Back in 2015, I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
In it, Newport makes the case for the necessity of periods of uber-focused, distraction-free, Deep Work.
After reading the book, I began to realise how distracted I actually was. I’d sit down to write and without realising end up on Facebook, sending me down a rabbit-hole of links and articles – only to emerge hours later, having written zilch. And my motivation to write dissipated. This would only lead me to berate my incompetence and lack of discipline to focus on the task at hand, which would inevitably make me feel worse about the act of writing.
And so, finally deciding that enough was enough, I set out to remedy the problem. The solution was simple, obviously: Delete all social media apps from my phone; install a website blocker app on my MacBook; and spend the first four hours of my day typing away like a madman on whatever piece I happened to be working on at the time.
There was only one small problem.
Shit didn’t work.
The more aggressively I restricted myself from using Facebook or abide by the rules I’d set for myself; the harder it became for me to be productive. It was almost like my mind was rebelling against me, refusing to do what it needed to do.
Here’s what I realised:
– It’s not about aggressively restricting or entirely omitting things from your life, but setting up systems so that these things can be a part of, and enjoyed, without impeding on or disturbing it.
As an example: I’m not the biggest fan of social media, but I also realise that becoming a digital puritan, especially in this day and age, is nigh on impossible. So I’ve set up my day (and life) in a way that I can be productive but also enjoy social media.
I did this by making a pact with myself – “Hey asshat, let’s make a deal: If you let me write for the first three hours of the day, I’ll let you enjoy social media as much as you want afterwards. Deal?”
It worked. And my thoughts no longer kept flicking to Facebook or Instagram and that itch to check my emails just in case was gone and I found myself being insanely more productive.
Instead of trying to dominate, I bargained with myself:
This is what I call the If I do This Then I Can Enjoy That principle.
I see people start a new diet or fitness plan and the first thing they do is set these aggressive and arbitrary rules on themselves. “I’m giving up all sugar”, “I’m going to train 7x a week”, “I’m not going to eat out anymore”, “I’m not drinking anymore”, “I’m no longer doing lines of coke off a hooker’s butt”, etc.
But, a few weeks go by and the urge to do all those things and revert back to your old ways gets stronger. And eventually, you’re right back to where you started.
So what’s the solution?
Here’s a three-step framework that I’ve found to work well.
1. Know your nature: Do you think that you can restrict certain things or omit them completely? If the answer is yes, then cool, do it. But if you know that you can’t give up bread or chocolate or alcohol or eating out, forever – then don’t. Don’t try to fight your nature, but rather, work with it. Which leads to the second point…
2. Bargain with yourself: Ok, so let’s assume that you know you don’t want to give up chocolate for the rest of your life. But you also want to diet, and you know that having tasty foods in the house causes you to binge and overeat, derailing your dieting progress. What can you do?
Bargain with yourself.
This is a simple, “If I do this then I can do or enjoy that.”
Example: “If I track my calories and macros and stick to them for the entire week, then I will go out for a meal with friends where I can enjoy my favourite dessert.” Or, “If I stick to my macros and calories for the day, then I will enjoy a small bowl of ice cream for dessert after dinner.”
Bargaining with yourself removes the anxiety of FOMO, you’re not never going to eat your favourite food again, but simply reducing your exposure so that you can accomplish your dieting goal. Knowing that you can eat them after certain conditions are met – conditions that you decide on – helps you stick to the plan.
An example: My girlfriend is currently dieting for a holiday. She loves pizza, but she also realises that eating a slice or two will put a massive dent in her calorie total for the day. Not something that makes sense nor is she willing to do. So, as a mature adult, she’s chosen not to eat pizza during the length of her diet, but used it as a way to motivate herself – “If I stick to my diet for the next 6-8 weeks, then I can go out and enjoy pizza with Aadam.”
3. Set up systems: After you’ve done the above, then you simply need to set up a system or structure that helps automate all of this so you aren’t thinking or stressing about it.
This could mean meal prepping for the entire week or setting up certain meal timings (e.g. I will fast until 12 pm and stop eating at 7 pm, aiming to consume three meals within that eating window); it could mean having one day a week where you increase your calorie intake so you can enjoy meals out without worrying about it ruining your diet. Whatever. This is totally your call. But remember to set up the systems so they align with your nature and personality. Don’t like calorie cycling? Then stick to a linear calorie intake throughout the week. Don’t like fasting or don’t want to fast? Then don’t.
Systems allow you to focus and minimise distractions. If you meal prep, for example, then you don’t need to waste mental energy figuring out what to eat every day so that it fits within your macro and calorie totals – you just eat, knowing that the meal you made already fits within your totals.
The goal shouldn’t be to restrict things you know you probably won’t be able to restrict, but setting up your life so that these things can be enjoyed without impeding on it.
Give this a go, and let me know how you get on.
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