You’re sitting there feeling a bit unmotivated by the sheer amount of nothing that’s getting done.
And sure, there are a million things that you could do right now to work through your to-do list…
But you’re just not feeling it right now.
It’s not that you don’t have dreams, wishes or goals.
It’s not that they’re unimportant.
It’s not even that you’re lazy.
Procrastinating on reaching your biggest desires has everything to do with how you were made — which was to avoid stress.
Why you procrastinate
You were designed to procrastinate. Yes, that’s right.
You know that sense of stress, fear or anxiety you feel anytime you do something new or challenging? Or when you think of an overwhelming project that you need to get to?
Well, procrastination is a behavior that’s designed to help you deal with that stress.
More specifically, your brain’s prefrontal cortex – the part that dictates your goals and values – basically shuts down during stress. A study out of Yale revealed that stress sends signals to your brain, which impairs your prefrontal cortex.
Why? Your brain reserves its energy for super stressful, life-threatening emergencies. You have a built-in fight-or-flight response that was designed to help you (and our species) survive in the wild.
The problem? It’s completely irrelevant to your life today, which isn’t in the wild.
We’re no longer hunter-gatherers in this modern age (case and point if you’re reading this article from a computer screen).
So, even though saving your brain’s conscious decision-making power is super convenient if you’re being chased by a bear, it just doesn’t make much sense in today’s modern environment.
Which means when you have something meaningful to do that may be a bit out of your comfort zone, your brain tells you to avoid the stress altogether and hold off on doing it.
In other words, your brain doesn’t have the right context, so it sends signals that aren’t practical nor useful in reaching your fabulous modern-life goals.
How to conquer your built-in affinity toward procrastination?
One formula: Micro-steps + mini-goals.
Why do micro-steps and mini-goals work so well?
Micro-steps and mini-goals actually work because they’re bite-sized milestones, within just enough reach, to make you feel good. More specifically, each time you achieve a miniature milestone, you receive a hit of dopamine to the brain as part of your innate reward system.
Which gives you juuust the right amount of oomph to make you want more (aka take your next micro-step).
Author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Robert Maurer, PhD, describes how small steps allow you to work around your brain’s built-in resistance to new behaviors.
He explains how your brain is trained to treat any new opportunity as a threat (which of course triggers your fight-or-flight response with an outcome of procrastination).
Robert’s suggested antidote? Use the psychology of small steps and micro-commitments to accomplish big things in your life.
This tactic works so well that savvy marketers use micro-commitments as a way to get you to complete multi-step forms online.
By starting with a few simple no-brainer answers in the form’s first step, your brain is compelled to complete subsequent steps.
We can back this human tendency up with another Robert’s (who’s also a PhD) work:
Robert Cialdini, PhD’s classic book about the six universal principles of persuasion, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, explains in his second principle the power of commitment and consistency.
Basically, the commitment and consistency principle is based on aligning your outer actions and promises with your inner choices and systems. Simply put, you feel out of whack if you don’t follow through with a promise, commitment, or decision.
Which is why something as simple as starting to fill out a form makes you want to complete it, especially if your brain receives a positive signal that you’re on your way to the finish line (aka that dopamine hit).
The trick here is to start off with easy wins and let the momentum build on itself. Once you practice the micro-steps + mini-goals action enough times, it becomes ingrained as a positive habit.
Positive habits — doesn’t get better than that, right? Let’s put this into tactical terms so you can make this happen quickly.
How to use the micro-steps + mini-goals formula to reach your biggest goals (using 8 micro-steps)
Using my micro-steps + mini-goals formula to reach your largest dreams and goals is straightforward. Just follow these eight steps (they’re micro ones, I promise).
Step #1: Rate your energy level from 1-5 in each of the “5 Rings of Retirement” categories
These are the five core categories that make up a fully balanced retirement lifestyle, which are:
- Growth – Lifelong learning, new experiences, neuroplasticity, overcoming challenges
- Community – Relationships, social life and engagement in your community
- Giving Back – Sense of purpose, legacy, volunteering, gifting and contributions
- Health – Diet, exercise, physical, mental and brain health
- Finance – Financial security, not outliving your money, budgeting
And by fully balanced, I mean healthy, active, and engaged.
Why does this rating system work so well? It forces you to check in with yourself and your energy level.
First, your energy level is everything.
Just like you need energy to cook, cool down and heat up your house, turn on the lights, transport and partake in productive activities, you also need it to live a healthy lifestyle.
In fact, a study out of the Netherlands found that your vitality level impacts your healthy living index by a significant 28.4%.
Second, self-reflection is the single most important ingredient to taking the right action… toward any of your wildest dreams and goals.
If you have proper self-awareness, only then can you choose to be disciplined and head in the right direction toward your ideal lifestyle.
And I say “proper” because, although self-awareness is easy to understand, it’s pretty difficult to practice. A study found that even though most people believe they’re self-aware, in reality, only 10-15% actually are.
Which means, self-awareness takes practice and will also prove to be a worthwhile addition to your morning routine.
All this to say:
As it relates to our first step here, rating your energy level in the 5 Rings of Retirement will make you cognizant of a specific area in your life that needs the most attention right now.
On a scale of 1-5, rate your energy level in each of the 5 Rings of Retirement.
Speaking of the core category that needs the most attention, let’s move on to your next step.
Step #2: Choose one of the 5 Rings of Retirement categories you want to work on and circle it.
It doesn’t matter if you have multiple areas that less than ideal at the moment. You’ll get to them later. The theme of this entire exercise is paring down, so choose one category only.
Simple as that.
Step #3. Write down at least three goals that you want to achieve within that one core category.
For example, if you choose “Community,” three example goals may be:
- Meet new friends
- Spend more time with my family and relatives
- Go out to more lunches and events
Step #4: Choose one goal to work on first and circle it.
Create mini-goals within one of the five core categories.
If you’re having trouble deciding, do a quick split-second gut check and pick the one that excites you the most right now.
Don’t overanalyze or overthink it because, again, you’ll get to all of your goals soon (so long as you keep following this formula).
Step #5: Turn your goal into a mini-goal.
It’s time to get micro and turn your goal into a mini-goal and, of course, write it down. You can do this by getting more specific and detailed. After all, your goal needs to be actionable.
A great tool to use to help you transform your goal is the SMART goal method, which stands for:
- Specific – turn hazy into clear and concrete details
- Measurable – quantify it and set criteria
- Achievable – make sure it’s not impossible
- Relevant – define a reason or benefit to reaching it
- Timely – set a date for reaching your goal
And if we continue with our example of “Community,” I’ll walk you through it. Let’s say you circled “Meet new friends” as your goal.
From here, you run it through the SMART goal method:
- S – Become more social by meeting new like-minded people that want to share similar experiences together
- M – Meet two new friends
- A – Seems realistic enough
- R – Being social is healthy, stimulating, and enhances your sense of purpose
- T – Do it within three weeks
Then, you turn it into a mini-goal statement, such as:
My current “Community” mini-goal is to meet two new friends within the next three weeks, so I can spend time with like-minded people who enjoy similar hobbies, which will be exciting, purposeful and healthy for me.
Bonus Tip: Don’t skip the act of writing it down. A Dominican University study revealed that writing down your goals increases your chance of actually achieving it, so grab a pen.
Step #6: List out as many micro-steps as possible.
This is when you enter a free-flowing brainstorm session and write down as many ideas as you can.
The more micro-steps you can think of, the more creative (and better) your ideas will be. I generally shoot for at least 10, so we’ll do that in our continued our example:
- Research Facebook groups online
- Research virtual volunteer opportunities
- Research online classes
- Sign up for an online class
- Call three old friends and make future plans
- Email a connector friend
- Attend a virtual event online
- Message five people on Facebook to catch up
- Invite your neighbor over for a backyard lunch
- Research Meetup groups for future plans
Remember, you’re only focusing on listing ideas for one mini-goal within one core category of the 5 Rings of Retirement.
The more micro-steps you list, the better.
Step #7: Commit to one micro-step each day.
Without allowing yourself to stop and think about it, simply commit to taking action on one single daily micro-step.
If you’re still overwhelmed by your single micro-step, that means it’s too large and you need to break it down even more.
Bonus Tip: Make your commitment a part of your morning routine. Literally, each morning, get into the habit of writing down the one single micro-step you’ll knock out that day.
If you go through all your steps and you still haven’t reached your goal, no problem. Do a quick brainstorm session again or repeat some of your steps if that makes sense.
If you achieve your goal before all the mico-steps are completed, congrats – you’re ready for your next mini-goal, which brings us to your final step.
Step #8: Achieve your goal, celebrate and repeat.
That’s all there is to it.
Caveat: Simplicity doesn’t mean it’s easy. The golden ticket to being successful is consistency. And don’t think about it. Instead, act.
In terms of action: Circle your next goal, turn it into a mini-goal with micro-steps and continue this process until every goal within every category makes you feel like you have a level 5 in energy.
The beauty of this is two-pronged:
- Life happens in ebbs and flows (of course) and when one of the five core categories depletes in energy, another will rise up, and vice-versa.
- Which presents an opportunity: You continue to challenge yourself and grow eternally, which is soo vital to living a healthy, active, and engaged lifestyle.
On a neuroplasticity level, this helps you create new neural pathways until the day you die, which promotes cognitive health and boosts your memory.
I think that counts as a bunch of wins.
Ready to micro-step your way to your most exciting goal?
Fully commit to knocking out one micro-step per day every day, and stay as consistent as possible.
Which means: try your darndest not to skip any days.
Then… one day, you’ll look up and be so much closer to your dream goal than you were.
As always, I’m rooting for you.