Productivity - Success

The Nothing Alternative

I’m writing this article right now because I’m not allowed to do anything else.

It’s a simple and powerful productivity trick called the Nothing Alternative. You can use it when you:

  • Have an unpleasant but important task
  • Are trying to establish a new  habit
  • Are prone to procrastination
  • Are easily distracted

There are only two rules. First, you have to set aside time in your schedule for the activity. Second, you don’t have to do the activity if you don’t feel like it, but you can’t do anything else during that time.

I learned about the Nothing Alternative from Roy Baumeister, in his book, Willpower. He cites the example of mystery writer Raymond Chandler, who recommended that the aspiring writer had to set aside four hours a day, during which,

“He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.” (p. 254)

The beauty of the Nothing Alternative is that it’s low stress and it’s binary. Since you’re not forced to write (or prospect, or take that online course you’ve been talking about forever, etc.), your brain does not automatically resist. Second, since there’s no gray area, you can’t rationalize your way out of the activity by pretending that just looking at email for a minute or two is OK, or that scanning a couple of blog posts might give you inspiration. (Although refilling the coffee mug is not only acceptable but obligatory.)

When I determined about a month ago to write daily posts and to finally finish my next book, I figured it would  take 90 minutes a day, which I’ve scheduled in my calendar from 7:30 to 9:00 every workday morning that I’m not traveling. Although I haven’t writhed on the floor yet, I have looked out the window a few times, or stared blankly at a flashing cursor on a white screen for a while. But the mind needs activity, and even if I can’t think of what to write, a few minutes of boredom is enough to build up pressure that begins to express itself through the keyboard.

In my own case, I find that the Nothing Alternative is useful during the first few minutes until I get cranked up, and then sometimes after about an hour when I start to lose a bit of steam.

The immediate benefit is a dramatic increase in my writing output. But in addition, I find that crank-up time is decreasing and I can go longer without losing focus.

Incidentally, I wrote this post at 38,000 feet early on a Sunday morning, so it works anywhere. Only the view out the window is different.

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