Revealed: The Morning Routines of Highly Successful CEOs, Entrepreneurs and Celebrities!

Get it Now

The One Habit That Stops Procrastination In Its Tracks: Clearing To Neutral

By | 44 comments

Friction is procrastination’s best friend. Anytime friction is in sight, procrastination is usually around the corner.

Whenever someone comes to us with procrastination problems, my first instinct is to find the friction point in her life.

Just think of the last time you procrastinated. Why did you put it off? Where was the friction point?

Chances are it falls in one of these three buckets:

  • Getting to clarity about the outcome you’re hoping to achieve
  • Getting started on a task (even though you know exactly what to do)
  • Lack of energy and willpower to do anything (especially if it seems challenging)

After working with so many people on their procrastination challenges, we’ve identified that most procrastination challenges fall into one of three buckets. And in my experience, the first one is the most common pitfall.

When you don’t have clarity about the outcome, it’s easy to put things off until the last minute. To put it in other words: if you are motivated about achieving a goal and you know all the benefits of achieving that goal, you’re more likely to get started.

Getting To Clarity

Most people who procrastinate never get to clarity. We address this extensively in our paid online courses (especially in the Dojo, the biggest productivity training library on the market), but today we will cover all the other ways people procrastinate, and what you can do about it. Even when you have clarity, we still procrastinate for various reasons.

No matter how motivated I am to grow Asian Efficiency and how acutely aware I am of all the benefits that come with that, there are days when I wake up and don’t feel like putting in the work.

We all have these kinds of days. What do you then?

Eliminate every friction point you have in your life.

A lot of procrastination techniques we teach in our paid courses address friction points. When you remove common friction points it becomes easy to get started on things you need to do.

In fact, we teach all of our clients one specific habit that will eliminate most of the friction points in your life. We call it Clearing To Neutral.

Sidenote: When other productivity experts join the AE team, this is one of the first things I teach them. Not only is it one of the core concepts AE is known for, but I also want them to be able to implement it themselves and get all the benefits from it. As we like to say, happy people are productive people.

What is Clearing To Neutral?

The idea is very simple: how can you make your life easy for “future you” to get started?

In restaurants, the process of cleaning the grill is very important. It ensures the grill will last longer, the food will taste better, and you prevent any bacteria from growing. Before the restaurant closes, the people in the kitchen always clean the grill so the next day when they come in it is ready for use.

Imagine for a moment that you’re the chef. You come in, highly motivated to cook delicious dishes for your guests. As soon as you step into the kitchen, you see pots and pans laying on the floor. There are dirty dishes in the sink. The grill is covered in grease and the place smells like rotten eggs.

Would you still be motivated to cook for your guests?

At this point, you lost all your desire to do anything. Before you can get to your specialty (cooking), you have to mop the floors, wash the dishes, inspect food twice to make sure it’s not expired, and clean the grill. By the time you’re done, you have no more energy left to cook and get in your zone of genius.

That’s how sometimes our lives are:

  • Before we can write our book, we’re so disorganized with our notes, papers and digital files that we get frustrated and in a bad mood by the time we sit down to write.
  • When you walk into your office, you have to clear your desk, put stuff in different places, shred papers, and only then are you ready to open your computer to start work.
  • When you open your laptop you see your browser with 34 tabs open, a Youtube video that’s resuming play, and 12 notifications coming up on the sidebar. Now you’re triggered and distracted, and your plan to sit down to do your weekly review is now in jeopardy.

Can you see how easy it is to procrastinate?

When you have so much friction before you get to do the actual thing you wanted to do in the first place, it’s no wonder people procrastinate.

It’s About Eliminating Friction

With Clearing to Neutral, a habit we introduced to the world back in 2012 that changed the game, you eliminate the initial friction.

The reason we call it CTN is because whenever you finish an activity, you need to clear everything so it is in a neutral position. When something is neutral, it’s ready to be used right away.

Finish brushing your teeth? Put the toothbrush in its place so it’s ready for next time.

As you wrap up your writing, close all browser tabs and apps on your computer.

When you finish cooking, clean the grill, pots, and pans so they are ready for use next time.

This is why the habit of Clearing To Neutral is so important: it prevents you from procrastinating in the future. By making sure you set everything up for “future you,” you make it easy for “future you” to hit the ground running. There’s no friction to getting started (which is why most of us procrastinate).

Sidenote: For my fellow systems thinkers, here’s another way to think about it: everything has 3 phases.

  • A setup phase
  • An execution phase
  • A reset phase

As we always talk about at AE, everything in life is a system. Most of us have the initial two phases figured out but miss the third one. That’s really what Clearing To Neutral introduces.

We recommend you introduce a Clearing To Neutral habit on top of every habit you have. This is an easy place to start. For example:

  • After you’re done with your morning ritual, Clear To Neutral by setting everything up for tomorrow.
  • Before you leave the office, Clear To Neutral your desk, computer and any inboxes you have.
  • Anytime you’re about to get away from your computer, Clear To Neutral by closing all apps and browser tabs.

Virtually any habit you have will benefit from having a CTN action added at the end. Just think about your future self. How can you make it easy for future YOU to get started?

Action Steps

Here’s how we recommend you get started:

  1. Write down 3 rituals that first come to mind.
  2. Ask yourself for each ritual: “what can I do at the end of this ritual to make it easy for my “future self” to get started on the ritual?”
  3. Add this to your newly updated ritual.

The last thing I’d like you to do is to close all your browser tabs and clear your desk before you call it a day. I know, it sounds so simple, but please do it today. Your future self will thank me tomorrow.

Discover the 1 Lifehack of Highly Successful People

This one lifehack led to the biggest breakthrough of my career. People like Steve Jobs and Oprah have used it to catapult their success, and now you can too.

44 Comments

Posted by Timo  | May 3, 2018 at 4:38AM | Reply

With all due respect, procrastination certainly has to do with laziness, with the inner bastard and with a no-go-around attitude. Of course, there are also other factors, depressions, etc., but most of all, every human being is of his own volition, i. he can just sit on the seat and do something.

Everything else is excuses. Of course, the task is over again, of course, one displaces the date of release, but actually you still know exactly that you should not play now in the phone or the fourth episode of the new series should look. At least for the majority of those affected, a degree of self-discipline would quickly solve the whole problem.

Posted by Marmel Becerial  | May 2, 2018 at 9:19AM | Reply

Thanks Ram! You can also try to time yourself everytime you are doing a task. This gives you a better understanding of how long it would take you to finish tasks (especially repetitive ones) and can further help you in scheduling everything in.

Posted by Ram  | April 30, 2018 at 10:50PM | Reply

Very informative article. I have just started maintaining a daily log of what happened at work that day and what I intend to do the next day and to be honest, within just 30 days of practicing it in itself has made a sea of difference in my productivity.

With this habit, I am able to carve out what is necessary to be done the next day and thereby directly taking on the procrastinating habit that’s been lingering for a long time.

Posted by Gloria-Jean Brown  | April 29, 2018 at 2:06PM | Reply

I am so happy to have found AE. ‘Clearing to Neutral’ is something I have personally always done – but, i didn’t know the action had a name; a system. This is so validating for me.

Posted by Mary Keith Tarrobal  | April 30, 2018 at 7:21AM

Hi Gloria,

We’re glad you liked it.

Posted by Nora Laitinen  | April 17, 2018 at 1:26PM | Reply

This is amazing. I have noticed that when I take the time to clean up or clear the debris that are the results of my work whatever they are, the next time I go back to those tasks it is easier to get started. Being able to put a name to it solidifies it for me. I am going to keep this concept “Clear to Neutral” in the back of my head while working on my tasks today and try to start a good habit with it.

Posted by Ed Ende  | June 21, 2017 at 11:18AM | Reply

I believe in the concept, “If you are failing to plan, you are planning to fail.” paraphrase – Brian Tracy – The Psychology of Achievement. I also believe in an Asian philosophical concept “A life that is planned can be endured but not lived.” This simply means that we always need to be ready to alter or postpone a “plan” if a more worthy opportunity or need vies for the nod.

Posted by Marian  | April 25, 2017 at 9:35AM | Reply

Thanks for the post guys. Really interesting. If I think about it, since I switched to Mac from PC, the friction of waiting until my computer boots up completely disappeared. It really liberates me from feeling impatient and helpless.

Posted by Fuad Efendi  | October 19, 2015 at 4:36PM | Reply

I’ve read that Japanese chefs sharpen their knife at the very end of workday. Doing it each time is “ritual”; if you try to do it once a week it won’t become a habit.

My house is total mess now, CTN may take few weeks… I already started make my bed each morning, as part of morning ritual :) I never did it before; and I run each morning now, as “ritual”, although I believed before that powerful run in the evening three times a week is better.

I have different viewpoint now, thanks for opening my eyes!

Posted by LFair  | April 14, 2015 at 2:12PM | Reply

Thank you! This article was great; now to make it habit ;)

Posted by Michael  | January 12, 2015 at 11:12PM | Reply

Thank you Thanh. Although may I recommend a more positive alternative to “stale” in “When something is neutral, it is stale…” : )

Posted by Ruby  | November 25, 2014 at 6:22PM | Reply

after swiffering, I always put a new swiffer wipe on so it’s ready to go in the closet :)

Posted by Zachary Sexton  | November 29, 2014 at 8:50AM

Clever :-)

Posted by Vishal  | September 26, 2014 at 6:39PM | Reply

Hi Aaron

Hope your well,

Haven’t spoken to you in ages!

This is great! I will defo be applying CTN. Thanks. Speak soon.

Regards

Vishal

Posted by Paulo Gabriel Carvalho  | June 20, 2014 at 8:07PM | Reply

Hey, guys. you are really amazing. I’m “wasting” my time in you site for the last 2 weeks. And I can see huge and good things changing in my life. I’ve already bought OF Premium Posts. Maybe, blueprint will be the next step! I hope I have this courage to pay 1000 bucks. Thank you for sharing your experience. Big hugs from Brazil!

Posted by Julie  | July 15, 2013 at 10:32AM | Reply

Really great concept. Putting a label on something that we might already be doing unconsciously in different areas of our lives can really help to increase awareness around where we can employ the same tactic in areas that aren’t working as effectively.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | August 24, 2013 at 7:27AM

Thanks Julia!

Posted by Kay Elle  | June 11, 2013 at 2:45PM | Reply

I definitely agree with Nikki! Most of the time things don’t take as long as we think they will. Washing and rinsing a plate takes less than a minute. With that “time frame” in mind, it makes things a lot more bearable. Thanks for all your helpful tips, Thanh and Aaron! You two are mega lifesavers and I bet have saved people lots of money to the doctor’s office (for weakened immune system due to mental overload and breakdowns).

Posted by leahy36  | April 10, 2013 at 7:49PM | Reply

Simplicity is genius! Tagging the tidying up process to the end of the last session rather than the start of the next is so simple and powerful that I’m angry for not doing it before now.

The beauty of CTN from a Getting Things Done perspective is that it is not a High Energy task and so is ideally suited to an end-of-session slot. It also helps me justify my counter-intuitive habit of sometimes ignoring the Frog that needs to be eaten in favour of swatting away multiple frog spawn – sometimes you need to clear the decks to focus on that darn frog.

Posted by Workshop: Scientific Work — Task Management  | March 11, 2013 at 1:04PM | Reply

[…] can do a few things with your infrastructure to help you do your tasks. Most of all, something that AsianEfficiency calls clear to neutral. Whenever you finish the work for the day, you clean up your desk/environment so that you can start […]

Posted by Churchill Madyavanhu  | January 25, 2013 at 5:43PM | Reply

I have to say I am often guilty of not cleaning to neutral and this does lead to procrastination. Love the simple, but useful idea. All that is left is to put theory into practice. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by Lee Strsanahan  | December 23, 2012 at 12:41PM | Reply

Found your blog when looking for hints on using text expansion software – your article was the awesomest (yes, I said it) and your blog is great. Excellent article; I’m new fan.

Posted by Sarah  | November 14, 2012 at 11:26AM | Reply

This has been a topic of concern in my home and workplace for a while. Thank you for addressing it in a way that makes it so clear! Now, how do I get the rest of my family on board CTN? Oftentimes their inability to CTN can make any or all of us procrastinate.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | November 14, 2012 at 2:33PM

Great question Sarah – I’d say lead by example. Show them how it’s effective and whenever they don’t do it, point it out. Do this enough times and hopefully everyone will be onboard. But it starts with by leading by example.

Posted by Linda  | November 8, 2012 at 2:41PM | Reply

This reminds me of Maria Montessori’s “stage three”. She taught that most activities have three stages — the set up, the activity itself, and the clean up. We’ve tried to use this notion with our daughters. And your “clearing to neutral” adds other new elements which are very useful! I appreciate the way you described your experience with this.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | November 9, 2012 at 4:22PM

I like that idea of 3 stages and CTN obviously fits in the last stage.

Posted by Deborah  | November 3, 2012 at 12:06PM | Reply

This is a great concept. We see it everywhere, but your post really sums it up in a simple manner. I posted a link to it on my psychotherapy practice blog at
http://www.simi-therapy.com/blog/stop-procrastinating-clear-to-neutral/1160/

Thanks!

Posted by Thanh Pham  | November 5, 2012 at 10:31PM

Thank you Deborah!

Posted by Damayanthi  | November 3, 2012 at 1:59AM | Reply

I love this method of CTN!

I have this ‘thing’ about clearing the kitchen and dining table before I leave home for work or anything else, so that I will come to a clean house. I know it may sound crazy but that’s what I do.
With regards to clearing up the work area, I am not very consistant. Your article gave me the kick I needed to get to that habit as well.

Thanks for sharing

Damayanthi

Posted by Thanh Pham  | November 5, 2012 at 10:31PM

Thanks Damayanthi! That “thing” you have is a “good thing” :-)

Posted by Kevin Paquet  | October 29, 2012 at 4:15AM | Reply

I’ve read so many books that you recommended that I forgot from which book I’ve read this one. Luckily I got this little nudge about it in my email, because I forgot the discipline of CTN itself, too.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 29, 2012 at 4:31PM

Cheers Kevin!

Posted by Meggin McIntosh  | October 27, 2012 at 8:53PM | Reply

Clearing to neutral indeed makes a huge difference. The simple example is the kitchen – coming downstairs in the morning to a sink full of dishes is not good. The office is another one – coming to my office with crap all over my desk is not good. But clearing my kitchen, my desk, my ____ to neutral just smooths my path. Really appreciate the tip of making a list of habits na then figuring out how to clear to neutral.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 27, 2012 at 10:51PM

I like that idea of making a list and then figuring out how to add CTN to that. I’m going to do this myself! Thanks for sharing Meggin!

Posted by Sam  | October 26, 2012 at 12:21PM | Reply

Great Article – Done over time – this becomes a very efficient process – similar to how professionals in mission critical situations think, plan and work – (aircraft pilots, or surgeon or marine biologist). As a side note a LOT of military discipline (and bootcamp training) – is to drill this into everyone – till it becomes second nature – whether you are using a restroom or cooking or managing a tactical assault post.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 27, 2012 at 10:23PM

Yeah that’s true. I’ve seen that a lot in documentaries about the military. Thanks for bringing that up!

Posted by Thibaut  | May 21, 2012 at 12:23PM | Reply

Great tips, will definitely keep it in mind !

Posted by Mark K. Lucas  | February 20, 2012 at 12:07PM | Reply

Great Meggin!  Thanks for the encouragement and CTN mind-set. 

Peace out. 

Posted by Meggin McIntosh  | February 15, 2012 at 1:46PM | Reply

I love this concept!  Clear to Neutral.  Brilliant!  thank you!
Meggin

Posted by Timo Kiander  | September 9, 2011 at 1:44PM | Reply

Thanh,

Great tips!

What I have found is that if I do even the smallest tasks sometime later, the task becomes very irritating to handle. 

However, once I do it as soon as I can, the thing is out of my mind and I can focus on other stuff instead.

Timo

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 9, 2011 at 7:25PM

Yes I have the exact same thing. Like I often say, “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s better to have it taken care of than thinking about doing it later on. Then, like you said, you often don’t enjoy it or even procrastinate on it.

Posted by Weekly Business Roundup  | August 6, 2011 at 4:19PM | Reply

[…] Clearing to Neutral: The One Habit That Prevents You From Procrastinating – I was having a bit of a procrastination issue earlier in the week, and the lovely Barb Sabathil pointed me towards this post and the concept of clearing to neutral. […]

Posted by Nikki  | July 24, 2011 at 5:32PM | Reply

Thanh, that’s a good idea about clear to neutral. One note about doing the dishes that my mom taught me, she told me to do the dishes while cooking. This means, once I finished using the cutting board, I can clean and rinse it off within seconds. So as knife and other utensils I just used. After I finished cooking and having dinner, I could see a fewer dishes and pans to deal with. This might be helpful with you clearing ideas. For example, if you are making notes, just save them in the right folder right away, not all on desktop. Or like you said, if you don’t use that window, close it right away. So you have less work to cleaning up.  

Posted by AE Thanh  | July 25, 2011 at 12:20PM

Great tips Nikki. I can see how that can work. Thanks for sharing them with us!

Leave a Reply