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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…”)
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:
- Making a list feels like you’re doing something. Bing! You’ve got your reward.
- Crossing something done off your list feels ood. Bing! Another reward.
- 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, doable — the 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!)
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?
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.
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!
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.