In the companion post to this one, I discussed the reasons we procrastinate, which was helpful in understanding the psychology behind our bad habits. In this post, I’ll provide tips on how to stop procrastinating.
If you missed part one, find it here: Why We Procrastinate (Pt 1)
1. Give Yourself Permission.
When we’re putting things off, often it’s because our conscious and unconscious are in a tug-of-war. Our conscious is curious, creative, spontaneous, adventurous. It’s the part of us that is not just living, but alive. The impulses from our conscious can seem crazy to us at times. Two months ago, I was hiking through the South of France with my friend, Sarah, and had the sudden desire to take off my boots and feel the ground under my feet. My unconscious’ initial response was – are you crazy? You could step on something sharp! Kids go barefoot, not adults. Where is this even coming from?
I said the impulse aloud, thinking it would be dismissed with some laughter. But Sarah didn’t react like it was a crazy idea, and in doing so, unknowingly gave me permission. We stopped and took off our shoes and felt the wet moss squish beneath our toes and it was glorious. The impulse – while primal – wasn’t actually that crazy. Research shows that grounding – or the act of putting our bare feet onto the Earth – can actually have health benefits.
So why did my unconscious jump to conclusions? Well, your unconscious is a doubter and a voice of resistance. It will tell you all the reasons you are not smart enough, motivated enough, good enough or talented enough to “do the thing”. For years, my unconscious told me I was too fat to travel. But I just went ahead and traveled. And learned to scuba-dive. And jumped out of an airplane. And climbed a mountain (or two). Because the thing is – your unconscious isn’t always right. Sometimes it saves you from danger, but while it may seem like the eternal voice of reason, often it’s the voice that keeps us from testing our true potential.
Permission is the ignition for change. To stop procrastinating, you have to give yourself permission to “do the thing” and then, you need to do it. Permission is powerful and often something we wait for others to give us. But for lasting change, it has to come from within. Permission means saying to yourself – screw my unconscious and screw other people’s opinions of me – I need to do this and I’m doing it.
2. Get Outside your Comfort Zone.
I’ve followed a lot of travel bloggers over the years and have had a serious case of wanderlust since I was a kid. But having lived abroad two years and traveled to more than fifteen countries, I can say with some authority that travel isn’t always beautiful, aesthetic Instagram pictures of mountain vistas and latte art in Parisian cafes. Sometimes travel means missing your train. Or being rained on. Or tired. Or having blistered feet. Or losing something. Or having a wet sock. Or spilling ketchup down the only clean shirt in your suitcase. Or running out of clean underwear. A lot of travel is discomfort. Even if you stay in a nice hotel or travel with a tour group or only eat in five star restaurants – you’ll eventually come face-to-face with inclement weather or poverty or language barriers or a bad case of traveler’s sickness. There’s no protecting yourself from discomfort if you want to grow.
My mother always said you’ll never meet someone sitting on your couch at home – and while, with the onset of internet dating we’ll just have to agree to disagree – she’s right about one thing. You can’t hope to grow or achieve or meet people or create if you don’t interact with the world. It’s one of my life’s goals to achieve a state of what I refer to as “maximum coze” – sweatpants, the perfect amount of soft blankets, a mug of tea or hot chocolate and a position in which none of my limbs go numb. There’s an art form to the thing Danish people call hygge, which literally translates to “coziness”. But while I love and indulge in hygge, I also know it’s not conducive to creativity.
Make a list of things that are outside your comfort zone. This doesn’t mean you have to overcome every fear you have – if you have a fear of heights you don’t have to climb a mountain in an attempt to prove something to yourself. The goal isn’t to be fearless, the goal is to be curious. To listen to your impulses, try new things and break up your routine. The goal is to stop hitting your internal snooze button and shake yourself awake.
3. Try a Commitment Device.
Part of why procrastinators like instant gratification is because when you’re pursuing long term goals, you don’t see immediate rewards, don’t feel a sense of accomplishment and don’t feel like anyone cares or is paying attention to the work you do. It helps to have friends who can keep you on track to your goal, but having an accountability buddy can also create an anxiety-inducing procrastination of it’s own – guilt when you don’t send them a chapter update or haven’t worked on the thing you told them you would work on.
If you’re a results oriented person, having a physical accountability system will help you visualize long-term goals. A commitment device is any mechanism you put into place to stop your current self from sabotaging a change that you want to implement for your future self. For example, there’s an app called Pact that pays you for the times you show up the gym and penalizes you for the times you don’t. And apps like Self Control allow you to block access to your email, Facebook, and Twitter for a set amount of time, so you don’t find yourself trolling social media when you’re meant to be working.
And if apps aren’t your things, get more concrete. Make the change something you can see – a visual cue for you to change or initiate a behavior. If you’re losing weight, buy two Ball jars, and write “pounds lost” and “pounds to go” on them. Fill them with beads, marbles or gemstones. Move the beads every time you lose a pound. If you’re a writer, set specific chapter goals, word-count goals or scene goals with the same two jar system so you can visually measure your progress and feel like you’re not just writing into the void. You can even set up a rewards system based on your jars – for every ten marbles you’ve moved, you can treat yourself to a movie night or a salon manicure.
4. Parent Yourself.
As children, our parents impose limits on us – bedtimes, curfews, the amount of television or internet we’re allowed to watch, and also expect us to fulfill certain responsibilities – taking out the trash, making our beds, brushing our teeth. Some of us even had rewards systems growing up – star charts, sticker boards, allowance – to keep us motivated. But as adults, we set our own limits. No one is telling us to go outside and exercise. No one is telling us to “get off the damn computer” and do some yoga stretches. No one is telling us not to eat ramen noodles for every meal for a week straight or that we can’t have dessert unless we’ve done our chores first.
As an adult, it’s your job to parent yourself. And a lot of us aren’t terribly good at it.
“It’s your job to make yourself do the crap you don’t want to do so you can be everything that you’re supposed to be.” (How to stop screwing yourself over | Mel Robbins)
The underlying reason isn’t always procrastination – sometimes we have kids of our own and feel their needs come before ours. Sometimes, we spend our time and energy on relationships that don’t work. Sometimes, we feel that it’s selfish or that we’re undeserving of self-care. In which case I’d like to give you some advice we’re routinely given on airplanes: Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. In other words, sort your own shit out before helping anyone else. This doesn’t make you selfish, it makes you responsible. (You can still prioritize – obviously if you have a crying infant and you’re in need of a pedicure – you can attend to the baby first.) Think of yourself as your own parent – if I were my parent would I let me eat that? If I were my parent, would I let myself play video games for eight hours straight?
Now, try applying that to procrastination – if I had a child that desperately wanted to write a novel – but kept putting off their own deadlines to play on the Internet, would I intervene? Would I set some limits? If the answer is yes, you may need to parent yourself into getting your work done.
5. Follow Your Impulses.
Like the story about Sarah and I in “Give Yourself Permission”, getting things done is about following your impulses. If your conscious says, “I should really empty the dishwasher” and your unconscious says, “but I want to finish watching this episode of –“, listen to your conscious. Pause the TV. Go empty the dishwasher and come back to it. Not only will you feel relieved, but your mind can stop anxiously spinning about the thing you’re not doing and actually enjoy the television you’re watching. Most of the ways we procrastinate – reading, watching television, playing video games, scrolling through social media – are things we can return to once “the thing” is done. If you want to write for an hour a day, write for an hour a day, but do it first and then allow yourself some television time as a reward.
This can apply to small impulses we have throughout the day as well. I really feeling like baking something or I really should go for a walk or I would love to do some crafting. Do it. Follow your curiosity and see where it takes you. Just recognize when your impulse is destructive to your waistline, wallet, health or other’s happiness (online shopping, overeating, smoking, gambling, sending mean, anonymous messages to people you don’t agree with on Tumblr) and when it’s just your conscious knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, are you home? Can you come out and play?”
7. Set a Timer.
One of the ways I trick myself into working is setting a timer. Tell yourself, “I’m just going to work for ten minutes” and set your timer for ten minutes. Odds are, if you work ten minutes, you’ll start getting into a groove and when the timer goes off you’ll think, “that wasn’t enough time.” Reset your timer. Keep resetting it. No matter if you do twenty minutes or two hours, you’ll end up feeling successful, because you only promised yourself ten minutes and odds are, you’ll surpass yourself. So much of doing the thing is showing up. Once you’re at the gym, it’s not hard to workout, but sometimes getting yourself to the gym seems impossible.
It’s the same with writing a book – a lot of the agony of procrastinating is the cyclical thought – “I should be writing my book but I’m not writing my book“. Set a timer. Start at a minute if you need to. Then keep upping your intervals every week. Once you get into a habit of setting a timer, writing every day will become a habit.
8. Take a Walk.
This one sounds suspiciously like procrastinating. I need to be doing the thing, how can I take a walk?! If you are in this kind of headspace, you need to get out of it. Here’s a little secret – procrastination is actually essential to creativity and innovation. Productivity – churning out tasks as quickly as possible – can actually be detrimental to innovation and creativity. Procrastination gives our brains time to play, to turn ideas over, to let them stew and simmer and percolate. There have been procrastinators all throughout history – Leonardo da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, Victor Hugo, Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Atwood. The key is finding your procrastination sweet spot, where procrastination doesn’t stop you from inventing or creating entirely, but your ideas time to germinate.
Give your ideas time to germinate.
Here’s where taking a walk comes in. Being in the fresh air and surrounded by nature often serves to clear out our minds of all the anxiety and guilt that is nagging at us about not doing the thing. On the weekends, my dad used to work tirelessly in his garage reassembling old cars. Sometimes, he’d try to twist a screw into place twenty times before giving up in a huff of frustration. After he’d walked away to get coffee and come back fresh, the screw tightened easily. Sometimes when we’re too close to our problems – too frustrated or focused on the task at hand – we have difficulty finding another approach.
If you’re putting off writing your novel because you’re not sure what happens to your protagonist next, it’s not going to help to sit down and try to do the thing (in this case, write). Try taking a walk instead. Sometimes, when I’m walking, I’ll talk into the voice recorder on my phone stream-of-consciousness style and decipher whatever ideas came to me later. Sometimes, I’ll bring a friend and our conversation will spark a new insight. Sometimes, I’ll see something – a unique door or a funny dog that I’ll use in my story. Sometimes I’ll overhear a conversation that will get incorporated into my character’s dialogue. And sometimes, I just get some fresh air and exercise.
The key isn’t to stop procrastinating entirely; it’s learning how to use to it to benefit you. If procrastination is keeping you from doing the thing, you need to trick it. But if procrastination is helping you figure out how to approach the thing, by all means indulge a little. Find different approaches to sneak up on the sleeping dragon instead of just running in shouting with a sword and no plan.
9. Make a Map.
There’s times in life that wandering is beneficial. You have to get lost to find yourself. And there are times it leaves us with no clear sense of direction. If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you expect to get there? For big projects, it helps to make a map so you don’t keep going off the trails and posted roads. If you’re working on a novel, this can be an outline in Scrivener, a detailed Excel sheet, even a stack of index cards tacked up on your office wall. Having an outline will help direct you where you need to go so you’re not simply running in place when you write.
Be realistic and specific about your goals. You don’t want to set goals you can’t reach. If it’s health you’re after – instead of setting a goal weight – try setting a goal like completing a 5k or being able to do 100 sit-ups. Same with writing your first draft of a book – focus on writing out specific scenes or chapters and don’t worry about your word-count – that will change in editing later anyway. Have a good idea of what you can control and what you can’t. If you’re looking for a new job, for example – you have no control over who will call back to set up an interview – but you can set a goal of sending off three resumes a day. Or revamping your resume with a trusted friend. Whatever you do, have a map. Have a clear idea of where you’re going so you can start.
JK Rowling’s Outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
10. Fail and fail often.
Fail. Fail like no one is watching. Laugh at your failures. Learn from your failures. Use your failures to measure your growth and how far you’ve come. Realize that for every success story out there, that person has failed and continues to fail. The only real failure is the failure to try. To choose to not engage.
So make failure a game. Frame your rejection letters. Have a drink to them. Give failure a seat at your table. You didn’t invite it, but let it know you’re not afraid to dine with it.
Whatever you do, be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up for procrastinating just adds to the vicious cycle. Know that no matter what tricks you employ, there will be days you don’t write or don’t create or don’t move towards your goal. And that’s okay. The trick is to keep trying. Keep showing up. You’ll take a punch or two, but keep stepping into the ring. Because the ring is where the magic happens.
Were any of this tips helpful? What works for you?