How to Stop Procrastinating
Procrastination is Disempowerment
To overcome procrastination, you must first understand it. It's not a sin or even a character flaw, but simply a learned response to stress, fear, or other adverse feelings around your work. (That you can unlearn, and replace with more productive responses!)
It's also a form of derailment. Most of us wake up with at least a general plan for the day. (“I’m going to be at my desk by 9, work for three hours, exercise during lunch hour, then eat a salad at my desk, etc…”) Procrastination is when you get derailed from that plan. (And a "block"--e.g., writer's block or creative block--is just a serious and sustained bout of procrastination.)
Fundamentally, procrastination is disempowerment, which means you lack access to, or are blocked from using (as in writer's block, get it?) your strengths, skills, talents, energies, and other capacities. Note: you're not missing anything, just blocked from using that which you already have. In productivity workshops, I can get all the supposedly "blocked" students writing prolifically in five minutes, just be giving a few simple guidelines that help them get re-empowered.
You can get derailed at any moment, and by many things. Here are some typical reasons:
- You're overwhelmed, confused, stuck, or otherwise don't know how to proceed.
- You are ill, tired, depressed, or distracted by personal problems.
- You have conflicting priorities--other projects you'd also like to be working on.
- You’re under-resourced and/or under-supported.
- You’re detached from your project, or bored with it, or alienated from it.
- You’re afraid of failure or success. Or,
- It's a great day out, and you'd rather be playing outside. Or, you'd rather be hanging out with a loved one. (Hey, we're human! It happens!)
Derailment can happen in an instant, in a process I call The Disempowerment Cascade. You encounter an obstacle, such as one in the above bullet-point list, and then panic--and that's the point you lose access to your capacities. Then you panic some more, desperately try to force yourself to do the work (often via a self-abusive inner monologue), and eventually procrastinate as an escape from all the fear. (Illustration by Barry Deutsch for my book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.)
The interesting question is: what's causing all the panic? Hint: it's another "p word."
Procrastination also can be a form of self-silencing, isolation, invisibility, and hoarding (of one's work). If you don't put your work out there, after all, it--and, by extension you--become invisible to those who might judge it (and you). So, in one sense, procrastination can keep you safe. But as you have probably figured out, that safety comes at a very steep price: self-sabotage.
So let's look at some solutions!
Solutions to Procrastination
So, the next time you find yourself being a perfectionist, skip the panic and go right to problem-solving. You do this by journaling about the problem. Ask yourself "why am I having trouble doing this work?" and then answer the question. No shame or blame! No name-calling! (E.g., "I'm lazy, that's all...") Be a compassionate observer of your own situation. There's always a cause for perfectionism (laziness, etc., is just a symptom), so use your compassionate and objective journaling to uncover that cause and then to develop solutions. Often once a solution is revealed, it's remarkably easy to implement!
2) Work in a place without WiFi. And shut off your phone. The goal is not to constantly distract yourself (which these apps are designed to do) in hopes of locating some heretofore untapped willpower reserves, but to manage your environment and context to support your productivity.
3) Find a work buddy. We are social creatures and it's often the loneliness that distracts us. But sit us alongside someone who is working steadily on their own stuff, and suddenly all is well. Good work buddies can be hard to find, but Focusmate is a great solution, so give it a try.
Also, ask yourself:
4) Am I being a perfectionist? This is usually the major cause of procrastination and blocks, and is not only a barrier in itself, but can interfere with your ability to deal with any other barriers. More on this here.
5) Do I know what I'm doing? And do I know how to do the next 2-3 steps in detail? Often we stall because we don't actually know how to do what we're supposed to be doing. So, do you actually know how to write that article or grant proposal or book? Do you know the best practices for doing your math problem set?
And for bigger projects (e.g., marketing or political campaigns) do you know the next two or three steps in particular?
It's easy to get stuck when we don't know exactly what we need to do. This is a classic sign of someone working too isolated, and especially without good mentors, by the way. So, the answer is to...get help. And probably not from the book or the Internet, but an actual person.
6) Am I trying to force the work in a specific direction? Forcing a.k.a., trying to control the outcome, shuts your creativity right down. Send your inner critic out to take a walk, then let the work unfold the way it wants to.
7) Am I ambivalent about the project at all? For instance, are you afraid it will be too self-revealing, or be negatively received by others? First, journal to get some clarity on this. Second, separate out your writing (or other work) from the publishing (or showing to an audience). Don't think about your audience until you're mostly done, so that you can free your creativity to do its job now. Then, later you can make any needed editorial or other changes.
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