Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Looking back at the latter half of 2020, if I'm being honest with myself, I've had quite a few ups and downs. I'm usually someone who prides myself in being emotionally stable and being productive. However, during the summer, I felt lethargic and lazy. I felt frustrated with myself because I just couldn't feel motivated enough to make progress on my goals.
Maybe I can blame it on the sun and nice weather. It was my first summer back in Vancouver so I was busy having fun. But throughout summer, and into fall, I couldn't help but feel distracted and irritated at myself for procrastinating. For one thing, I had initially planned to study for the AICPA exam during the summer and fall, and write the exam before end of the year. However, that plan fell through when weeks went by during the summer where the review book remained untouched. As the months passed by, I felt increasingly stressed about meeting the timeline I set for myself.
The lack of motivation affected all areas of my life, as other goals such as posting weekly for Youtube or eating a healthy diet completely went off the rails.
At this time, I had fortunately met up with an old time friend, who temporarily moved back to the city to be with family during the quarantine. She had brought up the topic that she was going through some baggage from the past, and that seeing a therapist was instrumental in her progress to accepting herself. She said she highly recommended seeing one, for whatever issue, whether big or small. I decided to make an appointment with a psychotherapist, specializing in the areas I wanted to explore more about myself and the issues I was facing. I had weekly sessions for a period of three months. During that time, I learned about the following tips that made me take action and break out of the habit of procrastination:
1. Just do it
My first mistake was waiting until I felt motivated to do something. After talking to my psychologist, she said something that was so simple but that clicked - don't wait to feel motivated before doing something, just do it. Motivation is a feeling, and usually, feelings correspond to action. There is that study where forcing yourself to smile can actually trick your brain into feeling happier, by boosting your mood and even feeling less stressed.
In fact, I was taking actions for demotivation by not studying or not being productive. By not taking action when you are not motivated, you are negatively reinforcing that cycle of behaviour and feeling.
2. Create a Goal board
If you're feeling scatterbrained and don't know where to focus your energy on, I suggest that you create a Goal Board. Essentially, it's like a new year's resolutions, where you prioritise the goals you want to achieve for the year. However, I think the difference is that what you plan to achieve for the year is part of a big picture plan for what you want in your life. Where do you envision yourself in 5, 10, 20 years? What needs to be realized before you get there? What is the action you need to take now to work towards that goal?
My personality wise, I like to take a structured and logical approach to my goals. I know that it doesn't work for everyone, and some like to go with the flow and sometimes opportunities land at your feet. However, I always felt that being prepared helps you attract opportunities and it helps you become more receptive to that opportunity when you know what you want in your life.
3. Plan your Days at the Start of the Week
To maximize your days and your week, I found it helpful to take 15 minutes on a Sunday to plan for tasks you want to get done during the week. I like to list two to three main tasks I need to do each day on my whiteboard, which is placed strategically in the middle of my room. By having a visual display, it reminds me what I need to do during the day as well as get a sense of satisfaction when I check the task completed.
Planning ahead also keeps me accountable on how much progress I need to make at the end of each week by allocating some time throughout on the week on specific days. It also prevents decision fatigue on when to do a certain task, which often leads to procrastination.
4. Set up your environment for success
The easiest way to make progress on your goals is, to not leave things to mind control, but rather creating an environment where you can be successful. What I mean by this is, if you are planning to lose weight and becoming healthier, don't buy ice cream when you go grocery shopping and tell yourself you are going to only have one scoop or that you will wait until your cheat day to have some. It will be extremely hard to control yourself and when you eventually succumb to the whole tub of ice cream, you will feel disappointed and it will be harder to pick yourself up to continue on your health journey. Instead, have a shopping list and focus on getting items only on your list at the grocery store, while avoiding the junk food aisles. That way, if it's not at home, and when you have a craving, you don't have that option to mindless snack away. Instead, having healthy alternatives will satisfy that craving without regretting on a (mindless) decision to finish that bag of chips.
This analogy goes hand in hand with other aspects of your life. To be more productive, I don't watch any tv shows or movies during the week. I also put a daily time limit on how long I can spend on certain apps on my phone that can be highly addicting, like Youtube, Instagram, and TikTok. I try to increase friction on habits that are negatively affecting my productivity.
5. Automate your behaviours by creating routines
In addition, creating routines throughout the day helps you to automate actions that are beneficial to you, without wasting time or procrastinating. For example, having a morning routine of having water first thing when you wake up, meditating, studying, reading the news, etc, will have you run on autopilot while getting a lot of things done!
When it comes to studying, have a set time everyday where you make progress is crucial. I had the mindset that I will do bulk of the studying on a weekend - it never worked out. Instead, I decided to study around 30 minutes each day, as part of my morning routine. Making small and consistent actions often accumulated to better results versus having sporadic efforts that fizzle to subpar results.
Another tip I got when I felt distracted during my study sessions is to get task focused by setting a timer, such as for 15 or 20 minutes. This way, you trick yourself into focusing "only" for 15 minutes, which usually gets you in the zone. If you end up daydreaming or getting distracted, you realize 15 minutes had passed procrastinating, and you can try again to focus. I later realized this is called the Pomodoro technique!
6. Revisit your Goals frequently
Every week, it's ideal to sit down with yourself and review how your week went. Are you happy with the progress made or are you falling short of the things you want to accomplish? I had the issue of setting unrealistically high standards for myself and each week I was defeated when I didn't achieve it. Sometimes you just need to set back and reassess the situation - am I being unrealistically hard on myself for no reason? Did I really think I could get through 100 pages of review, while having a full time job and other priorities?
In this case, I found it helpful to reflect on whether I really did try my best or whether I was lacking in effort. Then, I revise my plans, set a schedule, and be consistent in trying to achieve those weekly goals. It may require some tweaking on a week to week basis, but you will eventually find a balance that works best for you.
7. Boost your mental health by taking action
It's easy to fall into a pitfall if you start feeling terrible about yourself or if you don't want to get out of bed. When you are in this state, you know you have to do something but usually taking action is harder said than done. If you don't know where to start, maybe start off with the following actions points to get yourself back up again:
Get out of the house Getting some fresh air and going for walks will not only clear your brain, but any form of exercise will boost your serotonin levels in your brain, boosting your mood and overall well being. If you are up to the challenge, taking up more intense forms of exercise such as cardio and strength training, will further improve your mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
Is your body trying to tell you something? If you are feeling lethargic and fatigued all the time, maybe your body is telling you that your body is lacking in essential nutrients. Consult with a doctor or (against better judgement) search up on Google your symptoms. You may be lacking in vitamin D3 during the winter, which you often get in the summer from the sub, which affects your mood. You may also feel tired from being anemic or lack of iron, which is common thing among females. I've come to realize I have S.A.D. or Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winters. My mood gets down and I get extremely lethargic. I realized it's my body's normal response to the gloomy and rainy weather we have here in Vancouver. To combat this, I've started turning on all the lights in my room and to get light therapy. You may not have realized why you feel a certain way, but try to be more attuned to your body and be aware of its unique needs.
Change your mindset Instead of being stuck inside your swirling thoughts, try getting it all out on paper. Journaling is often helpful when you want to get get something off your chest or if you want to make sense of an abstract feeling. Gratitude journals are also great for redirecting your mind to positive aspects of your life. It also instantly puts you in a better mood if you start imagining the supportive people in your life, your cute dog, the sun peaking through the clouds after days of rain, or that warm cup of tea as you read a thrilling novel. Another practice that I implemented into my daily life is meditation. I recommend the Calm app, which has great programs for whatever stage you may be in your life. I find the 10 or 20 minutes of meditation helps to calm your nerves, empty your mind of scattered thoughts, and train yourself to control you thoughts.
Seek for external help It's perfectly ok to admit that you need some extra help. Talking to a psychologist or therapist may really make a difference. Getting a different perspective and having a professional provide insight into why you are feeling a certain way will not only help you on the path to improving your mental health, but it's a unique opportunity to learn more about yourself and why you function the way you do. In this day and age, I don't think anyone should be embarrassed about seeking professional help - it's like getting a personal trainer at the gym for your physical health, except it's an investment on your mental health.
Disclaimer: I'm not a professional therapist nor psychologist. My post reflects my opinion, experiences, and therapy sessions I've had with a psychologist. If you are concerned about your mental health, please seek a professional to receive treatment appropriate and tailored for you.