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Developing Drive: the top 11 ways to replace procrastination with willpower

By Marty Nemko

Update; HERE is s a little video that should help...or at least make you laugh.

Script for Great Courses sample lecture

I'm pleased that you've chosen to join me for this lecture on developing drive. I'll do my best to make it worthwhile and pleasant.

We all procrastinate. It's human, especially around tax time. Sure, we know we're fooling ourselves when we say, "I'll be more in the mood tomorrow." Sure, we know we'd be better off deferring the short-term pleasure of procrastinating for the long-term benefits of accomplishment, but we can't resist immediate gratification--We want our pleasure NOW.

Or we rationalize our procrastination by thinking we'll still have time to get it done if we start tomorrow, but, alas, there's only one set of circumstances when everything goes as expected and a million ways it doesn't. But we can't seem to kick our addiction to adrenaline: We need that adrenaline rush to get us to do the darn task.

Yet many of us do want to change, at least a bit. We know we'd feel better about ourselves and feel better about how we're living our lives if we got more done today. Not manana. Now!

Alas. procrastination can be a devil to control. As President Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, wrote, "My evil genius, procrastination, has whispered me to tarry 'til a more convenient season."

However I will not tarry in sharing with you some ways to tame that evil genius procrastination. I'll offer you the techniques that have most helped the 3,900 career and life coaching clients I've had the privilege of working with, for 26 years now.

First, I'll present the six core ways to increase your drive, your willpower. Then, I'll show you five ways to overcome psychological and physiological blocks. You needn't use all 11. Just try those you sense may help you.

But first, two myths that require dispelling.

Procrastination isn't always a problem. Sometimes, it's your mind wisely telling you you shouldn't tackle the task. Consider that. Only if you decide it really is in your interest to do the task, should you consider the strategies I'll show you. Hey, Goethe decided he needed 30 years of contemplation about Faust before he felt he could start writing it. And he took another 32 years to finish it.

The other myth about drive: Some people believe you must be self-confident before you can have drive. In fact, most of my clients who improved their drive first acted, even though they didn't feel confident. In psychologist terms: their behavior change preceded their attitude change. And their taking action, usually low-risk actions, the proverbial baby steps, increased their confidence, which, in turn, made them more willing to take yet more actions.

So, confident or not, let's see if we can replace at least some of your procrastination with willpower and maybe even out-and-out drive. On second thought, maybe we should do it later? (laugh)

Okay, first, the six core ways to replace your procrastination with motivation, with willpower.

Embrace work. My father was a Holocaust survivor, having escaped from the Ponary death camp. After the war, he was dumped on a cargo boat and dropped in the Bronx, NY, without a penny to his name, no education, no English, no family, only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. Yet he was always a well-adjusted man. What was the most important thing that healed him? Work: staying busy, being as productive as possible, working in a factory in Harlem and then running that tiny store in a dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn. That felt good to him. He was proud of being able to provide for my mom, my sister, and me.

Perhaps surprising, my dad is not an outlier. As I was growing up, I got to know about 30 Holocaust survivors. It was the ones who focused on work and not on reliving the Holocaust that seemed the emotionally healthiest, not to mention, of course, productive.

We tend to dub highly productive people with the pathologizing term, workaholic, a disease, like "alcoholic." Actually, I think them rather heroic, like Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan, who said that our work is defined by how much we contribute to society. I'm not exhorting you to work all the time. I merely invite you to ask yourself whether you're as productive as you want to be?

One way to stay conscious of whether you're as productive as you'd like to be is to evaluate each activity you're about to do on what I call The Meter:from -10 to +10, where -10 is making things much worse--for example, selling cocaine to children and +10 is making things much better, for example, trying to cure cancer. So, for instance, let's say, on a Saturday morning, you're deciding whether to watch TV (a 0--neither helpful nor hurtful) or finish that work project (say, a +3.) Sure, you might decide you need the recreation, let's say watching football, overgrown men knocking each other silly for 3 hours, including an hour of commercials, and that's fine. But by making such decisions consciously, being aware of that moment of truth when you're deciding what to do next, if you're like most of my clients, you'll more often choose to be productive. You'll have more drive, more willpower.

But what if you're having trouble valuing work more than say, chatting with friends, playing on the Net or watching TV? Get some play out of your system. I didn't say seven hours of TV but an hour of a favorite show first and you may well feel more like working. Yes, that's the opposite of the standard advice to work before play, but my clients find that works.

Conversely, some people are helped by making it harder to play. For example, if at home, you know you'd be too tempted to cook something, phone a friend, clean the garage out, anything but work, perhaps try, every day at a regular time of your choice, going to the library to work. Or use software such as Internet Access Controller that, like parental-control TV, won't let you surf the Internet during work hours. One of my clients became much more productive by, each evening, using his friend's office.

One more thing that can make it easier to embrace work: Most tasks just aren't as difficult as you might imagine. Get started and it may be easier than you thought.

But best of all, see if you can simply embrace work. Some of the people most satisfied with their lives think: It needn't be fun. It just need get done. They love crossing things off their to-do list, their one master list they look at many times a day. Even when work isn't pleasant, they don't think about whether to do it. They just do it. There are worse habits you could acquire. You may even, like they, grow to prefer work over play.

Recognize that you can be superior. Lest you think this is some Pollyannish pop psych pablum, let me say that I'm well aware that some tasks may simply be beyond you. But most tasks we have to do are within our ability. Indeed, you'll likely do a better job than do most people if you simply stay focused and get help where needed.

The most important word in the previous sentence is "focused." The first second you feel yourself tempted to procrastinate, see if you can make yourself get back to work. Force yourself to focus. Focus is such an important word.

Sometimes you can make yourself focus--until you reach a hard part. Generally, if you haven't made progress on a stumbling block within one minute, you're unlikely to, even if you work at it for days. So it's often wise, after working at the stumbling block for one minute, to decide whether it's wisest to keep struggling, whether you can do the task without solving that stumbling block, get help, or, yes, defer it--Sometimes, looking at a problem with fresh eyes can help. See? I don't always discourage you from procrastinating.

So many people do a poor job because they don't focus or because they refuse to get help. You can do better than that. Might you gain motivation simply by remembering you can be superior?

Do it the fun way. Some people lack motivation because they tackle tasks in the "best" but too daunting way.

For example, if they have to write a report, they write it the "best" way to avoid any possible criticism: long, filled with tables and citations. The result is they're more likely to procrastinate the project until right before the deadline when, ironically, there's time only to do a slipshod job. The perfect can be the enemy of the good.

If instead, that person said, "How could I do this the fun way?" and so made it shorter, based more on interviewing a few experts and presented attractively, it won't have been as rigorous as if it done the hard-slog way but it would likely be better than a last-minute cram job. And who knows, perhaps making it short, attractive, and based on expert interviews might make it more useful than if it were a tome.

Another way to do it the fun way is to work in short stints. A client of mine, an actress, had a major audition and was overwhelmed by how much she had to do to improve her audition monologue and so she procrastinated. I asked her to spend just 15 minutes a day for each of the seven days until the audition. I'd be dishonest to tell you that she started with 15 and then, having gotten into it, increased it to an hour. But she did put in that 15 minutes a day, is waiting to hear if she got cast, but in any event, felt great about the audition.

Of course, no task can be fun if you're tired. Get that seven-to-eight hours of sleep a night, take a power nap, even a few-minute brisk walk can be energizing. All tasks are more fun if you're feeling fresh.

Still another way to make a task more fun is, obviously, to promise yourself a reward on completing a milestone. It needn't be food or you might find yourself with tasks done but an extra ten pounds around your middle. Ask yourself what will motivate you? A three-minute walk around the block? 15 minutes of chatting on the phone? Okay, a little ice cream.

Finally, picture how much better you'll feel if you got it done and done well. Compare that with how you'd feel if you procrastinated. Usually, you'll find that having deferred your pleasure yielded you more pleasure.

Use your fear of embarrassment. Many of us will go to great lengths to avoid being embarrassed. So when you're at risk of procrastinating a major project, consider telling one or more people your goal and deadline. You may gain willpower from your desire to avoid the embarrassment of telling them you didn't do it.

One approach to becoming accountable is to ask a person to check in with you daily. That, by the way, is one reason 12-step programs and Weight Watchers often work. offers an online approach to making yourself accountable. You state your weekly milestones on a project you're facing: a sales quota, landing a job, losing weight, cleaning out your basement, whatever. If you don't meet your weekly goal, the amount of money you specify in advance, gets sent to a charity you dislike. For example, if you're a Democrat, it would go to the Reagan Library. To boost your motivation further, allows you to select people who will verify that you've met your milestones. The beauty of is that it utilizes pre-commitment: in just one moment, upfront, you've built-in something that helps push you all the way until you've completed the task.

Or try do the task in a way that avoids embarrassment. For example, if you're afraid to tell others you're looking for a job, paint it positively, for example, "I've decided to finally look for the job I really want rather than just take what falls in my lap. (insert your work goal.)

A related example: If you're afraid of asking someone for a job lead for fear of imposing on them, remember that people have stopped you for directions many times. Did you feel imposed on? When you take the 30 seconds to ask for a lead, you're asking for no more time. If the person chooses to give you more, he's not feeling imposed on.

Break it down into baby steps.That advice has become a cliché. It was even a core joke in the hit movie,What About Bob?, in which the psychiatrist's main advice to Bob was to always take baby steps. So we see Bob, for example, at the elevator, saying, "Baby step onto the elevator... baby step into the elevator... I'm in the elevator. [doors close]

Cliché or not--sometimes advice becomes a cliché because it's so often useful--breaking a task into baby steps can be key to not feeling overwhelmed by it. "Well, I can do that little step."

It's like, if I'm at the base of a steep hill and look up, I'd probably say, "Ugh, that's overwhelming." But if I stay---to use the Buddhist maxim-- in the moment, and simply put one foot in front of the other, I'm more likely to build momentum and keep going. Have you ever climbed a mountain or at least a hill and then looked back and thought, "Wow, I didn't realize how far I had climbed?!" When I feel myself resisting a task, I ask myself, "What's my first one-second task?" It could be as basic as "turn on the computer." But that often gets me going.

My wife, when facing her doctoral dissertation, was intimidated by the task's enormity. One thing that helped her get it done was something we called the thermometer. You know, when a nonprofit is trying to raise money, it often posts a sign with a picture of a thermometer, and every time a milestone is reached, more of the thermometer's "tube" gets filled with red. Well, my wife and I taped to the refrigerator a piece of paper with a crude thermometer drawn on it, with all the little dissertation milestones listed on the side. Every time, Barbara met a milestone, we colored-in that part of the thermometer tube in red and I gave her a kiss. Whenever you're facing a big project, you might try breaking it down into baby steps, maybe even using the thermometer technique.

But what if you don't know how to break your task into the right baby steps? That's the time to ask for help. Not only will that get you the needed guidance, you'll feel accountable to the person, which may make you more likely to get the task done and done well.

Find inspiration. Most people are more motivated when inspired. Sources? Certainly an exciting goal is one. Our friend Goethe said, " Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of people."

Some people find inspiration from a champion, somehow who'll cheer you on. Don't have a cheerleader? Make finding one a goal. In the meantime, might you find inspiration from a famous person? For example, I'm inspired from having listened to the Great Courses course on Churchill. He was terrible in school, his father hated him, he suffered a horrible defeat in World War I's Gallipoli campaign in which 140,000 allied troops were killed or injured, went broke in the stock market, lost two elections in a row, and despite being key to winning World War II, after, lost again, yet Churchill is one of the most influential, respected people of the 20th century. Might it help you to actually post a picture of your role model on your desk? Or, for example, if you're trying to lose weight, a current photo of you alongside one when you were thinner?

Speaking of losing weight, I got inspired by something negative: being confronted. I'm finding myself more motivated to lose weight since my doctor said, "You're not cosmetically fat but you're getting medically fat. Your BMI is 27."

At the risk of sounding touchy-feely, some people find inspiration from an affirmation. At the moment you're deciding whether to work or procrastinate, you might try having a preset mantra that you say aloud with expression:, for example, "If I do it, I'll feel so much better." Affirmation may even have a scientific basis. Saying it aloud with feeling may gradually changes the neurons in your brain--It becomes top-of-mind, so to speak. It's like forming any new habit: Practice it enough and it becomes automatic.

Here's another way to be inspired by the negative: proving someone wrong when they say you can't. For example, a few years ago, I developed a rare hand condition that has rendered me a seven-finger pianist. The doctor, who knew I play the piano, said "I'm sorry you won't be able to play much anymore." That somehow motivated me to prove him wrong. Let me, as a seven-fingered pianist, play something for you that I wrote. (Play.)

Now, here are five ways to help conquer a psychological or physiological barrier that inhibits your willpower:

Is your procrastination and lack of drive rooted in fear of failure?Sometimes it is, but people, even some psychotherapists, too quickly leap to that explanation. So ask yourself, at that moment of truth when you're deciding whether to do the task or get a burrito, is it really fear of failure that's stopping you?

If it is fear of failure, decide, "Is that fear justifiable?" If indeed you lack the skills or ability to do the task, don't just put the task out of your mind. Affirmatively decide: "Should I get help? Training? Should I delegate the task? Tell my boss it's too difficult?" I know that's scary but sometimes is wise.

But what if your fear of failure is irrational: You have the ability and skills to do the task but, irrationally, you're still scared into inertia. It may help simply to break the task into those baby steps, but if not, ask yourself, "Will I be better off having not done the task or having tried and failed?" Of course, the answer usually is, "Better to have tried and failed." Remember, not trying often ensures failure not only on that task but starts to establish a pattern of not trying things that aren't easy. That's a formula for career and life failure. When in doubt, try.

Related to a fear of failure is a fear of rejection. Successful people are rejected a lot. They learn from failures and force themselves to move right on. No wallowing. As Mary Kay Ash said,: “Fail forward to success." And remember: being ignored is the new rejection. It's not that you're not even worthy of a rejection.

Is your procrastination and lack of drive rooted in fear of success?At first blush, that may seem absurd--Who would fear success? Actually, many people do.

They may feel they don't deserve success--they've done bad things in their life. Fact is, even if you've been an axe murderer, the route to redemption is not paved in inaction but in accomplishing things. That gives you a shot at success. If you're inert, instead of being productive and on the road to redemption, at the risk of being tough on you, you're a parasite on society. Picture the benefits of action and force yourself into action. Consistently do that and you may find yourself having acquired more drive.

Other people fear success because they worry they'll pay a price for achieving more than their coworker or spouse. Certainly, you don't want to brag about your successes, especially to someone who's insecure, but odds are that if you succeed without self-aggrandizement, the benefits of your success will outweigh the liabilities. And if a friend resents your success, is that really a friend?

Still other people fear success because they're afraid their reward for succeeding will be more and/or harder work. Remember that you can set limits. If you're assigned more or harder work than is reasonable, you can say no. Well, often you can.

At this risk of sounding like your mother, stop abusing drugs. Alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs can decrease motivation. While the research is not definitive, in a series of studies led by Dr. William Slikker, director of the FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research, rhesus monkeys were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: smoking pot daily, only on weekends, or not at all. Even the monkeys that smoked just on the weekends lost their motivation to work all week. For example, they wouldn't paw at a wheel to get food. The group that didn't smoke pot didn't lose their motivation. The good news is that when the pot smokers stopped, their motivation to work eventually returned.

Indeed, anecdotally, many of us who know drug abusers sense that they're more likely than others to suffer from memory loss and/or amotivational syndrome. Of course, it's possible that on average, drug abusers start out less motivated than the pool of people who don't. That's why I say the research is not definitive, but might it be worth seeing if stopping or even cutting back on your drug abuse increases your willpower enough to make you want to stay off the drugs?

Might you have ADD? The signature characteristic of attention-deficit disorder is that the person often is too distracted to stay focused on tasks, which makes them error-prone and for tasks to take far longer than they should. Some of my clients reduced their ADD without drugs. For example, one of my clients, like many with ADD, craves overstimulation even though it hurts his work. Nevertheless, he decided to stop listening to music while working, indeed where possible, stopped multitasking altogether. He had his desk moved so it faces the wall and put a stack of books on each side of his workspace to block distractions.

That said, some of my clients have been helped, even dramatically, by ADD medication: the classic Ritalin, Adderall, or Concerta, or Provigil, which may have fewer side effects. If behavioral strategies don't work, it may be worth asking a trusted physician whether you should try medication. Studies have found that 2/3 of people with ADD find medication helps significantly.

Is your lack of drive really a clinical mental health issue: anxiety, depression or manic depression/bipolar disorder?

We all get anxious at times but if it is too frequent and/or intense, it can certainly cause keep us from getting things done. If you suffer from significant anxiety, you might read this article from the National Institute of Mental Health:

Similarly, all of us get blue at times. But if you've long had a baseline of being sad, your lack of drive may be depression talking. Alas, antidepressant drugs work only for some people and even for them, often fade in effectiveness. Or the person finds that the side effects outweigh the benefits. The current National Institute of Mental Health recommendation is that for mild to moderate depression, the first line of treatment is moderate exercise perhaps in combination with cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is often brief. I'd add music--I find that upbeat music is a great antidepressant--and it doesn't have side effects. If those don't make your depression manageable, you might want to see a psychiatrist to try to find a medication that works for you. The National Institute of Mental Health's overview of depression: its causes, manifestations, and treatments is at

Different drugs are used to treat manic-depression, which today is more often called bipolar disorder. And drugs are often a first-line treatment for bipolar. For an overview of that condition, and its treatment options:

Okay, let's summarize:

If for you, like for many people, "Just Do It" doesn't work often enough, I of course hope that one or more of the strategies I've shared with you will help you accomplish more of what you wish to accomplish.

I'll list them again each here to summarize. First, the core tools for increasing your drive:

Embrace work. Most successful people gladly trade the short-term pleasure of avoiding work for the long-term pleasure of being successful and feeling good about themselves if not for the cosmic wisdom of trying to make the most of the limited time we have on earth. It needn't be fun; it just need get done.

You usually can be superior. Most people don't have discipline. If you can force yourself to get focused and stay focused, you'll likely be ahead of the pack.

Do it the fun way.As you plan and during a task, ask yourself, "What's the fun way to do it?" That makes you more likely to see it through to completion and without last-minute slipshod cramming. And picture how you'll feel if you get it done well compared with if you procrastinate. If it'll help, give yourself a reward for meeting milestones, ideally a non-calorific one.

Use your fear of embarrassment.Tell one or more people your goal and deadline. To avoid having to tell them you didn't do it, you're more likely to complete the task.

Break it down into baby steps.That old cliché became a cliché because it works. Overwhelmed by a task's enormity? Break it into baby steps. Don't know how? Get help.

Find inspiration. Sometimes it's from a role model, someone you know. Sometimes, it's a famous person. Sometimes, it's having a big, exciting goal.

And here are the five tools for managing psychological or physiological barriers:

Is your procrastination and lack of drive rooted in fear of failure? Remind yourself that it's usually better to have tried and failed than not to have tried. The latter is a habit that can hurt your life. If you're really too likely to fail, see if you should delegate, tell your boss, or fine, don't do it.

Is your procrastination and lack of drive rooted in fear of success?If you feel you don't deserve success, failure makes you less deserving. The path to redemption is in trying, which likely leads to at least some small successes.

Worried that if you succeed, you'll make someone jealous? Being modest about your successes usually prevents that.

Worried that you'll be rewarded for your success by being given more or harder work? Remember, you usually can say no.

Consider stopping or reducing your use of alcohol or drugs. They truly can be demotivating.

Might you have ADD? If you can't stay focused well enough on tasks, try behavioral solutions like eliminating sources of distraction but if that's insufficient, it may be worth asking a trusted physician whether you should try medication.

Is your lack of drive really a mental health issue?If you've long suffered from anxiety, low motivation, little interest in most things, it may be a mental health issue. See the aforementioned websites.

Whatever the causes of your lack of drive, do be patient with yourself. You may have struggled with procrastination, with a lack of drive for a long time. It may not get cured just because you decide to try a few techniques. We're not electrons that behave predictably. We're humans. Give yourself a break.

I want to end with another lesson my father taught me. One day, when I was 13, I asked my dad, "How come you so rarely talk about the Holocaust?" He said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Martin, never look back; always move forward."

We've all had bad things happen to us, but most of the successful people I've worked with and known do live by my father's advice: Never look back; always move forward." I can leave you with no better advice.

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