The Three Hows Technique - How To Beat Procrastination Permanently
Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash
You decide to work on a project. You make a nice to-do list for the next day. And you think tomorrow will the most productive day of your life. With this, you get a sound sleep.
But tomorrow never comes. When tomorrow becomes today, you’re suddenly pushed back to reality. Instead of thinking about how productive you can be, you start to find excuses.
Well, it’s not technically you. It’s your brain. It finds reasons as to why your tasks aren’t as urgent as they seem. And how watching the next episode of Money Heist is more important.
You try your best to fight it. You continue working and hope it’ll get easier as you push through.
You hear a sound. It’s your better-half — your phone of course. You strategically placed the phone as far as possible. You knew this would happen. But now you start thinking about the notification. What if it’s important? What if someone needs you?
Troubled with all these factors, you start to feel uneasy. The plans you made yesterday don’t make sense anymore. Before you get up to check your phone, you make a last attempt to work.
And then you hear another sound — Ding!
“That’s it. Someone needs me”, you think.
You pick up your phone and see a text messages from your phone company. As it turns out, no one needed you. But to still be sure, you open WhatsApp, and then Instagram and then Facebook Messenger and finally your email.
After checking all of them, you’re satisfied. There’s no emergency. Everything has been taken care of.
You then look at the clock — it’s been 2 hours.
You start worrying about your to-do list. The list which seemed so manageable a few hours ago now seems formidable.
And here comes the guilt-trip. As you swim in the ocean of self-pity, you switch on Netflix to make you feel better. After all, the next episode of Money Heist is important.
Before you know it, the day is gone and you accomplished nothing.
Though exaggerated, the story is familiar to all of us. There are always things to distract us. Whether it’s Netflix, our phones, email, calls, or a thousand others.
It prevents us from getting important work done and makes us even miserable —* “I can’t even sit and focus for a few moments! What a failure”*
Then we feel even miserable for feeling miserable — “I feel miserable all the time and don’t do anything about it. I’m such an idiot”
Mark Manson calls it the [Feedback Loop from Hell](https://www.amazon.com/Manson-Subtle-Giving-Everything-combo/dp/B07Y57WH9H/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=subtle+art+of+not+giving+a+fuck&qid=1595386538&sr=8-2&tag=duckduckgo-brave-b-20).
But here’s an important insight. Procrastination is not your fault. You think it’s your fault, but it isn’t.
Cal Newport, in his talk, Study 30 Minutes a Day, Get a 4.0 GPA! says,
Procrastination is not a personality trait. It is not a weakness or something that people are born into. It is something that ayone can overcome.
In fact, it’s a natural tendency — it’s just how the brain is wired. Let’s look at Brian to understand this.
It’s 4 pm on a Thursday and Brian has a psychology mid-term on Monday. Since it makes up for half his grade, he feels he should be studying a lot for this test, else he’ll be guilty later.
He makes an adamant decision — “I’ll study the crap out of my textbook.”
But as we know, the brain always finds a distraction — the TV, Netflix, social media, etc. Brian gives in to the distraction and does not study.
Now the question worth asking is why did Brian procrastinate? To answer this, we need to look at how the brain works.
At the risk of sounding too simplistic, the brain is very good at achieving goals. It’s good at identifying a path to achieve something and then doing it.
Let’s say you want to work at a company. You’re sure that it’s the best job for you right now. So you set out to achieve your goal. One thing you can do is just show up to the office and make a case for being accepted. Well, not a bad plan but there can be better ones. Your brain knows you’ll probably be rejected or will not be able to get to the right person. And thus, it doesn’t motivate you to go through with the shitty plan.
Then there’s another idea. You can go on LinkedIn, find the recruiter, and get in touch with them. Better yet, you can search for someone to recommend you to the recruiter to increase your chances of getting accepted. This seems like a plausible plan. And thus, your brain sends the right chemicals to motivate you.
Now back to Brian. His plan was — “Study the crap out of my textbook.”
Again, not a bad one, but the brain has seen better. It’s actually not even a plan.
Brian is just going to sit there with his book open, texting, and watching Youtube videos at the same time. This will fill him with more guilt and the burden of the study material isn’t going to go away. And thus, his brain opts out.
The next time you procrastinate, realize that it’s not you. It’s your plan. The urge to procrastinate is feedback to let you know that your plan sucks.
The Three Hows Technique
We need a way to get the brain on our side. To convince it that our plan will work so it gives us the right motivation to get things done.
To make a perfect plan, Cal suggests “The Three Hows Technique.” You just need to answer three questions:
How am I going to work?
How long am I going to work?
How do I know that this plan makes sense?
So if Brian says something like — “I’m going to memorize and repeat the concepts every morning from 8 to 10 am till Sunday. Once I’m done I’ll wind up the material by Sunday afternoon to get a full night’s sleep and wake up refreshed for the test. I know this works because this is how I excelled in my previous semester.” — the brain is on his side.
By making a case to your brain about why your plan is good, you get it to comply. It’s all about your strategy.
How I apply it
With an aim to write at least 3–4 posts every week with my full-time job, I need constant motivation and can’t afford to procrastinate.
To ensure this, I almost never sit with an empty page to write. For this article, I already spend some time yesterday structuring it on paper. Then this morning before taking a bath, I wrote the structure as a Medium draft and added other related arguments to make.
Once I finally sat down to write, I already had a 200-word draft that I had to expand upon. Which makes my life much easier. I had no issues in sitting down to write because:
I knew I have to expand the ideas, format the post, and then find an image to go with it,
I knew I was going to work for 45–60 minutes on this draft,
And I knew this plan will work since I’ve already done the research for this post. (Apart from the fact that I’ve been adopting this strategy for a long time)
Compare this with just having a vague idea of what I want to write and then staring at a blank page. It’s not a good plan, my brain would resist and I need a lot of willpower to convince it otherwise.
Whatever you’re doing, try to apply the Three Hows strategy to simplify your task, break it down, and get it done.
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