When Hernán Cortés and 600 men arrived in Mexico in 1519, after a long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic, he gave a rather interesting order.
Burn the boats.
The Spanish conquistador’s order was given prior to his stunning mission of battling, defeating and plundering the riches of the entire Aztec Empire.
Or so legend has it.
Historical lore also has Alexander the Great using the same strategy with his heavily outnumbered Greek army upon their arrival to Persia.
Burning the boats was also a major strategy in Sun Tzu’s ancient military treatise, “The Art of War”.
From the Greeks, to Asia, to Imperial Spain, the strategy of ‘burning the boats’ has been seen throughout history. Why?
How could intentionally destroying your own resources on the eve of battle serve as a strategy for victory?
And what does this bit of military trivia have to do with procrastination?
The “burn the boats” strategy – that is, making failure to achieve a desired outcome more painful – is an effective way to ensure victory because it eliminates an important obstacle to accomplishing your goals.
That obstacle is a thought. The thought that if ‘things don’t work out’ you always have an escape plan to fall back on. Knowing you have an escape plan will prevent you from giving every ounce of effort needed for victory.
When you burn the boats you are also igniting a burning desire to succeed. You have no choice. You win or you perish.
So how can you use this strategy to overcome procrastination in your work and life?
Procrastination Tip 1: Burn The Boats
Burning the boats in the modern world takes 3 steps.
1. Commit your procrastinated task or project to paper.
Be specific about what you want to accomplish. “Email 10 people about job openings” is a better commitment than “start looking for a job”.
2. Find someone to hold you accountable.
Find a single person or crew of accountability buddies (accountabilibuddies). It helps if your acountabilibuddies have similar aims in life, but this is not necessary.
I recently met a tight group of friends that have been helping each other succeed with their boat burning strategies since high school.
At the beginning of every week all of these friends set their goals and punishments for failing to reach their goals. On Friday, they come back together to see each other’s progress. They celebrate the wins and hold each other accountable for the losses.
3. Decide a punishment for failing to reach your goal.
Q: What does the above mentioned crew use in lieu of burning actual boats?
A: Things they really, really don’t want to happen.
Their punishments span from 4:30am runs to the pouring an entire bottle of expensive red wine onto a favorite shirt.
You may not want to take it as far as these guys, but do make the punishment painful enough to motivate you to action.
Procrastination Tip 2: The 2 Minute Rule
There are 2 versions of the 2 minute rule. And they both help with procrastination.
The first is, if it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it.
Doing all your 2 minute tasks as soon as they appear prevents small tasks from growing into larger ones. The 2 minute rule is particularly effective with email and small chores like washing your dishes or closing down all of the programs on your computer at the end of the day.
The second half of the 2 minute rule is a way to trick yourself into starting on a task you’ve been avoiding.
This is how it works:
Tell yourself to work for 2 minutes. Just 2. If you feel like you need a break after 2 minutes fine. You could even decide a fun reward for completing your 2 minutes of undesirable work… looking at cute pictures of kittens on the internet is alway a good one.
Then just start.
More often than not just getting started for 2 minutes will give you the momentum to finish or make major headway on a task.
The start for 2 minute rule works for 2 reasons.
First, once we get started on a task that we have been procrastinating on, we usually realize that the work is not as terrible as we imagined it to be (unless it’s doing your taxes… US taxes really are that bad).
Second, there is a weird psychological trait called the Zeigarnik effect, that states the human mind does not like incomplete tasks. So once we get started, we have a strong desire to finish the task so we don’t have a half done ‘open-loop’ that our brain tends to worry about until we finish the task.
Procrastination Tip 3: Book An Anti-Procrastination Appointment
Is your life at the point where it seems like you are too busy to get anything done?
Overcome unproductive busyness by carving out a specific time and place you are going to work on the task you’ve been avoiding. When the time comes, firewall all other distractions -phone, email, internet, co-workers- and do nothing but the pre-determined task for the allotted time.
You may just have to sit and stare at a blank powerpoint for 20 minutes before you make any progress. Eventually boredom, inspiration, frustration, etc will kick in and you will start on the tasks you had been avoiding.
Productivity is getting important things done consistently.
If your busy life is not allowing you to get the important things done, slow down by booking an appointment with your important task.
For this tip to work, it is important that you give your anti-procrastination appointment top priority. Keep the meeting as if it were a private conference with the CEO of your company and be sure to start and end on time.
You’ve just learned 3 quick tips to beat procrastination:
- Burn the Boats
- The Two Minute Rule
- Anti-Procrastination Appointments
However, knowing is not enough! You must use these tips to take action. Getting yourself to take action is the only path to accomplishing your goals and shaping your life.
How Productive Are You?
Take our Productivity Quiz to find out. Learn the tactics and techniques that will work for you.