You can’t do a goal: How vague self-talk encourages procrastination

Suppose you ask what I’m doing today, and I say “looking for a better job.” You know I can’t literally look for a job, the way I would look for a lost dog or an Easter egg, but you still have a pretty good idea of what I’m up to. We give people general descriptions because we rightly assume they’re not interested in the hourly play-by-play. For a friendly update, generalities are good enough.

But if I ask myself, “What should I do today?” I better not answer, “Look for a better job.” Forty minutes later I would be making a to-do list or cleaning something, having decided to wait until right after the next meal to get started. I would do anything to avoid “looking for a better job.” It sounds… awful. Why is that?

You can’t do a goal

When you assign yourself a large goal (find a better job, lose weight, get organized, start a business etc.) as if it were a single task, the most likely reaction is discouragement and avoidance. The more complex the goal, the more overwhelming and unappealing it is to perceive it as one large chunk.

If you know you cannot ‘get a better job’ in a single day and yet you tell yourself that is what you’re doing today, you’ve already guaranteed that you will fail. And your ego naturally rejects a date with certain failure. He starts flooding you with excuses and rationales, and now you’ve endangered your daily opportunity to make real progress on something important.

Pick a single task and get started

Practice being explicit about what you’re really doing now as you grind away on long-term ambitions. Choose a single task, articulate it, and then go to work. “Looking for a better job” becomes “writing a networking e-mail to X to inquire about opportunity Y.” A clear, finite task is easier to do and is more likely to get done. You cannot pursue large-scale goals directly, and your self-talk should reflect that reality.

Be explicit about your most important current task, and execute on that tiny piece. Repeat. Repeat. Progress.

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