Location, location, location: Willpower is great, but let’s lend it a hand

I know what you’re thinking. You might as well give up. After all, you’ve got the willpower of the gelatinous portion of canned cat food. You’re behind on your reading or math problems or two-page essay. You haven’t even started that other project, which I won’t name because it will only depress you further. And you know that there are all sorts of nifty tricks out there to boost your discipline. You know because you’ve used them. You’ve written to-do lists and used the Pomodoro technique and read the articles or books on how to boost self-control, discipline, willpower, blah, blah, blah. And yet, here you are, surfing the net and reading this post instead of getting your work done.

You really ought to flagellate yourself with a cat o’ nine tails for being so lazy and weak, says you.

Or maybe not, what with this being the twenty-first century and all.

You’re not alone in your self-loathing. We often put self-control front and center and try to come up with ways to boost it. That’s certainly not a bad goal.  But what if we put less pressure of our own interior will-power boosting strategies and mantras (Hmmmmmm . . .  I will write my essay now . . . Hummannahummannahummanna . . . hmmmmmm) and instead looked to see how our surroundings can help or hinder our productivity?

Case in point. I first started scribbling this post on a Monday. I wasted most of my time trying to find the perfect photo to accompany the post (there’s some really funny but irrelevant stuff on Grand total, I jotted down a few worthless lines and didn’t even find a useable picture.

Now, it’s Tuesday, and I am actually finishing this puppy.

What’s the difference between today and Monday?

I didn’t write a more effective to-do list.

I didn’t receive a box of discipline from

I didn’t infuse my inner being with jazzier nonsense mantras.

Instead, I got out of the house.

See, here’s the thing. Home distracts me. There’s internet. There’s the fridge. There’s e-mail. There’s the fridge. There’s a pile of books to read.

There’s the fridge. (Did I mention that?)

I know being at home saps my willpower, so whenever I can, I leave and work elsewhere. Even if my fridge really, really misses me. (I love you, fridge.)

Now for your task. Don’t just scold yourself for procrastinating. Ask yourself the following questions instead:

  1. What are  my surroundings like when I have trouble staying on task? Am I at home? Am I in the living room or in my office or at the café down the street?
  2. What objects or activities tend to distract me? Is it my phone? My dog? A beloved family member? The television?
  3. What are my surroundings like when I am productive? Is it quiet? Is it loud? Is there some music? Do I have a timer running?

Write the answers down, as in on paper. Don’t let the ideas float nimbly in your head because you will forget them. Pick one task you’ve got to complete and over the next week, tweak at least one thing in your environment to see whether that change lowers distractions.

Having trouble coming up with ideas for what to change? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Change your location.
  2. Move awaaaaaay from your smart phone. Come on, you can do it. Good boy or girl.
  3. Put some distance between you and your computer.
  4. Lock your family in the closet.

I’m (sort of) kidding about the last point. You know that, right?

It may take some trial and error to figure out what environment boosts your focus, and it may change with the seasons. But that’s okay. Keep tweaking as needed.

Let’s just hope your ideal study location isn’t in some 5-star restaurant that will empty your bank account after one appetizer.

Just in case, grab your family’s wallets before putting them in the closet.

Just kidding. Sort of.




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About the Author

Elise Loyacano Perl
Elise Loyacano Perl is the Puerto Rican author of The Little Guide to not Being Dumb: How to Stop Making Excuses and Actually Learn. Click here to see her funny YouTube show called The Brain Drain. Elise holds a joint BA/MA in French literature from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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