My business coaching clients tend to think I’m joking when I tell them they need to learn how to manipulate themselves better. Manipulation has a bad rap. We think it’s something evil people do for laughs (while cackling alone in their tower, because evil folk have no friends).

But being self-employed means learning how to manipulate yourself on a daily basis. It’s essential to getting stuff done. And there’s no one way of self-manipulation which works for all people.

The art of self-manipulation is about understanding how you work, your favourite flavours of procrastination, and what tends trips you up – so you can increase your focus and productivity without burning out.

Manipulating your circumstances

If your brain is telling you, loudly, that this doesn’t apply to you, then hear me out.

Do you ever lay out your exercise gear so that you’ll trip over it the following morning? Do you set your alarm earlier than you’d like and arrange to meet someone to exercise with, because you know it’ll greatly increase your chances of actually doing the exercise you say you want to do? Then you’re manipulating yourself.

Minimising self-sabotage

Self-sabotage is the result of flawed thinking, or cognitive bias. Most people greatly overestimate how rational they are. This can be our great undoing when self-employed or running a business.

Cognitive bias alters our abilities to make clear-headed decisions – about what we know and say is a good idea (such as launching your first online program or pitching to that big exciting prospect) and what we actually do (endless admin).

When you’re working long hours, letting work dominate your weekends and skimping – or skipping – proper sleep and exercise, you’re affecting your ability to do your best work and heightening the likelihood you’ll sabotage your efforts.

Those annoying “work life balance” talks, books and articles? They’re telling the truth – your work requires you to rest, take time out, and enjoy life away from work.

Risk and errors

We have an inherent bias towards the familiar over the unfamiliar because it’s perceived as lower risk. Although we learn best through trial and error but we are naturally risk averse and hate to fail, so we’re constantly trying to make intelligent decisions in an attempt to avoid the error part of trial and error.

Business writer Seth Godin, referred to as the granddaddy of modern marketing, refers to cognitive bias as the lizard brain. “The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can” writes Seth Godin in Linchpin: Are you Indispensable? “The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”

Even though, logically, a worst case scenario for trying a new social media platform or talking about collaborating with our competitor, might be small – a waste of time and perhaps a little money, our cognitive bias or lizard brain jumps in to create all manner of imaginary danger, leaving us none the wiser.

The many, varied and sophisticated types of procrastination

Part of the specialness of self-employment is that we may procrastinate from important work with work – we aren’t sitting idly in front of the TV as friends and family might imagine, but nor are we doing high-value work. Instead, we’re avoiding what we know we ‘should’ do with work that’s easy to do. In fact, we might even convince ourselves it’s necessary.

Procrastination is a crafty bugger. Sometimes it comes dressed as perfectionism and “quality”. We are endlessly doing (yet) another program or course of study. We convince ourselves we’re not yet ‘ready’ when actually we’re just scared.

Whatever the details of your particular flavour of procrastination (and you might indulge in different flavours on different days), procrastination can be a silent killer because the more you do it, the more you dislike and resent yourself from denying what you know, deep down, you should be doing.

When self-employed, we have to hold yourself accountable, using whatever means are most effective. We need to build momentum, where our actions build on each other and things become far easier as we create and build with far less stress, pressure and hesitation.

Knowing what triggers your procrastination so you can avoid fighting it once it arises, is the first step. Of course, sometimes we need a doona day where we switch off the phone and apply ourselves to ice-cream. We are human. We are fallible. The trick is to keep picking ourselves up.

Anxiety, stress and boredom

Performance psychologists, studying how the ideal conditions for optimal performance, point out that we need a balance between stress and boredom: too much stress and we lose our ability to think clearly, too little stress and our performance suffers.

If you’re seeking to avoid stress at work, believing it to be harmful, consider that boredom is actually stressful. For optimal performance, we need to be challenged, and that includes learning new things and getting outside of our comfort zone.

Interestingly, the harmful effects of stress are reduced when we derive meaning from our work. A 2013 study in the US, which asked a broad range of individuals how much they agreed with the statement, “taking all things together, I feel my life is meaningful.”

Researchers found that people who’d experienced the highest number of stressful life events in the past were most likely to consider their lives meaningful, including those who were under a lot of stress at that time.

Increasingly, researchers such as Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress, are recognising that stress isn’t only harmful – it’s our attitude to stress and our ability to cope that can be either harmful or helpful.

Without a boss to answer to and KPIs to aim for, the secret to getting stuff done when self-employed is yours alone to master.

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