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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

How To Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done

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How To Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done

OK, I’m done with procrastinating. I’m done with the guilt, anxiety, stress—and, of course, the not getting stuff done.

I’m tired of answering “what’d you do today” with “nothing”. Of course, it’s a lie—I did do something, just not anything important – not anything that made me feel happier, more complete, or more relaxed.

What I did today was spend 8 hours kicking myself, putting myself down, and telling myself “I’ve really got to do. . .”.

Why Procrastination Is Always Easy to Do Right Now

Psychologists tell me that the reason I procrastinate is because it feels so darn good. Can you believe that? All that guilt, stress, and bad self-image feel good?

It does though, doesn’t it? Not the self-recriminations, but the excuse-making and the excuse-fulfilling.

Here’s why:

  1. When we procrastinate, we tend to do stuff that we know how to do—there’s no risk. And avoiding risk feels good—our brain loves it when we don’t do stuff that puts us out in the open, stuff that makes us vulnerable.
  2. Most of the things we do while we procrastinate are fun, offering an immediate payoff—instead of the deferred payoff of the routine, boring, or lengthy projects we’re putting off. A little thrill now makes us feel better than a bigger thrill at some point in the distant future.
  3. Procrastination helps prevent success, and we fear success. Success at anything important means change, it means becoming someone different, it means growing as a person—and all that stuff is really, really hard. Futzing around, on the other hand, rarely accomplishes anything important, so I can stay comfortably me.

I can’t tell you how much I hate knowing all that about myself! I bet you’re not all that thrilled about it yourself.

And I didn’t even mention the part about how we hate our parents and would hate even more for them to see us succeed since that would validate their years of torturing us into passable adults.

So What’s a Poor, Lazy Sod to Do?

I can’t tell you how to deal with your obvious childhood resentments, but maybe there is a way to get around procrastination without expensive and time-consuming therapy? Therapy that you’ll probably just use as another excuse not to do whatever it is you’re procrastinating in the first place? (“I can’t write my novel until my analyst says I’m ready.”)

Sure there is. When it comes down to it, all we have to do is a) minimize the rewards of procrastination, and b) maximize the rewards of non-procrastination. How hard could that be?

OK, maybe a little bit hard. So how do we do it? What’s the program if you can’t stop procrastinating? Let’s see if we can figure this out.

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1. Make Lists

You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? You know I love the lists. Lists are good—they’re fun to make, and even more fun to throw out when you’re done.

Lists are very useful if you can’t stop procrastinating because they help us deal with at least two of the three factors that cause procrastination risk-aversion and rewards.

Here’s how:

  1. Making a list feels like you’re doing something. Bing! You’ve got your reward.
  2. Crossing something done off your list feels good. Bing! Another reward.
  3. Making a list reduces the risk that you’ll forget to do something—and therefore that you’ll screw up and fail. Bing! Your brain likes that, a lot.

You can’t make just any list, though. As I never tire of saying, lists should be concrete, granular, doablethe first item on your list should be something you can glance at and immediately do.

Don’t know how? Then it shouldn’t be the first thing on your list; figuring out how to do it should be the first thing on your list. Or, rather, “Use Google to find out how to do x”, or “Go to the library to get books on x”, or “Take a class on x” should be first on your list.

Then, the next thing on your list should be something you can glance at and immediately do; and the third thing, and the fourth.

If you can’t start doing something within two minutes of reading it on your list, it’s not concrete enough. Call it “The Other Two Minutes Rule”.

2. Get Motivated

There’s lots of advice on how to get motivated; whatever it takes you to be motivated, do that thing.

Here’s one idea: play the best-case/worst-case game.

What’s the best possible outcome of whatever it is you’re (not) working on?

Visualize it. Daydream about it. Ok, put that aside for a minute.

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Now, what’s the worst possible outcome? Don’t be afraid—spill it. You finish your project and now what? Now ask yourself—how likely is that? Really? Be honest here—chances are you haven’t undertaken something that you’re wholly unsuited for. OK, that’s better.

Now, ask yourself if the best-case scenario makes the worst-case worth the risk? I’ll bet it does (note: if there’ a chance that successfully completing your project might well kill you, please, try un-motivating yourself. I kind of like having you around!).

Another way of getting motivated is to relive past successes.

How did you feel the last time you finished a project? What did you have to do to get that one done? How closely did the outcome match your fears? Yeah, not too closely, right?

Moving on.

3. Reward Yourself

Some people say that rewards aren’t good motivation. Don’t believe them. Those people are probably criminals.

OK, maybe not—but they’re only right about external rewards, a.k.a. “bribes”. As it happens, offering rewards to employees often doesn’t increase motivation.

But offering rewards to yourself—well, that’s just good common sense. You need that Bing! moment—you are, after all, simply a giant hairless ape with a yen for gourmet coffee and a laptop. This is a good hack if you just can’t stop procrastinating.

Researchers placed monkeys in a cage, with a button that, when pressed, dispensed a piece of food. “Yum!” said the monkey when he pushed the button. So he pushed it again. And again. Monkeys are, of course, just small hairy people without coffee or laptops, so they learn pretty fast.

Then the researchers added a twist: every third time the monkey pushed the button, he’d get an electric shock! “Ouch!” said the monkey—then he ate his treat. “Ouch ouch!” he said, the next time—then he ate his treat.

The moral of this story is that we’ll put up with quite a bit of crap, as long as we get our treat. Your challenge, then, is to find a treat good enough to hit the button for, even though you know it’s going to hurt like heck.

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4. Be Accountable

Shame, guilt, humiliation—they can be effective motivational tools. The problem is, when they’re directed at ourselves, they’re corrosive, undoing motivation as fast as they create it.

It’s hard to convince yourself you’re not going to fail when you’ve also convinced yourself you’re a no-good lazy stupid son-of-a-…badger.

My advice: outsource your guilt and humiliation to someone you love and respect. The world is flat, after all. It’s what Tim Ferriss would do.

What do I mean, exactly?

Simple: tell someone—tell lots of people—what you’re doing, when you’re going to be done, how excited you are about it, how important it is to you, and so on.

Now you’ve got risk. You fail, and everyone is going to know. Put that fear of failure to good use! Now, what’s going to prevent the negative payoff of everyone knowing what you want to get done?

5. Do It for Three Minutes

Aside from, say, breathing poison gas or watching reality television, you can do anything for just three minutes, right?

Get a kitchen timer (I don’t actually advocate stealing from your grandmother, but you do what it takes), set it for three minutes, and work. Since you aren’t likely to be procrastinating something you could do in less than three minutes, you have no reason to fear the successful completion of your project.

And you can promise yourself whatever you want when the timer goes off—a cup of coffee, a game of Minesweeper, a half-hour of porn surfing, whatever. Bing! You get your reward—and guess what? Having gotten three minutes of work done will feel pretty good, too. Bing bing!

Next time, shoot for five. Then ten. Eventually, dare I say it, you might be able to put in as much as 25 minutes of solid work without dying—all in a row!

There’s something else, though. Sometimes, once we start working, it feels so good to be working towards our goal, we don’t stop when the timer goes off. We start making excuses—”just one more sentence, I promise, then I’ll play Minesweeper”—in effect, procrastinating our procrastination. Bing bing bing bing bing!

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6. Learn to Embrace Change

Last but not least, you need to get past the whole fear of success thing.

Jonathan Fields, a guest contributor here at Lifehack, offers some tips in his article How to Sell Yourself on Lifestyle Change, and he should know—he’s had quite a few successes in his life, and all of them have drastically changed his life for the better.

It can be hard to imagine coming to terms with what success will mean for you, but here’s my promise: you’ll know how to deal with success when you get there, even if you can’t imagine it now.

Final Words

It is traditional, of course, to end a post on procrastination with a sly joke about how you should start putting these tips into action, first thing tomorrow.

But you know what? Procrastination can be serious stuff and many people just can’t stop procrastinating, so I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to tell you to turn off your monitor for a minute, get out a piece of paper, and write a list of what you should be working on next. And then start doing it.

Because, believe me, you’ll be a better person afterwards. And that’ll feel great.

Bing!

More Tips If You Can’t Stop Procrastinating

Featured photo credit: Dai KE via unsplash.com

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Published on January 14, 2022

How to Break the Perfectionism-Procrastination Loop

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How to Break the Perfectionism-Procrastination Loop

You’re probably full of the usual impetus to make changes in your life as the new year lies before us. At the time of writing, we’re at the dawn of a new year. Bellies full and rife with lethargy, we’re all likely sat around (in the West at any rate) contemplating our moves for the next 12 months.

This is, of course, prompted by our arm-chair assessment of the year just gone. Did we achieve the goals we set out for ourselves this time last year as we nurse our splitting sides and slip into yet another food coma?

No! Of course we didn’t, and I’m not speaking from a hyperbolic or purely anecdotal point of view. According to a 2016 study, of the 41% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, by the end of the year, only 9% feel they are successful in keeping them.[1]

Is it because of procrastination or perfectionism?

Is Perfectionism And Procrastination Holding You Back From Achieving Goals?

The failing rate of New Year’s resolutions is 91%! A big part of that is how we set our goals. What these studies often cite as a predominant reason for failure is the setting of unrealistic goals. But I think this speaks to something else, namely that we’re not properly connecting to or aligning with our goals — this is where perfectionism and procrastination come in.

Perfectionism is just fear manifesting itself as a mental block. Not fear of failure and/or social ostracisation, so much as fear of change. Our subconscious is set up to favor the status quo. All it knows is that your choices, up until now, have resulted in your survival. Change is just rocking the boat and risking an unknowable outcome (or so it thinks).

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This is what’s at the root cause of your perfectionism and procrastination. You might claim to be a perfectionist, but what does that really mean? Do you mean that you won’t stop working on something until it is, in your opinion, perfect? Or do you mean that you don’t embark upon an endeavor until you can guarantee that the outcome will be perfect?

If you fall into the latter camp, you might consider that this perfectionism-procrastination loop is just an excuse—a manifestation of your deeply rooted subconscious fear of change.

Put it this way:

I think you could substitute the word “unrealistic” for the word “vague,” and you’d have a more accurate assessment of the problem. People often say that they want to make more money, lose more weight, eat more healthy food, etc., but they don’t define what that actually means. Setting out with such an ill-defined destination means that you can’t set an accurate course towards it, and without that, you’re just wandering around in the wilderness.

Think about a time when you’ve performed a task so mundane that it barely registered in your mind. It could be doing the grocery shopping or the laundry. Something that you do, not necessarily every day, but with regularity and (crucially) purpose. If you don’t go to the food store, you won’t have food. If you don’t have food, you can’t eat. If you don’t eat, you die. That’s a pretty clear purpose.

As you head out the door to the supermarket though, that precipitous chain of catastrophic events isn’t weighing on your mind. It’s just a case of making sure that you get everything on the shopping list. There is no doubt in your mind that you’ll make it back with what you need, though. You’ve already mentally and energetically connected, albeit subconsciously, to the outcome of “bringing home the bacon” (or meat-free bacon substitute, if you’re vegan).

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You’ve already achieved your goal mentally. Now, it’s just a case of physically going through the motions. You probably don’t even have to think that much about what you’re doing as you go round the store!

How to Break the Perfectionism-Procrastination Loop

1. Recognize the Loop

The first thing you can do to break this perfectionism-procrastination loop is to recognize it. Bring your awareness to what is really going on and consider what lies behind your claims of perfectionism. Be honest but gentle with yourself. Try, if you can, not to bring judgment into the equation.

Judgment and overly harsh self-criticism can be just as debilitating as your subconscious fear of change, so try not to introduce it in the first place. Consider yourself, as best you can, an impartial observer. You’re just there in the first instance to witness what’s going on.

2. Set Intentions Properly

Armed with that knowledge, you will find that your approach to your goals starts to shift naturally anyway, but you also need to learn how to set intentions properly. If you are one of the aforementioned New Years’ resolution setters who winds up making claims of perfectionism while not taking any action, you ought really to ask yourself:

“If I’m such a perfectionist, why do I keep setting such vague goals?”

Would a perfectionist set out to make “more money” this year and leave it at that?! Would somebody so obsessed with perfection in all things, looking to reach their ideal weight and body shape, really set a goal of simply “lose more weight”?

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You might think, genuinely, that the possibility of not hitting your target dead-on is a reason not to even start. But what are you aiming at in the first place?

Let’s back up the truck for a second, and assess what we mean by procrastination. Procrastination, as defined by researchers, is:[2]

“a form of self-regulation failure characterized by the irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences.”

So far, we’ve spoken about procrastination as if it is simply “never doing something,” which it is, over time. But really, it’s the delaying of something for no reason. When it comes to achieving goals, procrastination in and of itself isn’t what keeps you from achieving them. It’s procrastination over time. As the Spanish would say, it’s “mañana” thinking.

If you put something off till tomorrow because you just don’t want to do it today, that might still be procrastinatory behavior. But if you then actually do it tomorrow, what’s the harm? It’s the consistent putting off of something based on irrationally (or subconsciously) held beliefs that, over time, means that you never get there. This might seem blindingly obvious, but it’s important to lock down exactly what we mean before seeking to make changes.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, hopefully, it shifts your thinking on what procrastination is enough so that you can accurately assess whether or not your procrastination is hindering your progress. It should help you not to sit in judgment of your procrastination, too.

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3. Try Reaching Out for Help and Mentorship

You can’t expand in a vacuum. You need others to support your journey and provide you with objective feedback. How else are you going to realistically assess whether or not your outcome is perfect anyway?

Find others who have walked the path before you, and reach out to them. Unless they’re huge names with layers of people around them, you’ll probably find that they are willing to help. Even if they are hard to reach, check out interviews with them or look for guidance that they’ve put out publicly in the past.

Part of the problem you’ve been facing is that you can only see what the perfect outcome should look like as filtered through you. By understanding what the wider community (and market) consider to be an ideal outcome for something, you’ll get a much clearer, realistic idea of what you need to be aiming for. From there, you can identify what you’re lacking and therefore, what gaps you need to plug.

Get used to defining your terms better. Think about the language you’re using, both when you talk to others and with your internal monologue. What are you telling yourself?

Is the Narrative You’re Running On True?

Perfectionism is a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable after all.[3] What does that have to do with an irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences? From a literal point of view, perfectionism should provoke a desire to continue to take action long past the point of an acceptable outcome, not irrationally abstain from taking any!

So, check yourself the next time you utter the words “I’m just a perfectionist” as a pretext for why you haven’t done something, whether it’s to yourself or somebody else. You don’t really mean that, but that’s okay! You’re just afraid to change, as we all are predisposed to be.

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Don’t beat yourself up. See it for what it is, and start to shift the stories (belief systems) that you’re running on.

Featured photo credit: Nubelson Fernandes via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Discover Happy Habits: New Year’s Resolution Statistics (2021 Updated)
[2] SpringerLink: Procrastination and Task Avoidance
[3] Merriam-Webster: perfectionism

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