To find a solution for procrastination, we must understand why do we procrastinate in the first place. I call it uppercutting your future self in the face.
Oddly enough, it’s not the fear of failure that pushes us to procrastinate but the fear of achievement. Achievements scare us more than failing. And so we romanticize the idea of achieving great success, accumulating tons of skills and rocking it as badass kings and queens of our own rich and vast kingdoms of awesome. But before we even get started we are screwed up by our own subjectivity. We put up these blind spots around us, like some annoying mirrors that bring out all our imperfections and insecurities.
Then our very best friend “the brain” signals us that:
- “we are not ready”
- “we don’t know how to start”
- “this will fail so bad”
- “ah I can already hear the voices laughing at us”
- “we must regroup and think it over”
So we go in something I like to call preservation mode. We strike a deal with our future self that we are not ready to tackle that huge goal yet. We need to get ready for the future.
So future-self strikes a deal with present-self that when the time comes for future-self to tackle that big audacious goal, we will all be so much more prepared because present-self will be putting in the daily work to make sure that past-self will not disappoint future-self. Makes sense and not complicated at all, am I right? Everyone is happy and the pressure is slightly lifted.
Now present-self goes into planning mode to make sure that everything is taken into consideration, all the steps are mapped and planned, all possible scenarios are taken into consideration and just for precaution he watches 5-10 Youtube videos to make sure he didn’t forget anything and that we are “ready”.
Tomorrow it begins!
The next day, present-self feels like he made past-self look so good and that he has done so much work planning and preparing everything that he deserves to take it down a gear.
Life moves on. In our imagination our goals are seen as in a queue, the more we add the more output we have. In reality, our goals are like a stack. It’s a one entrance box in which we have introduced one goal and to make sure we achieve it we must not add too many goals on top of it at once.
Time passes and suddenly we see that our stack got filled up with other goals in the meantime.
“Oh-oh! It seems that all that planning wasn’t really rock-solid. We need to do it the right way, perfect from the start.”
So present-self goes back to reading all the manuals and watching some more videos to make sure this doesn’t happen again, ever! In the meantime, the stack goes out of control, and all of sudden you have a huge pile of stuff that you need to take care of.
“OK! Past-self has been messing around with getting ready for long enough! I’m going to start taking action now”.
You start tackling the stack. Digging through all those objectives that just added up. With some superhuman force, you managed to go through half of the pile. You are exhausted and decide to call it a night.
The next day you wake up in distress to realize that you actually didn’t achieve anything meaningful even though you didn’t stay put for a single minute. You cleaned the house, you did the weekly shopping, you walked your cat, you rearranged your sock drawer by color and patterns, watched all the seasons of How-It’s-Made on the Discovery Channel and even learned how to cut tomatoes into rose shapes. But the only thing that you didn’t do is tackle the goals that mattered, the initial ones that were supposed to bring you the success you craved. Instead, you focused on the 80% of rubbish that doesn’t amount to anything useful on the long term instead of focusing on the 20% of goals that would bring 80% of achievement in the long term.
You start the cycle all over again and as you lay all over the floor overwhelmed, the only repetitive thought process that goes through your head is:
So how can we fix this? In the end, it all boils down to one guy, present self. And this is what he must do in order to stop sabotaging himself and actually finish the stuff that matters in due time.
Mindset: Everything you do is a choice taken now.
- You will never know 100% what the right way is. And you shouldn’t. The beauty of life hides in uncertainty and in the great perhaps that lies hidden after the first horizon. You will never be ready and the most prepared you will ever be will be today. Learning never stops, do it on the move. Start even though you feel like you are not ready yet. But don’t get discouraged and half ass it either.“Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something” – Jake the Dog (Adventure Time)
- Stop with the mental excitation. A lot of people practice proactive procrastination by watching videos, doing tutorials, reading books. They seem like they know so much and they feel like they are almost “experts” and so much more enlightened than everyone else. But the only thing that they actually miss is taking action and falling flat on their faces on the first try. If you want to be good, you need to increase your input. But if you really want to be excellent and get some great results you need to maximize your output.“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”
- Shift your mind from potential to results. Have you ever thought:“Once I achieve this and that, I will do this step next, and then you fantasize about how all of these dots will connect in the end”. Life usually has other plans for you. In software development one of the most used frameworks is the scrum method because it allows you to ship fast a minimum viable product that basically is just the bones of the application and you instantly get feedback from a pool of users and you know what you should focus on next to increases your chances of success instead of guessing and relying on potential.
- Start acting like an essentialist. What is the essential work you need to get done to get closer to the life you picture for yourself? Sometimes we get lost in our overly ambitious plans and forget to focus on the only thing that matters: doing the job. We fantasize about the books we will write, the apps we will build, the love of our life that we will eventually meet. By failing to put out there the bad writing, the buggy apps, and our open hearts because we want to hog it all from the beginning effortlessly we get nothing instead.
- Make it about others. In his book “Originals”, Adam Grant mentions how together with his colleagues he managed to encourage doctors to wash their hands more often after appealing to their empathetic side. They set up two signs one month apart: “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases” and “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases”. The final results concluded that after the second experiment the medical staff washed their hands 15% more and used up to 40% more soap. We might not be motivated to do a good thing for ourselves but we might be motivated to take action if others depend on our success. Too lazy to start that business you always wanted? Think of how many people are missing out the value you could create for them and how you are not improving their lives at all.
Habit Builders: Start putting things into motion.
- Start small and increment consistently. Can’t get around reading one hour per day? Start by reading 10 minutes a day and close the book when the timer stops. I mean it! Stop it. And restart tomorrow. This time for 12 minutes. Then the next day for 15, then 20, then 25. In a week get yourself to reading up 30 minutes a day. Then the next week increment daily until you reach one hour. Find time in the bus station, while waiting in a queue, there is always time! The key to success here is to stop and discipline yourself. Don’t strain yourself to read 40 minutes in the first day and think you made so much progress because most likely it will not be consistent and it will not last. But by being disciplined and stopping at 10, at 15 minutes you will learn to also discipline yourself and continue reading when you are striving to consistently reach 50 minutes, 1 hour, 1 hour and a half until it becomes a strong habit. Time can be your friend if used wisely.
- Get an accountability partner. Humans are social creatures by nature and peer pressure is something we are always vulnerable to. So why not use it towards our advantage? Create a Whats App group with 2-3 friends that are in general preoccupied with getting stuff done. Every morning, each one of you will post in the group what is the main task that you will achieve today that will get you closer to your vision. Then in the evening each one of you shares what you’ve achieved. Once this step is mastered and consistent in results, you can “increase the weights” by adding 2-3 steps per day, but remember don’t go overboard and overflow the stack again.
- Cut down all the stimuli that get you distracted. French novelist Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables and The Hunchback Of Notre-Dameunder a tight deadline while being completely naked in his study room. This meant he wouldn’t be able to leave his house. As a safety measure, he’d also instruct his valet to hide his clothes. While I’m not suggesting you should go full commando when trying to achieve your goals, putting some obstacles in the way that would make it harder for you to procrastinate might help. These can include leaving your phone in another room, shutting down your internet connection or delaying to have lunch until you have tackled the big hurdles of the day.
- Become process oriented instead of goal oriented. Live and breathe the daily routine. No shortcuts. Practice is the key to mastering any skill. There is no big goal at the end of the road. The goal is the daily grind you put in each day. Do you want to bench press 350 lbs in 3 months? Make sure you can do 8 clean reps of 130 today. And then increase each week. And eat well daily. There is no past or future self, the only person that matters if stuff will get done eventually is your present version. You want to build the next Instagram but you hate coding every day? You will not get very far. .
- Eat that frog. Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that’s probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. This concept is developed in depth in Brian Tracy’s book. Over-planning will lead you spiraling out of control but some light organization can do the trick. Set out your weekly goal. Then divide into 5-7 chunks (Research, Action 1, Action 2, Action 3, Revision, Improvement, Release). Then each morning tackle that big task first. Remember the 20/80 ratio.
- Use Reverse Motivation. As I mentioned before, than to positivity. It’s in our nature to conserve ourselves than to push ourselves. The motivation to not lose your home and the money in your bank is stronger that the motivation to work hard and move in a better home eventually. Because one feels more certain than the other. Set anti-motivators for yourself. Give someone you trust $50 for example, and tell them to spend it on themselves if you don’t finish your project by a certain time. This way, you have to work in order to keep your hard-earned money in your own pocket.
- Learn to say NO. For most of us, saying no is exceedingly difficult. We seem to say yes to everything. Say no to . Get your stuff done and stop letting yourself get distracted by what other people want from you. Say no to useless parties, commitments you can’t keep, to interruptions, to anything . This is one of the most valuable skills you can develop to keep you focused on your own commitments and give you time to work on them.
- Define your environments. When your bedroom is your study room, your gym, your workplace and your entertainment room it’s hard to get your brain in the right mode to act accordingly. Want to do sports? Go in the park. Do you want to study and be focused? Go to the library. Want to watch a movie or play on the PS3? Move that stuff to the living room. Want to just relax and take a nap? Stay in the bedroom. Keeping these environments separate will help you adjust your brain accordingly and get you in the mood needed for that certain task.
- Set one procrastination day. You might be thinking:
“What? I asked you to help me get stuff done, not procrastinate!”
There are two types of work. Systematic work and creative work. When you need to work on clear technical goals that can be measured precisely, procrastination really doesn’t have any reason to be around, it stops the growth path. But when it comes to creativity, procrastination is actually a needed evil. It’s believed that da Vinci took about three years to paint The Last Supper, mostly due to the painter’s notorious tendency to procrastinate. But the first outline of the painting was represented by just 13 people sitting on a bench, the table was added much later. It took procrastination, starting work, abandoning it and revisiting it later in order to achieve the best version possible. Breaking patterns is good for the creative brain. I use Sundays to relax and let my mind wander off while putting in the daily grind for the rest of the week.
Maybe Newton wouldn’t have ever developed the laws that carry his name today if he never relaxed under an apple tree. It’s better and healthier to schedule your breaks instead of them “scheduling” you.