The tendency to put things off to “later this evening” is the most common day-to-day manifestation of self-sabotage and procrastination. We see it all the time here at Commit Action.
The psychology that explains it isn’t even particularly deep: When you tell yourself you’ll get to that important task or project later tonight, you’re just making it “future-you’s” problem.
Your optimism for your future-self’s capacity for focus and dedication is admirable, but it’s horribly wrong. Evenings are where most humans are at their worst, productivity-wise.
We generally recommend front-loading the day: Prioritize your most creative, important (non-urgent) work for the morning to optimize your brain state and ability to focus. See part four of this helpful guide to building routines that stick.
Sometimes though, it’s just not possible. Important stuff inevitably has to happen in the PM. These three tactics will help you turn late-afternoon and evening brain fuzz into laser-focused effectiveness:
1. Don’t make any decisions
If you know you’re going to have to burn some midnight oil – or even twilight oil – stack the odds in your favor by preparing your project plans beforehand.
Most entrepreneurs don’t realize that the most mentally taxing part of their work is the deciding.
Choosing the path forward at tactical crossroads causes massive cognitive drain. And it happens all the time. If you run a business, anytime you’re working on anything significant you’re going to be making loads of little strategy decisions.
So if you know you’re pushed for time and that important Project X is going to be pushed to “late night”… do yourself a tremendous favor:
Make your key decisions right now
Imagine your late-night self as a willing, dutiful but uncreative and indecisive employee. The kind of person you trust to be a solider and an execution master, but not a decision maker. Scope out the project, jot down the outline, set the to-do list. You’re delegating… To a slightly less awesome version of yourself.
Psychologically, this metaphor isn’t actually that far from the truth. Your brain state changes dramatically throughout the day. Blood sugar, circadian rhythms, hormone levels and even just your exposure to draining stimulus… it all slightly shifts who you are.
Your morning self is a clear thinking, decisive CEO. Don’t kid yourself. Be self-aware enough to treat your evening self as who he or she really is… a worn out, fuzzy-thinking worker who’ll do what’s necessary so long as it’s really urgent.
Make all your big strategy decisions in advance and save the evening for simple labor.
2. Leverage the incredible power of tactical napping
There’s two types of entrepreneurs in the world: Those who nap and those who do not.
If you’re in the does-not-nap camp, you’re probably skimming this section wondering what’s next. Don’t. This applies to you more than ever:
Think of naps as a kind of zero-effort meditation.
I hear you. You can’t sleep during the day.
Until I learned that 90% of the productivity benefit of a 20min power nap… doesn’t even require being asleep!
The key is to just shut your eyes and keep them shut for twenty minutes. Set a timer.
If you’re a non-nap person like me, your brain will start fizzing and popping with thoughts. It can feel like mental fireworks exploding. You’ll feel weird rollercoasters of up and down energy in your head.
Go with it. Keep your eyes shut. Just let your brain do whatever. It’s all good.
I’ve just tricked you into having a zen-as-hell moment of experiencing the raw human condition. You’re welcome.
20 minutes of eyes-shut no-effort nap/meditation is a guaranteed productivity win. Even if you think you’re doing it wrong.
The hardest part about late night work is getting started again after the inevitable dinner break. Most people just feel super tired. The very thought of beginning all over is enough to defeat them.
The 20-minute weird, non-nap changes everything
A real 20-min nap works too… if you can do it, but really it DOES NOT MATTER. Either way, when you open your eyes you’ll have a teeny little window of clear, fresh-headed energy where you can be the best version of yourself.
It’s like rubbing away the fog on your car’s windshield for a second and seeing clearly. Except “the fog” is your brain-fatigue, tendency to procrastinate and lack of self control. It’s the part of you that wearily wonders if you can choose ice-cream and Netflix… and just do that important work tomorrow.
The 20 min power nap is your sweater-clad forearm… wiping away that fog for a crucial minute so you can SEE… and remember who you really are. The “nap” clears your head of brain fuzz enough that you can get moving again.
You’re that person who earlier this morning had a plan, ambition and all sorts of great ideas. In that moment is when you begin work. Sit down. Start. Let the flow take you. The hardest part is behind you.
3. Don’t do it alone
Pulling yourself back into work mode in the late afternoon or evening is really hard. Taking a break to eat, spend time with loved ones… or even just pushing through a 16 hour day… whichever way you come at it, it’s really difficult.
Know what makes it tremendously harder? Trying to push to be the best version of yourself, in total isolation.
Staying productive in the evenings – or any time really – requires you to make good on promises you make to yourself. Your optimistic past-self believed in you! It believed you’d summon the energy, ignore the distractions and get the important work done.
The issue is that when it’s 6pm (or 9pm… or midnight…) and you’re imploring yourself to get off the couch, that optimistic past-self is nowhere to be found.
In the present moment, entrepreneurs are all alone in their heads. You have to be a one-man (or woman) motivational cheer squad, life coach, therapist and drill sergeant. Playing all those mental games to keep yourself focused and productive is exhausting.
It doesn’t have to be that hard
The world’s mega-successful entrepreneurs outsource their battle for focus and productivity to their executive teams, boards of investors and elite consultants and advisors who support them.
These different stakeholders support the entrepreneur – buoying them up with powerful accountability – so that all the entrepreneur has to do is show up. “Being in the zone” just happens, like an appointment in their calendar. The mental space required to focus and perform is facilitated through the support of external accountability.
Small business owners are now more empowered than ever by digital technology, but they are also more alone than ever. They operate in a vacuum of this kind of support, where no one is looking out for them. No one (besides themselves) is optimizing their focus.
At Commit Action we pair each of our members up with a dedicated executive effectiveness aide. This person acts as a critical part of your team, even if it’s only a team of one! They’re part concierge for your project and to-do planning. An accountability coach. A personal trainer for your productivity.
Focus and productivity is a promise you make to yourself. You’re probably sick and tired of breaking it.
It’s also not your fault that it’s this hard to keep the promises you make yourself:
If you’re operating in an environment where no-one besides YOU knows if you’re actually effective or not… the accountability vacuum will be impeding your effectiveness.
To push yourself to perform in the evenings – or any time of day – you must optimizing your decision-making, leverage mental clarity from good sleep (and tactical faux-napping!) and seek out objective, professional accountability.
Ignore these principles at your peril. The entrepreneurs who think “the rules” don’t apply to them… are the ones who never quite manage to create the results that truly set them free.