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Read This Now! Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done — or Else!

Read This Now! Stop Procrastinating and Get Stuff Done — or Else!

Start. Now!

    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 feels 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 kinds of 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 to 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…”)

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    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? Let’s see if we can’t figure this out.

    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 funner to throw out when you’re done. And 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 ood. 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 library to get books on x” or “Take 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. Now, what’s the worst possible outcome? Don’t be afraid — spill it. You finish your project and… 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 kinda like having you around!)

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    Another way of getting motivated is to relive past successes. How did you feel he 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.

    There are those who say that rewards aren’t good motivation. Don’t you believe it. 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.

    Researchers places 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.

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    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.

    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 someones — 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: a couple solid hours of work, however boring, or “just one more” round of Desktop Tower Defense?

    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 Minesweep, 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!

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    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 Minesweep” — in effect, procrastinating our procrastination. Bing bing bing bing bing!

    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.

    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, 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 by this author

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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