How do you overcome procrastination? If you’re like me, you usually don’t. Many people draw upon willpower. I suspect most Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder people would admit that willpower is not one of their top 5 strengths. Or top 55.
But willpower is one of those traits like confidence, shyness, or yes, ADHD, that’s hard to define. Because it’s hard to measure. Because it falls on a spectrum. We all have some willpower, now and then. Some more than others.
And not eating the chocolate cake because you hate chocolate, you’re allergic to it, or the dog licked it is not willpower.
So what is willpower? For this discussion let’s assume it means the ability to stick to a task that you really don’t enjoy. Some people can stick to unpleasant, boring, complex, difficult tasks longer than others.
And I admire those people. I even married one of them.
And yet if I look at a particular task that I’d rather avoid, be it doing the dishes, right now, even though it’s almost midnight… I would always leave them till the morning. You would too, right? Can I get an Amen?
It was an easy choice: Scraping dried ketchup and chicken grease off of a pile of plates… OR… crawling into a warm bed?
Do you pick what’s behind door number one: Cold plates, gunky cutlery, mucky water full of bobbing food scraps… OR…. Door number two: a warm, soft bed (mine has the bonus of containing my warm, soft wife).
“I’ll pick what’s behind door number two.”
Or, I used to. Now, I choose number one. Now I actually wash the dishes before falling into bed. Okay, not always, but mostly…. Well, not mostly, but more than I used to…. Okay fine! I washed the dishes last night. And I did it twice last week, the point is I NEVER did this before!
For me, this is uncharted territory. How did I get here? A good habit? Me? I stopped to think about it. Because if I can understand how I’ve created one good habit, I could create another. So I noodled on what happened. I had to, because this had happened almost by magic. I was washing the dishes! No huge plan, or promise, or strategy I had committed to mastering…
I think the first thing that shifted was when I realized it wasn’t necessarily a choice of door number one, the sink that resembled a swamp OR door number two, the blonde lady between the soft covers. It wasn’t OR. I could have AND! Both a clean kitchen AND a warm, wife-filled bed.
The second thing that fostered this new habit was making door number two the reward for having finished door number one. In other words the warm bed was the payoff for not leaving a Leaning Tower of Plates in the kitchen, covered in uneaten food that was self-composting into something even worse by the morning.
And I can see now this was a direct result of conversation. One night before bedtime Ava was washing the dishes. I said, “Why don’t you leave those until the morning?” I asked this question because I’d asked myself that same question every night of my adult life and the answer had always been, “Good idea. I’m tired. These bowls smell. And why should I do the dishes when I only dirtied about ¼ of them.”
She said, “I just like coming down in the morning to a spotless kitchen. It’s welcoming. It’s so much nicer to make breakfast when everything is fresh and clean.” At the time I thought, “Really?” But I didn’t say that. Instead I grabbed a towel and dried the dishes. But what Ava said left a tiny itch that I’d forgotten about but not really forgotten.
Over the next few weeks I came to appreciate what Ava had said. I’m usually up first. Coming down to a clean kitchen, with our limited counter space free of food scraps and dirty dishes was oddly pleasing. Well, odd to me. I hadn’t noticed it before. Eventually, one night, I did the dishes. (Major bonus points.) And in the morning, I made a point of noticing how great it looked. I admired the clean kitchen like it was a work of art. My creation.
So part of the reason I built the new habit was making the thing I normally did, falling into bed, the reward for the thing I didn’t like, dishes. And then savouring the reward in the morning.
There’s two other things that shifted, or I shifted, that have made this into a new habit. More on those next time.
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