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Give up willpower this year
Author : Rob Ashton
Posted : 16 / 12 / 15
At this time of year, our thoughts inevitably turn to fresh starts and making resolutions for better ways to live and work. If you’ve pledged to give up cake or make the gym your second home, you’re certainly in good company. My friend Philippa is one of many who have declared this ‘Dry January’ (which I confidently predict will be followed by ‘Wet February’ – you heard it here first).
Or maybe you’ve decided it’s your working habits that need to shape up, that this is the year you won’t leave writing up reports, emails and proposals to the last minute anymore. It’s an issue many of us struggle with, and some to a very dramatic extent.
I recently read of a man who always left writing reports until the night before they were due. Well, he did that until he discovered that he could get up at 4am on the actual day he had to submit them and write them then. Clearly, that’s no way to live. And definitely not a great route to writing great reports.
Being unsure of where to begin your document can lead to a lot of wasted time and (if we’re honest) procrastination. Too often, we don’t start to write until the fear of writing something imperfect gets displaced by the fear of not writing anything at all.
Of course, lots of people put off starting that crucial document or critical email for much longer than they might like to admit.
The trouble is that willpower sometimes just won’t cut it. If your brain perceives something to be a threat (the prospect of failure), it will do all it can to avoid that threat until a bigger one (the consequences of not writing anything at all) comes along. Believe me, your willpower is not much of a match for millions of years of evolution.
The way to get round this is to trick your brain by still avoiding the ‘threat’ while doing something that actually moves you closer to finishing. So if writing is the problem, don’t write. Plan instead.
Most painters sketch out the general outlines of their pictures before putting paint to canvas. This gets all the elements in the right place and then naturally leads them into the act of painting itself. When you take time to plan, you do the same thing with your writing.
In fact, planning is doubly useful. Not only does it overcome procrastination, it separates your writing and thinking processes. And that separation will produce much better results.
Too many people use the writing process to work out what they think. This is actually dangerous. First, it’s likely to result in quite a disordered document or email. Second, it fools you into believing that what you’ve written is logical. More likely is that what you’ve written is the record of what could be a jumbled thought process – a record that you then inflict on the reader.
There are many ways to plan. Lists are better than nothing. Mind maps are much better, as they are non-linear: they allow you to make connections between ideas that may not have initially occurred to you.
But, however you plan, try not to do it on-screen: this will make it difficult to get the necessary perspective. And let’s not forget, your computer is also where all the tempting distractions of the internet lurk. So, instead, use a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. (Yes, paper.) And switch off – or even step away from – your screen if it helps.
Since you’re unlikely to beat evolution, you may as well work with it to get the results you want. As well as have the occasional lie-in.
Image credit: alphaspirit / Shutterstock
Rob is a former scientist who set up Emphasis in 1998 after a career in magazine and journal editing. He designed the document analysis that underpins all our courses and believes training should always be based on evidence, not pseudoscience or wishful thinking. His writing has been featured in the Guardian and The Telegraph, as well as specialist publications including Accountancy Age, Training Journal and Nursing Standard. He's also a member of the Association of British Science Writers.
He's currently working on a new book about the science of the words we write and the effects they have on all of us.
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