How to Start

I wrote about the reasons we procrastinate and how that affects our lives in sub-optimal ways. In this piece, I’ll discuss how we procrastinate and what we can do about it.

The first step to determine how we procrastinate is to keep track of how we spend our days. Only when we find out why we procrastinate can we take the necessary steps to deal with it. Keeping a log will help us keep track of how/what/when/why we procrastinate. Reviewing our log later will help us reflect on how we spend our days, and it will bring awareness that we didn’t have before about why we procrastinate. We will have clarity about things that motivate us and things we tend to avoid or put off for later. Only when we have clarity can we make the decisions to deal with things effectively by taking the actions necessary for improvement.

First, understand that life is inherently difficult. Our problems won’t solve themselves. We have to face our problems head on instead of running away from them. Only when we understand, accept, and internalize the truth that life is difficult, then we realize that life is no longer difficult. This is when we start looking at problems as challenges/opportunities for improvement/growth. This is when we stop being reactive and start being proactive.

Here are some helpful strategies for dealing with procrastination:

One of the first (and foremost) things we can do to overcome procrastination is to focus on starting things instead of worrying about finishing them. You see, the more consistent we become with starting things, the more we will be able to consistently finish them. The problem occurs when we look at our outcomes/results (or projects) and fail to see them as a collection of small, achievable steps to a larger goal. Instead, we should start with the outcome we want, and then look at (and review) the steps involved and focus on doing one thing at a time. Also, we don’t have to know all the steps to begin working toward our outcome. We just need to know the next thing we need to do to get closer to our outcome. As long as we know that, we can move our project forward one task at a time. That’s all it takes.

When you know the next action/task for a project, commit to doing that thing for 25 minutes with zero distractions and interruptions. Then, reward yourself with a 5-minute break. This way, you will make some progress on your project. This goes back to accepting that we can only do one thing at a time and then doing just that.

Once you get into the habit of working in 25-minute time blocks, slowly work your way up to 90 minutes. Soon, you’ll start keeping 90-minute blocks of time in your calendar to make progress on projects that matter the most.

One of the reasons we procrastinate is that we don’t know the outcomes we want to work toward. When that happens, we can use the Explore, Evaluate, Execute process to figure out our desired outcomes and then take the necessary steps to work toward them.

We often have trouble starting because of resistance in the form of fear, self-doubt, fear of failure, fear of success, procrastination, perfectionism, distraction, mental blocks, and many other internal blockers.

Starting is the hard part (the hardest part). I think it was Woody Allen who said that showing up is 80% of the work or half the battle won.

It requires a significant effort to move from the state of inertia to one of action. When starting is hard, start by determining the next step you need to take in order to move the project forward. Then, spend no more than 25 minutes to make progress on that project followed by a 5-minute break. Wash, rinse, repeat.

If 25 minutes seems too long, simply commit to running a procrastination dash. Set the timer to 10 minutes and run the dash. At the end of the dash, chances are you will want to keep working instead of stopping. This is how we can get started when starting is difficult.

Another reason why starting is hard is because we fall into the perfection trap. Instead of thinking we must be perfect, we should give ourselves permission to fail — write that shitty draft, “look into” that project, ideate 5 solutions while deferring judgement, etc. Give yourself the freedom by having some kind of safety net; one way to have that safety net is to not worry about screwing up.

We need to aim for success, not perfection. Paradoxically, only when we give ourselves the permission to fail can we come up with something original or noteworthy. I wrote about this in Divergence and Convergence.

Another great way to deal with procrastination is to understand the value of commitment to one’s work. This goes back to understanding the differences between a pro and an amateur. The amateur tends to wait for inspiration before acting, while the pro shows up at work every day. That action leads to inspiration (to do more great work), not vice-versa.

We procrastinate during our work time by escaping, which I covered in Escape. We procrastinate during our work time because we think we won’t have time to enjoy later. We do this because we haven’t scheduled time for what Neil Fiore calls “guilt-free” play. We tend to put our lives on hold thinking we will enjoy it later, but it never comes. When we plan our week, one of the first things we should do is block time for leisure/recreation (Play) at the end of the day so we have something to look forward to, but, more importantly, it is required for us to renew ourselves. Life is not meant to be all Work and no Play. That is simply not sustainable. When we know that we have scheduled time later for Play, we will spend less time procrastinating during our work time and more time doing our work. It is a win-win.

One way to stop procrastinating at work is to give yourself time constraints. For instance, you might say to yourself that you’re not allowed to work more than 30 hours a week (or 5 hours a day) and you will at least take 1-2 days off every week for leisure/relaxation.

Don’t block time in your calendar for work; instead you’ll only take credit for the hours you have worked after you’ve worked for at least 25 minutes. At the end of the day, you’ll review the hours worked and what you accomplished in those hours.

When we know we only have so much time for work, we scramble. We make things happen. We work. We are more focused.

According to Neil Fiore, how we talk to ourselves has a huge role in how we do things. For instance, when you’re given a big project, instead of telling yourself that you have to do it, you could say that you choose to do it. This goes back to being proactive about your life.

Instead of worrying about finishing the project, you can ask when you can start. Instead of starting big and late (doing things at the last minute), you can start small and early. Instead of thinking that this project is big and important and getting hung there, think of one small step you can take to push it forward. Instead of saying it must be perfect, say that you can be perfectly human. Instead of saying that you have no time for Play because you need to do this project first, say to yourself that you must make time for Play.

Do the constructive things versus avoiding the real things you need to be doing. For instance, the prettier your house looks, the bigger the project you’re avoiding. Working things off of your lists is okay for the time being as long as you are getting something done on your lists. I call this “structured procrastination”. The point is you are getting something done even if it’s not what you should be doing right now. At least this way you’re not wasting your time. You are merely putting off something for later, which is fine. Accept it. Move on. Then, come back to it later.

Doing is often the easy part, it’s the thinking that’s hard. It is often the thinking that we procrastinate on, like not deciding what the next step is. This is about understanding that it’s not always about finishing things; more often than not, we just need to finish the thinking required and capture those things in our trusted system. Otherwise, it undermines our attention. In other words, make decisions about things when they show up, not when they blow up.

Have the willingness to create “look into” projects to figure out the next steps for ambiguous projects. The process of thinking and defining the work is as important as doing the work, and “looking into” things is a great way to start defining the project.

When you need help with starting (and keeping) a new habit, be accountable to others. For instance, for every day you skip exercise, you will give $10 to your friend.

Procrastination is seldom the problem. The real problems often hide behind procrastination, which we use to deal with our problems temporarily. After reading this two-part series, my hope is that you’re more aware of when you’re procrastinating, and that you can practice some of the aforementioned strategies to overcome it.

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