Let me share the question that is changing my life. The question I keep asking myself several times a day. The question that saves me from mindless procrastination. The question that helps me be the best version of myself even when I don’t feel like it.
This question is
“What’s the alternative? If not this, then what?”
Let me explain it using some real-life examples.
You have scheduled to work on an important project. Maybe it’s an essay for school or a report for work. You even put it on your schedule to work on it for two hours starting from 3 pm. It’s 2:55 pm and you are starring at this task, clearly not wanting to do it.
Ugh. Not this again! Not today! Why me? Why now? Why do I always need to do these things? I don’t want to do it. It’s hard. I can do it tomorrow. What if I don’t do it at all? It’s unrealistic to finish it in one day. I’ll have more energy next week…
And that’s when you ask yourself, “What’s the alternative?” meaning “If not this, then what?”.
Here is the secret.
Your brain already has a specific activity prepared for you to do when you decide to give up on your hard task. It has it ready. And you know it. What is the activity your brain wants you to do instead of doing the work you have planned for yourself? What will you do if you decide to skip doing the planned task? You already know what will be your next step. Let me guess…
- check Facebook
- check your email
- read news
- read sports news
- play a game on your phone
- browse social media
- watch videos on YouTube
- text friends in a group chat
- lie down on a couch and watch TV
Did I get it right?
Ok, it’s 2:55 pm. You look at your schedule and see “Complete Project X” scheduled from 3-5 pm. You start thinking all those thoughts but instead of indulging in them and letting them control you, all you need to do is to ask yourself, “Ok, what’s the alternative? If not this, then what?”
And this is where the magic happens. That’s when you catch a thief before he attempts to break into your house.
– I don’t want to do it; it’s hard; I can do it tomorrow… yada yada.
– Ok, what’s the alternative? If not this, then what?
– Go on Facebook or LinkedIn and just scroll… for the rest of the workday.
– Umm… WHAT???
– Ooops, did I say it out loud? It was supposed to be a secret! *Facepalm*
And that’s how we catch a time thief before he breaks into the house.
When you ask yourself, “What’s the alternative?” you are not hiding from the truth. You already know what you are going to do once you decide to bail on the important task. You know. You knoooow. What’s your poison of choice? Facebook? News site? Twitter? Email?
There is only one activity the lizard part of your brain wants you to do instead of working on Project X. And it’s usually not something you would consciously choose to do.
You finish your work. You have your dinner. Ideally, you want to go for a long walk or go to the gym. That’s what you’ve planned for yourself. That’s what you’ve put on your new year’s resolutions list for… how many years now?
-Sigh. I’m tired. I had this difficult meeting at work. And that colleague of mine totally pissed me off. I don’t want to go for a walk…
– Ok, what’s the alternative? If not this, then what?
– Lie down on the couch and watch Netflix for the rest of the day. And let’s eat that bag of Cheetos while we are at it.
When your brain is feeding you “I’m tired.. I don’t wanna do it” all it wants you to do is to cancel the activity you have planned and do the one activity it chose for you instead. It already knows the activity it wants you to do. It is picked, packed, and ready to be shipped. And you will do it on auto-pilot once you decide to cancel your plans.
The question of “What’s the alternative? If not this, then what?” reveals this activity. And once we uncover this activity we realize how silly and undesirable it is. Once we say it out loud. Once it’s out of the dark. It’s not something our conscious mind will ever choose to do. It’s not something we will ever put in our planner. We will never want to put it on our new year resolutions list. These activities usually happen on autopilot. We realize that we are doing them only after the fact. After we spent few hours on Instagram. After we binge-watched an entire season of a new show on Netflix. After we finish the whole bag of chips.
Our prefrontal cortex engages after this ‘lizard brain’ activity is complete. It analyses the damage. That’s when you feel a familiar bouquet of emotions: guilt, disgust, and disappointment. You are looking at the ruins of your day. The time thief came in, stole the valuable time and left.
When a student realizes the action the lizard brain is trying to get her to do is to spend hours on Facebook instead of writing an essay, her prefrontal cortex is in the position to say “No, I don’t want to waste hours observing other people’s lives. I would rather spend it creating the best life for myself by completing this assignment.”
This is a real conversation I had with one of my friends.
This friend of mine and his wife bought a farm. A hobby farm. They are not planning on becoming full-time farmers and making a living of it any time soon.
I like going there after work to help them plant trees. This is something I truly enjoy doing.
I was talking with my friend and I told him,
“You don’t need to feel bad for giving me work to do. I really enjoy it. The main reason why I’m here is that I don’t like my answer to the question “What’s the alternative? If not this, then what?”. Because my answer to this question is to watch a Netflix show I’ve seen a dozen times before.”
Here is why. It is after 6 pm on a workday. A bunch of things are still closed because of the pandemic. I know for sure I am not going to do any work after 6 pm. And if I don’t go to the farm, I will end up spending hours watching Netflix. And I don’t like this alternative. Ok, to be more precise, half of me doesn’t like this option. My prefrontal cortex doesn’t like this option. My conscious self doesn’t like this option. And that’s why I choose to work on the farm.
Whenever you feel a desire to procrastinate and bail on your own plan, the lizard part of your brain is trying to make you do a certain activity. It doesn’t want you to know what the activity is, it just wants you to not want to do an activity you have planned. It will give you a bunch of excuses of why you shouldn’t be doing that activity.
If you ask yourself “What’s the alternative? If not this activity, then what?” your lizard brain will reveal the activity it had prepared for you. And once you see that activity in daylight, hopefully, you will realize that it’s not something you want to consciously invest your time in. Thanks but no thanks.
- How to be consistent. Normalize, then optimize. The Rule of 10.
- Unconventional Productivity Tips from Reddit [April 2021 edition]
- The What, Why, and How of an Accountability Buddy
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