Sponge cake

We all sometimes fall out of the habit of doing our Weekly Review®, where we empty our collection buckets, get out in-box to zero and re-connect with our actions. The review is an active behavioural choice but, especially if it’s still early days for your GTD practice, with any new behaviour change last is always first out. But thankfully, due to the science of breaking bad and creating good habits, you can learn exactly how to get back on track.

I’ve decided to do the September dryathalon. It’s like giving something up for lent, in this case alcohol, asking for sponsorship and then giving the money to charity. To add some spice to the mix I have a bet with a friend, Andy, that if either of us falls of the wagon we will make a further donation equivalent to the others fund. I don’t drink much so I didn’t think it would be an issue – until Brian and his new fiancé turned up last Saturday night.

As he barrelled through the front door holding a bottle of champagne in front of him he shouted ‘get the glasses out, Karen and I are getting married!’ Congratulations, handshakes and pats on the back were the order of the day.

Then I took Brian aside and said in a hushed voice ‘we have a wee problem, I’ve gone dry for September, so I hope it’s ok if I toast you with some….ginger beer?’ Brian was clearly confused and looking me right in the eye said ‘you did hear me correctly – yes, we are getting married, one glass of champagne won’t hurt, will it?’ As I like to think of myself as an honest soul, having a sneaky drink was not really an option.

‘Well I made a commitment, and it is for charity so I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ve made the deal jointly with another pal. I’ll drop him a text and offer an amnesty for us both for tonight only, and assuming he says yes then I’ll have a drink.’ From Brian’s point of view it wasn’t ideal but we continued on to dinner.

For the next hour I kept an eye on my phone (I secretly would have loved a glass of bubbly), but Andy never replied. Eventually after 90 minutes I got a text saying ‘no problem enjoy!’ By that time the moment had passed, and the night, rather than my head, went off swimmingly. The moment to have a drink had passed and we moved on to discussing other things.

If we look at the science behind what happened, we can learn a lot and use it to help us in our GTD practice. Firstly when we want something, let’s take cake, as we imagine its fluffy sponge and sweet jam touching our lips a chemical reaction starts in our body. Your brain is overcome by the promise of reward and releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine from the middle of your brain to the front that literally takes your motivation and attention hostage. This in turn causes a chain reaction that literally renders us helpless against Victoria Sponge Cake leaping from the plate to our mouth. Further and because we succumbed, we send a message to our brain that ‘we when it comes to cake we are powerless’, (you’ve heard yourself saying that right), eventually we blame our lack of discipline on ‘that blooming baker, damn him for making such amazing cakes’.

The way to break the cycle is to resist for just a little while. A few minutes is good enough, and during this time, to do something else. Once you’ve distracted yourself you’ll find that more often than not the craving will have gone. Also, especially if you’re trying to stop eating cakes, it helps to move the sponge out of your line of sight. And if you still want to have the thing, unless it’s illegal of-course, that’s ok – go for it. It’s fine because you’ve just sent a message to your brain that sponge cake does not ‘own you’, even if it was only for 5 minutes. Then the next time you can abstain for a whole six minutes, and soon six minutes becomes six hours, then six days and soon six months etc.

What’s happening is that you’re still getting the ‘feel good’ dopamine, but now you’re getting it from the accomplishment of having resisted not from eating the cake. Eventually the advice is to keep a piece of the thing you want to stop doing in a jar next to your bed, thus sending telling your brain every day how you amazing you are at resisting Mr Kipling – (this is the advanced course obviously, and there are some reports of people falling off the wagon at 3am and smashing open their jar to gain access to a mouldy liquorice allsorts).

So how does this apply to GTD? We’ll you can use the same science to create a new habit – but in reverse.

Let’s say that you’ve missed a few Weekly Reviews and as such you’re feeling a little out of control. You don’t trust the choices you’re making anymore, you’re reacting to the world rather than driving toward outcomes you know are important. Sometimes, like with a large project, the job that needs to be done (your Weekly Review) can seem so big that often we avoid it. This in turn can lead to procrastination and overwhelm.

What to do? The key principle, as we already know, is to break the task down to the next smallest actionable chunk. This ‘reducing skill’ is so important that, according to Daniel Levintin, author of ‘An Organised Mind’, is the ability that separates the highly successful amongst us from the people that make promises but rarely deliver.

And to make sure we take that first next action we can use ‘reverse cake theory’. This time rather than setting your timer to stop doing something for 5 minutes, you set your timer and promise yourself you’ll only do something for 5 minutes. The science as shared by Kelly McGonigal, in her book, ‘The Willpower Instinct’, is that when we lack the motivation to get started on a large task we have to fool our brain that we’ll only do the smallest version of the job (it’s why, written in the correct way, next actions draw you to get more done).

And by doing this small task we get the dopamine release which make us crave more completion. It’s exactly the same design behind games like Angry Birds, they draw us in by getting us to complete easy levels and before long we want that feeling of completion so much that we’ll ignore whatever we’re doing to finish that next level. This, I can only imagine, is what happened to the MP who got caught on camera playing Candy Crush Saga rather than listening to a review of pension legislation (who can blame him?).

Here’s the exact process to follow for getting re-started with your Weekly Review:

  1. Take a small next action required to complete your Weekly Review – for example a review of last week’s diary.
  2. Set your watch or smartphone (I like to use a cooking timer so you can see it counting down).
  3. Tell yourself that you’ll only do it for 5 minutes.
  4. Get started.

Then if you want, just keep working. If not, stop and repeat in a few minutes, think of it like knocking next actions off your lists. It deals with what is often our biggest challenge – just getting started. Soon you’ll be looking forward to your Weekly Reviews and will be getting even more done.

Now we’ve dealt with the issue of starting your Weekly Review what do you do to go to the next level and lock it in so that it happens at the same time every week, a bit like a weekly ritual? Well, for that you’ll have to read the next instalment.

Oh I almost forgot, you have homework: as you do your Weekly Review and/or daily mind-sweep make a note of some of the activities you did just before you started, we can then use that information to set triggers so that doing the review becomes a locked-in habit.

Read the next installment, What to do when you’ve stopped doing your weekly review, Part 2

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