When I say “beat”, I mean “beat” in the present tense, of course. Because beating procrastination is an ongoing battle. For someone prone to procrastination, there’s no such thing as winning. You’re pretty much working against your own brain constantly in order to get important things done.
Alledria Hurt started a discussion in my writing group earlier about self-motivation. Some people are encouraged by positive rewards at the end of achieving their goal (get 1,000 words down, have a chocolate). Some people are encouraged by negative consequences (if I don’t get these words down, I can’t watch TV today).
For me, neither of these things seem to work. Negative consequences make me panic and procrastinate more. And positive consequences make me sad that I can’t have the positive things now and grumpy about doing the task at hand. Not ideal.
Winning the Procrastination Battle for me is all about trying to outwit my brain, and these are some strategies that I’ve found do work.
Understanding the enemy
Everybody’s brain is different, so tricking yourself might be different from how I trick myself. As with any war, the first step is knowing the enemy. That means understanding exactly what thoughts lead to procrastination. For me it’s usually one of three things:
1. This is a large task
This is a big undertaking, I should probably get the little things done first so I can undertake it in one chunk and really focus.
If I start that task now, I won’t get a chance to do the other things I want to do today/tonight. I should probably do those first.
If I start now, I’ll probably be interrupted by a meeting/visit/obligation. I should wait until that’s done before starting.
I don’t know where to start.
This task probably isn’t for me. I’m going to mess it up because it’s too large and important.
2. This is not the right time to do it
I’m not feeling very focused now. I’m too hungry/sad/tired. I should rather do something else now and tackle that task when I’m better equipped.
I’m not inspired now. If I wait a while, inspiration will hit.
It’s too late at night/early in the morning/close to meal time. I’ll do it later.
3. I’d rather do something fun
I have to do this task, so it’s automatically the devil and not fun.
This fun thing will only take a moment and then I’ll feel better about life in general and do better work.
The art of war
Once I catch myself having these thoughts, I know that I am faced with my enemy, Procrastination. This is the battle plan I use.
For “it’s too large” thoughts:
- Strategy 1: It’s really not that big If you can, you need to convince yourself that the huge task that seems huge is not really that big. It helps to compare it to other tasks you’ve done that are similar and you’ve done successfully. For me this is my monthly reports for work. They seem HUGE but I have to remind myself, I somehow manage to do them every month. It will nearly always feel larger in your mind than it really is.
- Strategy 2: break it down into parts. It’s the old “eat an elephant” thing. If you can break it down into smaller, less-scary, tasks then it’s easier to tackle. I like to make a list of all of the parts/steps that need to happen. If you’re having a crisis of confidence in your ability to do the task, choose a single step that you feel comfortable with and start there.
- Strategy 3: “just a tiny piece” If the list is still overwhelming, choose one of the easiest places to start and tell yourself you only have to do that little bit. This is a great strategy for novel writing, I find. Cat Hellisen does #Gimme100 on Twitter, which is a challenge to write only 100 words a day (and often turns into writing many more words). My version is “open the laptop”. The battle is practically already won if I can sit down and open up the doc with my novel in it and read a few lines. I tell myself “you don’t need to solve the problem with Chapter 20 today, you can just read the intro line and see if you have anything to add.” And usually, once I get stuck in, I’m hooked and end up solving the problem with Chapter 20 anyway.
For “this is not the right time” thoughts:
It is the right time. That’s the trick. It is always the right time. Inspiration doesn’t matter (you had it with you all along, like Dorothy’s ability to click her heals and return home). If you’re avoiding doing a task, you’ll never be in the perfect mood for it.
Also, it helps to accept that interruptions don’t matter that much either. In fact it can be good to take a break, even in the middle of something big that needs a lot of focus.
Trying to find a large chunk of time when you feel inspired and in a good mood is like trying to find the holy grail: a terribly costly endeavor that is likely to be fruitless. Start now, because there’s probably not going to be a better time.
For “I’d rather do something fun” thoughts”
You have to give it to these guys for at least being honest. Most of the time your brain will use excuses like “it’s too big” or “now’s not the right time” when it really means that it wants to do something more enjoyable.
The secret to this one is that you need to drill down into exactly why you think this thing you need to do is not enjoyable. Sometimes my own tricksy brain tries to tell me I don’t enjoy writing. Like what? Seriously?
Writing is my dream. I love it more than anything.
But once it’s something you have to do, it feels like work. It feels like it’s much easier to just pick up a videogame and space out. But, you know, if you set a deadline on playing that video game you’ll procrastinate about doing that too. I know all about that, I’m marrying a game reviewer.
No matter how much you love something, if you make it something you have to do, you’re going to resent having to do it. That’s just how we are.
So how do you get around that? Well, this is where some people find bribery works. You lead your brain into the task with the promise of something fun later and then, when you end up actually enjoying the task, it’s a wonderful surprise. But for me, that just makes me more resentful about not being able to do the fun thing. I need to find the fun thing in the task itself.
With writing it comes down to remembering the good parts of the story, the reason why I decided to write it. I read through my favourite scenes (or go through them in my head if not yet written) to “find my passion” for the story and convince me that I really want to write it after all.
With other aspects of life I also try to drill down into the task to find a small fun aspect. Even if it’s only very very small. Colour-coding notes worked for me when I was studying, or illustrating them with funny pictures. When it comes to social media reports, I like finding out which posts do the best and trying to figure out why.
And if all else fails, and “finding the fun” is impossible, you need to look at the reason why doing the task is important. Zoom out and look at the bigger picture. This is slightly different from “fear of negative consequences” (I’ll get in trouble if I don’t do this report! I’ll punish myself if I don’t write!). It’s more about seeing how this thing you need to do will improve your overall wellbeing and happiness or even alter the world for the better. (“If I pass my exam, I’ll have a qualification and be able to get a better job”, “If I discover which Facebook ads work best, I’ll be able to offer businesses advice that makes a real positive difference to their lives”, “If I finish this novel, other people will be able to enjoy the story I’ve been telling myself for years”).
One final trick
This is the one that I call “bait and switch”. If you’re very sneaky, you can get your brain to do something that it would rather avoid by making it think it’s avoiding something else.
So for example if I’m procrastinating about writing, I give my brain a choice: do writing or clean the house.
Which do you think it’s more likely to choose?
The house, of course. But there are worse things than having a clean house.