not quite yet—I’m not feeling it right now. Maybe I’ll feel motivated after this bag of chips and season of Friends.”

The problem with feeling like the moment’s right is that the moment never comes. It sucks to be disciplined. It’s awful. It’s no fun. PP’s body is not going to willingly subject him to the torture of getting things done.

So what’s PP to do? Know that it’s yucky and icky and that he’s not going to like it. (We’ll further explore this with PP in a future post. Stay tuned!) There’s no use waiting for a particular feeling.

Always give 110%…

You know what’s weird about this motivational statement? It’s impossible.

It’s like saying, “Want to fly? Just flap your arms really hard! What?! You fell on your face? That’s because you’re only flapping at 100%! I said 110! ONE HUNDRED AND TEN!!

The truth is, PP’s tuckered out. He’s already done a lot today and has been interrupted a dozen times.

His daily energy bundle only goes so high. Everything he does from showering to getting the kids off to school to taking the dog for a walk is a subtraction from this energy. When PP finally gets around to working on his project, he only has a certain limited amount of energy left.

If this level doesn’t happen to be above PP’s “start-my-project” threshold, he will never get started.

He will almost never be at the optimal energy level, but that’s ok. 110% doesn’t exist anyway. It’s ok for PP to work in a lower range of energy.

IMG_6513Eh…good enough

The magnifying glass approach

The perfectionist-procrastinator wants to see a project finished, and see it finished well. This is a laudable sentiment, but unfortunately it simply doesn’t align with reality. There’s almost never enough uninterrupted time and energy to “do a project.”

This is where identifying the minimum is helpful. Zoom in on a small part of the project, define the minimum, do that, and then see what happens. It’s not a miracle worker, but you will find yourself having completed more than our good friend PP, curled up on the couch, knee deep in Season 3 and Pop Tart wrappers.

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This is the second installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. You can read each of the posts by clicking below:

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