Why it is so easy to not get simple things done

Every Monday I used to tell myself that this was the first week that I was going to change things around. I would start running again, rebuild my stamina, get my muscle strength back and with that regain my energy from days long gone.
Running and some jumping jacks – everyone can do it and we all know the benefits they would bring. Yet, every Monday felt like ground hog day to me. I was raising procrastination into an art form. Monday and Tuesday I would have a perfectly good excuse not to work out and half way through the week I told myself that it would be better to start fresh the next Monday…

Everybody probably recognizes this. How often have you told yourself that today you’re going to do your tax administration or clean up your closet? And how often have you broken that promise to yourself? And this holds true not only for things in your personal life, but just as much in your professional capacity. Executing that task that has already been on your to do list for months, making that call you have been postponing for days, keeping your inbox up to date or coming on time for

We are in the middle of a renovation and somehow watching Netflix when the kids are in bed still trumps getting the kitchen in order. But I am now running 3-4 times a week now. And there was one thing that really helped me to finally commit myself to getting fit and running regularly. Millions of books and articles have been written about the art of getting things done. I certainly don’t want to claim to be an expert. But I’d like to share something that work for me. You can apply it to anything in your life, both personally and professionally, for which you need a bit of a push to simply get it done.

The trick is called ‘the immunity to change framework’ which is based on the Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. It offers a few seemingly simple steps that provide you with new insights into why you haven’t been reaching your goals thus far and subsequently helps you to overcome your apparent immunity to change. Take a piece of paper, make columns for each step and start filling it in.

Step 1 – Goal
What is it that you want to do, change or improve?
For this entire exercise we’ll take my goal of getting fit again as an example. Now let me start by saying that goal setting is a discipline in itself; the better you formulate your goal, the bigger your chance of success. So keeping the SMART goal setting in mind, my goal became: “regain my energy through physical exercise. To do this I want to run 10 km in one hour in three months.

Step 2 – Behaviors going against my goal
What are you doing or not doing instead?
There was a whole list of things I was doing instead of running. To name a few, I would never wake up before the kids would wake up, bingewatch Casa de Papel in the evening or only focus on short term gains.

Step 3 – Worries
What do you worry about if you start doing things differently?
Now it’s important that you really take a few moments to think about the answer to this question. What are you actually worried about? Coming back to my example: I worried that I wouldn’t have enough time for my kids, partner, work and sleep for instance. Or that I would spend all this time on getting to that 10 km and that it would fail to improve my overall energy level. And lastly, if I was being completely honest with myself, I would no longer be allowed to just be lazy. Since the birth of my kids I always had an excuse that I was unable to work-out. I could lie on the couch and not feel guilty about it!

Step 4 – competing commitments
Other commitments you have that you think will be affected if you start doing things differently.
This is a matter of priorities. What did I think was more important than physical activity? What ‘deserved’ my time more? Linked to one of my worries my competing commitments were my children, husband, work and sleep. And having my moments of idleness.

Step 5 – Big assumptions
What are the underlying assumptions of these worries / competing commitments?
To me this is actually the most important step in the framework that is at the root of changing things. What lied beneath the surface that was keeping me from reaching my goals? Which (mental) obstacles did I create for myself? And the big keyword here was time. I had four assumptions that together were keeping me from stepping into the action mode and trying to get to my goal.

  • Exercise costs more energy and time than it produces
  • Exercise will only have an effect if duration is long & immediate impact is big
  • The effect should be seen or felt immediately otherwise it is useless
  • I will be a bad mother if I don’t spend all my free time with my kids

    Knowing your assumptions behind your worries is the most important input you need in designing the next step – a small experiment that will test your assumptions and will help you to get out of your procrastination spiral.

    Step 6 – Small experiment
    Which small action(s) can you start from next week onwards that will help you towards your goals?
    The most important word here is SMALL. Because incremental change is so much more effective and easier to sustain, at least for me, than a massive turn-around of your daily routine. And if this first experiment has proven to be fruitful, it is so much more fun to add another one, and another one. What safe, modest and actionable experiment can you think of that can help you to overcome your assumptions and eventually reach your goal? Since almost all my assumptions were related to the factor of time, my experiment had to be short but effective. My dad recommended the 7-minute work-out app to me: 7 minutes of work-out, where you would do a set of 12 exercises that would last 30 seconds each with a 10 second breach. 7 minutes – less than one snooze on your alarm clock. To keep it achievable I told myself to do this every other day, and to limit my sense of guilt of my other competing commitments, I would do it together with my kids and husband. We would work out and the kids would dance at the tunes of upbeat children songs (not recommended by the way as a good choice of music).

    Step 7 – saboteurs and supporters
    Who are your saboteurs? Is there someone secretly whispering you’re not going to achieve your goal? And vice versa, whose support could you engage?
    In my case the only saboteur was myself, but there will definitely be moments when there are people that will either subconsciously or on purpose derail you from your goal. Don’t go to the bar with your alcoholic friend if you want to do dry January. But I enlisted my husband as my biggest supporter. The peer pressure of seeing him doing the 7 minute work-out was enough for me to drag myself out of bed every morning. I created an app-group with friends who were going to do the same. Make a list of your biggest saboteurs and supporters and see how they (can) play a role in your road to success.

    The effect of this small experiment was that, after two weeks of muscle ache, I already started to notice the positive effect. I increased the time I would spend on my morning routine since I noticed that there was absolutely no negative effect on my kids, work or partner if I took some time for myself to work-out. I started adding running and multiple strength exercises to the routine to eventually running for an hour and do one or more 7-min apps in between.  

    And it was actually quite the opposite – the remaining time I had more energy so I would be more effective at my work and could play hide and seek for an hour without having to say that I had to take a break. Of course I knew all this. I knew that the outcome of one hour of exercise a day would be extremely positive. But my underlying assumptions became so strongly rooted in my brain that I wasn’t able to acknowledge and accept them and overcome them.

    Many of you may recognize the struggle to commit yourself to exercising. But as mentioned, this approach can be applied to anything, both in your personal as well as your professional life. I would urge you to get that piece of paper, write down that one stubborn to do that just never seems to get done, and find out what’s keeping you from getting there.
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