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Ed. note: The subtle irony of this post is that this is how I start just about everything on this site: I debate internally about how to get started. I write the first paragraph a few times, I go get a refill on my drink, I check Twitter three times. I struggle with the point of the post itself. I put it off until tomorrow, and then the next day. And then… I wise up and just write something.
Procrastination is a funny word. It’s a long, strange sounding expression that strikes fear and a knowing empathy in the hearts of people around the world. Putting things off until a later date, even important things, is what humans are best at. You have to assume that even our biggest accomplishments and creations as a species came with equally large bouts of “I’ll just do it later” sentiments.
Could the Egyptian pyramids really have been completed without an architect taking one look at the enormity of his day’s work and saying “tomorrow… I’ll do it tomorrow”? I doubt it.
Assumptions that we can “just do it”, or that we’re supposed to get things right on the first try don’t help us. In fact, I’ve found that the reason so many people can’t get past their own thinking relates to a misunderstanding about the people around them. People frequently overestimate the talent, dedication, and circumstances of others while underestimating their own. They actually believe that the people who have been able to “do it”, did it without the same level of internal battles of procrastination that they themselves have. That these people either got lucky or got it right on the first try. And of course, that they don’t have the same ability to do so as these more capable people – that they’re either too lazy, stupid, or just aren’t in the right place or right time.
That’s ridiculous. The first step to overcoming procrastination or it’s close cousin, perfectionism, is to believe – to really know – that what you have is good enough, and in many cases better, than what you perceive to be required. In other words, believe in yourself, wouldja?
What is Procrastination?
First, a definition of procrastination from Niel Fiore’s The Now Habit which I find to be a good one:
Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.
You can think of procrastination as being the single biggest roadblock to an individual’s success or achievement in any realm. It stems from an innate belief or understanding that tomorrow will always be a better day than today for doing what you need to do. At its very core, that’s all procrastination is: the inability to see today for what it can positively bring, and an equal inability to see tomorrow for what it can negatively bring.
If tomorrow were always better, doesn’t it stand to reason that all tasks would always be delayed just a single day – not months or years? Of course, that’s not what happens when people procrastinate…. in the real world, things get postponed to tomorrow a dozen times before, begrudgingly, the task (sometimes) gets done.
Timothy A. Pychyl and Bill Knauss, two experts on procrastination, believe that “self-awareness is a crucial first step in learning to change your procrastination habit.” Timothy contends that this assumption that tomorrow will be better than today for you is actually a testable hypothesis:
The next time you put off a task until tomorrow, telling yourself tomorrow (later) is better, then simply note the next day whether you now believe that tomorrow is better. Chances are, it’s not. If anything you may feel more guilt and pressure related to the task at hand and yet not have any more motivation to do the task.
I love that. It speaks to your ability to track and monitor your own progress and to be real with the results. If you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll likely discover that your habit of putting things off until “tomorrow” isn’t actually helping you get to where you want to be. It isn’t working. In fact, our tendency to downplay the importance of today – ignoring that “today is as good a day as any” – keeps us from moving forward.
So what can you do?
How to Unblock Yourself
Below are six ways to unblock yourself and get moving in the right direction that I’ve found helpful:
- Overcome your fear of embarrassment, failure, or success. This is a critical step in many posts on this site, primarily because fear drives so much of what we do (or don’t do). If we knew we couldn’t fail, what would we do? The single biggest take-away from fear management is this: picture the worst thing imaginable, the thing you’re most scared of, if you were to complete your task. This could be embarrassment, loss of money, or even loss of anonymity if you’re successful. Then picture it happening, develop your own coping strategies, and accept it. Once you realize that it won’t actually be as bad as you think it’d be, you’re free to start.
- Allocate “fun time” in advance of starting. One of the reasons so many people can’t get moving is because they think they’re doing something “unfun” in place of something fun. There’s a nagging feeling that instead of studying, writing, or working there’s a dozen things that they’d have more fun doing. It’s partially a present-hedonistic desire – solving for right now instead of the future. Here’s one way to help: give yourself as much time as you need to fulfill those desires on a regular basis. If you’d rather be reading than writing, before you sit to start writing, block off time later in the day when you know you can focus 100% on reading.
- Reduce all distractions. All of them. Distractions of any sort give you excuses to stop, and require you to regain your momentum in order to get going again. If you really want to get something done, you’re better off setting yourself up with a distraction-free environment (no kids, no dogs, no Internet) for a length of time long enough to get into a flow state. Two hours of dedicated focus is always better than six twenty-minute blips.
- Prep your environment. Get comfortable in your surroundings, creating mini-rituals that put you in the right mindset. This could mean putting on the right music, lighting candles, cleaning off your desk, putting on comfortable clothing, or even just doing some physical warm-up (stretching, yoga, jumping jacks) before getting into it. This tip isn’t a common one, but I find it to be pretty important if you’re going to hit that flow state frequently.
- Set a deadline with someone else. It isn’t enough for many of you to just make a promise to yourself. It isn’t real if it’s inside your own mind. So tell other people when you plan to get something done – use Facebook, Twitter, email, or do it the old fashioned way: tell them in person. Broadcast your plan to get something done and you might find yourself even more motivated to keep from letting others down.
- Most importantly, lower your standards! Too many people get tripped up trying to make things perfect instead of just getting something done. Think about whatever you’re doing as a “first draft” of whatever it is you want to create, not the final thing. And think of yourself as a perennial “starter”, as it’s usually easier to start something of low quality than it is to finish something of high quality. Changing your internal monologue to be more like “I want to start that project” vs. “I have to slog through it” can help reignite the senses.
Procrastination is a tough nut to crack. But when you find yourself continually putting things off – and not being completely honest with yourself about why you’re doing it – remember, that the single most important thing you can do is just do something. Get started. Get moving. Just do something.