Clearing to Neutral: The One Habit That Stops You From Procrastinating

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Tools rack

We often procrastinate because there is this one hidden thing holding us back. It is this one thing that makes you procrastinate and most people are not even aware what this is, but if you eliminate it you can say goodbye to procrastination forever.

Friction

A lot of times we procrastinate because we have to jump through a lot of hurdles before we can do the thing we actually want to do. For example, let’s say you need to prepare dinner. So you need your dishes, cutlery, pots and pans. But what if they are still in the sink from the time you used them for lunch? That means before you can actually start cooking, you need to wash them first.

YUCK.

To put it in other words, before you can do your main activity (cooking), you have to do all these others things (cleaning) before you can get to your main activity. Can you see how that friction, washing the dishes, can prevent you from preparing dinner? Can you see how you might procrastinate on cooking?

Dirty sink

Do you really want to start cooking if you need to clean this first?

If you make it hard for yourself to get started, that’s when you will most likely procrastinate. Imagine you finished some work at your desk and you went out for lunch. Lunch time is over and you need to go back to do some other work at your desk. Do you really want to go work at your desk when you see it’s such a mess?

Messy desk

No matter how attractive Leia is, I do not want to clean all that just to do some paperwork at my desk.

Now imagine you actually cleaned your desk and now you need to do some work on your computer. Do you easily get distracted when your desktop looks something like this?

Cluttered desktop

Hold on, I need to write an important document without getting distracted......

All these little starting points where you have friction are very common. When you encounter one after the other, it can be very demotivating to get work done. You have to do a lot of other things, before you do what you really need to do. Or you do get work done but you get easily distracted. Now this is a problem….but there is a solution to this.

Clear To Neutral

Now this is where, as we at Asian Efficiency like to call it, the habit of Clearing To Neutral (CTN) comes in. The main idea behind CTN is that you set yourself up for success. What that means is that any time you finish your activity, you do a little routine where you set it up so that the next time you start there is no friction. In other words, you setup your environment for next time.

Our friend Eben Pagan uses the analogy of cleaning a grill. 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 cooks always clean the grill so the next day when they come in it is ready for use.

This is exactly the idea behind Clearing To Neutral and how you need to set yourself up. The reason we call it CTN is because whenever you finish an activity, you need to move everything so everything is in neutral position. When something is neutral, it is stale and you can do anything you want to it.

Now this is why the habit of clearing to neutral is so important: it prevents you from procrastinating in the future. By making sure you clean up your environment and toolkit, you ensure that the next time you need to use them there will be no friction at all. In other words, you make it easy for your “future self” to get started.

Some of you might think: “So, what you are basically saying is that you need to be clean and tidy.” Yes and no. Obviously that helps, but you need to take it one step further. See CTN as a post-activity habit. After you have done your main activity, do your post-activity work (clear to neutral). This means you set everything up so it is ready for the next time. In the earlier examples, how could you apply the habit of clearing to neutral? When you finished cooking for lunch, you wash your dishes right away. That messy desk? When you finish the paperwork, you clean your desk. That desktop with all those windows open? Whenever you finish your task, clear to neutral by closing all the windows so you only see your desktop background.

More examples

The clear to neutral habit can be applied in many different areas of your life. While the examples earlier are very common, so are these:

  • Getting enough sleep – energize yourself so you set yourself up for the next day.
  • Close relationship loops – do you have unresolved issues with people, especially people you see on a regular basis? Close them so there is absolutely no friction when you two need to work together.
  • Clean your desk – whenever you finish a task or you call it a day, clean your desk.
  • Wash your dishes as soon you finish eating – don’t let dishes linger around for too long. The longer it is in the sink, the dirtier it will get.
  • Close all programs – as you as you finish your work on your computer, close all windows so you only see your desktop.
  • Post-morning ritual – whenever you finish your morning ritual, set everything up for the next morning.
  • Editor’s note - this applies on a larger scale too, like in clearing the small tasks on your to-do list. Sometimes the simple presence of these 2-5 minute tasks is enough to make you procrastinate on doing bigger and more important things.

The concept of clear to neutral can be applied to any rituals or habits you have. By mere definition of the word “habit”, you do something repeatedly. See if you can add a clear to neutral action in your current habits, so the next time you start your ritual or do your habit, you do it without any friction. Your future self will be thankful for the extra one or two minutes you spent clearing to neutral. I know this sounds too simple. Maybe it’s too simple. But those extra one or two minutes of clearing to neutral can make a HUGE difference to your productivity. Just imagine how different your life might be when you barely procrastinate…..

Next Action

Make CTN a mini habit for everything you repeatedly start and finish. Here’s a simple game plan:

  1. Make a list of your habits.
  2. See if you can add a clear to neutral action at the end of your habit.

Photos by cote, blakespot, and scaredy_kat.

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About

I grew up in The Netherlands, went to university in Los Angeles and now I'm living in different places every couple months. When I'm not writing about personal productivity or time management, I'm probably trying out a new restaurant in the city I'm in (I love food!). One of my specialties is time management for organizations, executives and employees. The reason I started this blog with Aaron is that I love sharing my knowledge with people and helping them become a better person. This blog is a footprint I want to leave behind and I hope you get a lot of value out of my articles. Feel free to get in touch with me anytime!

31 Comments

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!

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

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

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

Great tips, will definitely keep it in mind !

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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

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