As you may or may not know, a few weeks ago I started an email newsletter. It’s called The Fight Spot. It goes out every Wednesday (like today!), and it’s about creativity, focus, and risk. All of which are moving targets; all of which are a fight.
Over the past several weeks, many of the The Fight Spot newsletters, plus several blog posts here on shawnblanc.net, as well as some Shawn Today and Weekly Briefly podcast episodes, have been on the topic of procrastination.
A lot of you have emailed me or tweeted to say thanks for these articles. Such as Ryan, who wrote me to share this:
I’m typically one who will skim an email and archive it, but this is one I’ve already read multiple times and it’s still in my inbox. It’s likely going to end up as a pinned note in Evernote so I can refer back to it often. This is exactly the kind of thing I strive to consider and focus on… this is the perfect reminder to keep focused on the essential.
I wanted to put all the procrastination-centric content together into a single document. It’s called The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress.
It’s a completely free, refined and organized PDF version of all the blog posts, newsletters, and podcast episodes I’ve been putting out there related to procrastination over the past month.
It’s 40-pages long, 8,500 words and change, and is comprised of 13 short sections.
On Monday I sent the guide out to everyone on The Fight Spot newsletter list and the feedback has been great.
Here’s what Greg Colker wrote me to say about the guide:
This morning I read the Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress and it’s really good! I love how concise it is and yet packed with the best principles for being the best person you can be. I also like that you included a suggestion to pay attention to procrastination, to learn from it. That’s important, but often overlooked.
If you want to subscribe to The Fight Spot newsletter, I’ll send you The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress for free:
I was scared to death to tell everyone I was quitting my job to try and be a full-time “blogger”.
I had been writing this site on the side for several years, but in 2011 I decided to quit my job as a creative and marketing director. I quit so I could write here as my full-time gig.
Aside from the fear of rejection, the fear that my membership drive would be a colossal embarrassment, and the fear that I was throwing my future away, one of the things I feared most was that I’d run out of things to write about.
That was four years ago. The fears about rejection, the membership drive, and my wasted future all turned out to be for naught. As did the fear of running out of things to write about.
What I didn’t anticipate was just how easy it could be for a full-time writer to never actually write.
About two months ago, as the holiday season was winding down and the new year was upon us, I realized something about my morning work routine. I was spending the best part of my day checking inboxes and analytics.
Every day when I came downstairs to my office to work, my first instinct was to check all the things. Were there any urgent @replies? What about urgent emails? What was our website traffic like yesterday? How much did we make on affiliate income?
I told myself these stats were important metrics, and it was okay to check them right away. Who knows if someone may have emailed me with a problem on one of my websites that I needed to know about as soon as possible?
In truth, there were never any urgent emails or Twitter replies. Traffic and income were almost always exactly what they always were. And the process of checking all these inboxes and statistics usually would spiral into an hour or more of just surfing.
I was wasting the best part of my day.
This was not how I wanted to spend the first hours of my work day.
Which is why I decided to change my habits.
I made a commitment that every morning I would write for 30 minutes no matter what. This writing time would be the first thing I did each morning when I started my work day.
Additionally, I committed that I would not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9am. I start my work day at 7:30am, so I knew I had a good 90 minutes of time where my only goal was to write, think, or plan.
Lastly, I started playing the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. I have a soundtrack playlist on Rdio. I’d put on my headphones and hit play on that playlist.
For the first several days, it was a mental workout. My mind rebelled. I literally went into inbox withdrawal. I wanted to check the inboxes and the stats. But I would keep my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. If I every finished writing at 8:59am, I would wait one more minute — until it was 9:00am — before I moved on and began checking the stats and the inboxes.
It took about a week before began to get into the groove. When I’d walk into my office I knew that the first thing I was going to do was write. It didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. I was committed to write for at least half an hour.
Before I made this habit change, I was usually writing 500 to 1,000 words every day. But I didn’t have an exact time for when I’d do my writing, nor did I have a clear idea for what I’d be writing about. It was hit or miss, honestly. Some days I didn’t write at all. And I certainly wasn’t making daily, iterative progress on my long-term writing goals.
However, since I made this change a month ago I’ve written over 40,000 words.
40,000 words in one month.
I’m glad I decided to change my morning habits.
I still am keeping my commitment to write for 30 minutes no matter what. But those 30 minutes almost always spill over. Most days I write for 2 to 3 hours in the morning. Sometimes more. And I often spend an hour writing in the afternoon as well because I have so much momentum left over from what I began working on that morning.
This is funny to me.
Because here I am writing a book about living with diligence and focus. And yet I realized I was not being very focused with my writing habit, nor was I working with clear goals in mind. Sure, I was writing every day, but I wasn’t doing my best creative work.
All throughout my book I hit on this one very important point: focus and diligence are moving targets.
We never just “get it”. It’s something we always have to be working on, reassessing, and re-evaluating. But it’s worth the work. If we make a small change that brings us just a slight increase to our productivity and creativity, the returns we’ll get over the course of our lives will be immeasurable.
The worst assumption I could make would be that I have it all together. That I have it all worked out and never have to change my lifestyle, habits, or work routines.
If I had assumed that, then I never would have realized I’m not reaching my best potential in this season of life. By making a small change (to write for 30 minutes each morning before checking Twitter) I drastically increased the quantity and quality of my creative output every day.
They say that after the age of 30 you begin to reject new technology. The things that existed or were invented before you turned 30 you accept and adapt into your life. But the things invented after you turn 30 you reject as being crazy or evil or who knows what.
If people do that with technology how much more so with lifestyle habits and practices and workflows?
After four years of being a full-time writer, I’m glad I allow myself to reevaluate my workflows and my habits and my routines. These things just degrade over time, and so they need to be evaluated. And I need to keep learning how to do things a little bit better.
My friend, Justin Jackson, wrote an article about the potential pitfalls of following in your heroes’ footsteps. He writes:
As creators, there’s a temptation to seek out our heroes and ask them how they achieved their success. We think if we follow their instructions, we’ll be able to reproduce their winning magic.
Justin goes on to make some excellent points. We can’t follow in the footsteps of our heroes because the path has changed since they first took it. Also, their personality is different than ours. So too their circumstances — perhaps they were single with no kids when they started their company, or perhaps they were 65 when they got started.
However, there are mindsets and lifestyle commitments that we can emulate. What where the underlying principles that led them to be consistent, focused, and successful?
I think we could sum it up thusly:
A commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
A Commitment to Honesty and Clarity. This means we don’t shy away from the truth of who we want to be, where we are, where we want to go, what capacity we hold, what we want to build, and how we will build it. Don’t shy away from being honest with yourself and finding clarity about your vision, values, goals, and resources.
A Bias Toward Action: This is doing the work. Showing up every day. Focusing on what’s important but not necessarily urgent. Getting things done.
If you’re familiar with Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, you’ll see that this sums up the first three habits, but especially so the 2nd. The habit of beginning with the end in mind is all about the balance between leadership and management.
Covey writes about how things are created twice: first there is the idea and then there is the manifestation of that idea. First we build with our imagination, then we build with our hands. Both stages of “creating” are vital because we need both clarity and action.
Too much focus on ideas and we’ll never do the work. But too much focus on staying busy and we may find ourselves spinning our wheels without making progress or creating anything of value.
* * *
Coming back to Justin’s article about not following in our heroes’ footsteps. It’s true that our heroes have possibly forgotten the exact path they took (because it was 10 or 20 years ago for them), or that the landscape is different now than it was then, or just the fact that we and our heroes are alltogether different people with different life circumstances, etc.
And so, when we glean from those whom we look up to, the goal isn’t to peer over their shoulder and peek at their to-do list and their agenda. Rather, we should glean from their values, their approach to problem solving, and their work ethic.
And at the end of the day, I believe we’ll find a common denominator amongst so many of the succesful people we look up to. Those who create incredible businesses, who are prolific in their art, who serve others well:
They have a commitment to honesty and clarity, and they have a bias toward action.
* * *
Drilling down a bit further, there are more than a few lists and charts I’ve come across in the reading and study I’ve been doing for my upcoming book. And as I was comparing these lists and charts, two that have stuck out to me are Tony Robbins’ 5 questions as a way to help us with honesty and clarity and then Stephen Covey’s 7 habits as a way to help us with action.
Tony Robbins’ 5 Questions
Marc Benioff’s V2MOM method (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measurements) which are based on Tony Robbins’ five questions help us be honest.
- What do I really want? (Vision)
- What is important about it? (Values)
- How will I get it? (Methods)
- What is preventing me from having it? (Obstacles)
- How will I know I am successful? (Measurements)
Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits
Stephen Covey’s book helps us develop a lifestyle with a bias toward action. The 7 Habits are:
Be Proactive: Taking responsibility and chosing to do something with our life. A commitment to making forward progress — to just getting going. To act instead of be acted on. To cease blaming external circumstances. To be solution oriented. To focus on what we can control and what we can do something about (called our “circle of influence”).
Begin with the End in Mind: Imagination and leadership. Knowing who you want to be and what you wan to do. Also, knowing that vision isn’t enough — we also have to take those ideas and make them a reality. We have to think and act. Plan and do. The need for both leadership and management.
Put First Things First: Have a bias toward action, but have that action be in line with your vision, values, and doing important work and making progress on meaningful work.
Think Win-Win: Life is not a zero-sum game. We can put others first and serve them without endangering our own goals. Cooperation not competition.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood: It’s important to listen with the intent to understand. Don’t be selfish or narcissistic. (This is what Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is all about.)
Synergize: We go further together. Two heads are better than one. Teamwork, cooperation, open-mindedness. The differences in our peers, co-workers, and family members should be seen as strengths, not weaknesses.
Sharpen the Saw — Being commited to personal growth and renewal in the four areas of our life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.
* * *
As I mentioned above, there are so many lists and methodologies for personal growth and becoming a person who gets things done. None of them are “the only one”. There is no secret potion. Which is why I’ve been trying to see if there’s a common denominator. Is there just a simple concept or idea to keep in the front of mind as we try to stay steady in our pursuit of doing our best creative work?
I think there is. It’s having a commitment to honesty and clarity with a bias toward action.
You’d be hard pressed to find a successful musician, athlete, programmer, designer, writer, singer, or businessman who didn’t have a goal in mind and who didn’t show up every day to practice and work hard.
By the way, I just kicked off The Fight Spot newsletter — my weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.
My grandmother used to say, “don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.” Tomorrow will have enough craziness of its own, right?
All through high school and college, I pretty much lived the opposite of my grandmother’s advice. Why do now what I can put off until the very last minute?
To play devil’s advocate, in some ways putting off a project or task until the last minute can have some benefits. Eventually you’ll be forced to make a choice: are you going to do the project or not? Assuming you decide to do it, then by nature of waiting until the very last minute, you’ll be forced to focus on it (though probably immediately and under stress). But at least you’ve finally started to work on it and at least you’re focused. Right?
Meh. The disadvantages of procrastination far outweigh the (occasional, if any) advantages there may be. Chances are you’re not doing your best work because you’re feeling stressed and rushed. You have to complete the task by a certain time and so there may not be enough time to do your best work. Moreover, consider the period of procrastination and all the time that was degraded. When you’re putting a project off (deferring it with no clear plan of attack other than “later), your brain won’t let go. You’re operating at a sub-optimal capacity because you’ve got this weight of the undone project and its undefined plan of attack.
You know this. I know this. Yet still we procrastinate. Why?
Why do we procrastinate?
- Because we lack motivation.
- There are other things we’d rather be doing.
- We don’t know what the first step to get started is.
- We’re afraid.
- We’re easily distracted.
- We think we lack the resources to start / complete the task.
- The project feels overwhelming.
- We’re stubborn.
- We have a history of procrastinating and not seeing our tasks through to the end.
Surely the most common reason to procrastinate is a lack of motivation. If we were motivated (or, instead of “motivated”, use the word “excited”) to accomplish a task, then we’d be doing it.
Oftentimes it takes that looming deadline or some other external force to motivate us to finally take care of the task. Or, if it’s a task with no deadline, we may find ourselves putting it off for months, if not years. “I’ll get to it someday,” we tell ourselves.
Meanwhile, there are other things we have no trouble staying motivated to do. Such as making time to eat, sleep, be with our family, read a book, watch a movie, go to the mall, go to our job, play video games, etc. And oftentimes it is these other tasks and hobbies that we turn to when we are procrastinating. For example, instead of cleaning out the garage like we’ve been meaning to, we watch a movie. Or instead of working on the next chapter of our book, we play a video game.
How then do we beat procrastination? Is the answer to only ever work on projects we’re excited about? If you were making a living from your passion, would you never deal with procrastination again?
The adrenaline we get from fresh motivation only lasts so long. It’s awesome while it lasts, but it comes and goes. Don’t blame your tendency to procrastinate and your lack of motivation on external circumstances.
In a few weeks it will be the four-year anniversary of when I quit my job to write for a living. And just a couple days ago I was asked if I ever get tired of writing. My answer was that yes, I often get tired of writing.
When I come to the keyboard to begin writing, a million potential distractions stand at my doorstep. There are many days when I’d rather give in to one of the distractions instead of doing my writing. But I choose not to. I write when I’m tired. I write when I’m uninspired. I write when the weather outside is beautiful. I write when I’m not even sure what to write about.
I have an appointment with my keyboard every day. Every time I cancel that appointment, it becomes all the easier to cancel it again. And then again. And that, my friends, is a slippery slope.
One big myth about creativity is that it cannot be harnessed. That creative folks should float around aimlessly, waiting for the muse to show up. And while I’m all about being able to capture inspiration and ideas whenever and wherever they strike, I’m not about to let my creative life rest on the whims of the muse.
It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability.
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
Sure, inspiration often comes when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while in wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
My all-time favorite Benjamin Franklin quote is: “Little strokes fell great oaks.”
Everyone longs for major victories and big breakthroughs in their work. But those would never happen if it weren’t for the little progress we take every single day by staying committed and showing up.
In a blog post about his writing process, Seth Godin concluded with the sentiment that there is no “right way” to write. He says: “The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often.”
And, to quote Ray Bradbury: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”
Procrastination robs us of this. It keeps us from showing up every day. It tells us that instead of showing up every day, we can just cram at the last minute. It tells us that there is always tomorrow. It lies to us, saying that just because we’re ignoring this task again and again doesn’t mean we’ve quit.
The only difference between a quitter and an habitual procrastinator is that the latter is lying to herself.
If what I’m saying is true, then procrastination is perhaps the greatest enemy to producing meaningful work. Because not only does procrastination keep us from doing the work, but in so doing, it also robs us from the process of sitting down every day to be creative. It’s in the day-to-day mundane and difficult work of showing up that our ideas take shape and take flight. It’s in that place that our skills are forged bit by bit.
The path to success (both in our career and in accomplishing our life goals) is rarely glamorous. It’s usually mundane and repetitive. Underachievers will waste their time daydreaming about when their big break will come while they procrastinate doing work they don’t see as important.
Meanwhile, true achievers will do the work, day in and day out, with vision and strategy. I once read that successful people don’t work harder than unsuccessful people; they work much, much harder
Procrastination left unchecked gains momentum
The longer you put something off the easier it becomes. And that unchecked procrastination bleeds over into the other areas of our life.
People who are disciplined with their finances are usually disciplined with their time and diet as well. Having structure and focus in one area of our life gives us clarity and momentum to bring structure to the other areas of our life.
Inversely, when we are unstructured and lacking discipline in one area, that lack of discipline will bleed over to other areas of our life.
Which is why procrastination is far more lethal that we think. By procrastinating, we are lying to ourselves. We say we’ll do something, but when the time comes, we don’t. We put it off.
Breaking your own commitment to yourself causes your subconscious to distrust your conscious. Our personal integrity is eroded just a little bit every time we defer a task, snooze the alarm, or cancel an appointment. Thus, making it increasingly more difficult to follow through with your self-assigned goals, plans, and tasks.
Making consistent progress on our goals is as easy (and difficult) as eating healthy, exercising, and living within our means. Anybody can do it, but most people don’t.
Regaining your personal integrity
Here is a paraphrased excerpt from a book I read years ago that changed my life. The book is by Peter J. Daniels, titled How to Be Motivated All the Time.
This is from the chapter on Deep Personal Integrity (emphasis mine):
“If you are having difficulty in staying motivated all the time, examine closely your personal integrity. Root out past and present commitments you have made and ask yourself the question, ‘Would I treat another person with the same level of integrity I display toward myself?’ My guess is that we treat other people with much more commitment and integrity!
“One of the major reasons we do not remain motivated all the time is we do not retain integrity towards ourselves in the same measure as we do towards others. Highly motivated people are those who keep commitments to others, but who also keep commitments to themselves. That is why they always look and sound so confident and why they achieve and keep on achieving.
“We are good at justifying in the moment when we don’t want to do something.
“When you make a commitment to yourself you decide on a change of attitude. In effect you announce to your whole being that you are going to do something which requires total attention and help. But if you renege on your commitment, in effect you prevent all your conscious and subconscious faculties from completing the task and render them useless. What happens then is, that next time you become excited about the possibilities of a project and make a commitment, your subconscious responses will be slightly slower and less enthusiastic than before. It is as if they remember the previous broken commitments, consider the new project may not be fulfilled and decide that full effort is not required.
“If you continually break commitments you almost bind yourself totally from completing anything because there is no track record of success in your subconscious.
“If it helps, make less commitments to yourself but follow through completely on even the most frivolous. It’s not so stupid to start by placing your shoes in exactly the same position each night without fail. Do this irrespective of what time you get home or how you feel from one day to the next. As crazy as this seems it will actually increase your sense of integrity. You will prove to yourself that you can keep a long-term commitment at the most menial level.”
The difference between motivation and work ethic
The answer for beating procrastination won’t ultimately be found by changing your external circumstances. Now, there are things you can change to help you stay focused (such as quitting the Twitter app when you’re trying to write). And there are certain distractions you can remove altogether (such as giving up television). However, these changes in and of themselves are not the ultimate answer. They can be powerful and helpful, but at the end of the day, overcoming procrastination is about building up a strong work ethic towards the tasks and projects you’re prone to put off.
Showing up every day is hard, hard work. Once the honeymoon phase of a fresh idea is over we’re faced with the reality that we have a lot of difficult and mundane, work to do. If I were to only do the work when I felt excited, then I’d have a hundred half-started projects sitting around and zero completed ones.
For me, the best part of a project is everything before and after. I love to dream and brainstorm about it. And I love it when I’m done. But the whole part in-between — the actual doing of the project — that’s hard work.
But the hard work is the only part that counts. By making a habit of showing up to do the work every day, you build a resistance to the mundaneness of it. And eventually it just becomes part of what you do every day. You don’t have waste energy thinking about if you’re going to show up or not, you just do. And,in the words of President Obama, that routinization helps you focus your decision-making energy for the work and choices that matter most.
How to overcome procrastination
With all that said, here are some ways to help overcome procrastination. Perhaps you’re a habitual procrastinator. Perhaps there’s just that one project you’ve been putting off. Or maybe it’s just various things here and there, and you want to get better at completing your tasks in a timely and disciplined manner.
If so, consider one or more of these different approaches to help overcome procrastination.
Set an appointment: Do you know when you’re next going to work on your project? You don’t find time, you make it. Set a daily or weekly appointment with yourself. Tell your spouse about it. Now, that is the time slot when you’ll work on that project. Honor that appointment just as much as you would if it were with someone else.
Plan first, act later. If you already have a time set aside for when you show up to do the work but often find that you lack inspiration when it’s time to work because each time you sit down you first have to think of what the next action step is, you’ll just get discouraged. Consider having a separate time for planning from the time when you are doing the work on a project. Come up with the ideas and action steps elsewhere and then when you sit down to do the work, you’ve already identified what you need to do.
Get accountable: Having accountability goes a long way in helping us keep our commitments. (This is why we finally stop procrastinating at the last minute, because we’re accountable to the deadline.) Some ways you can be accountable include putting yourself into a position of leadership and responsibility where others are counting on you to get the job done; get an accountability partnership where your peers are asking you about the progress you’re making; make a public commitment on your social network, blog, etc. and state what you’re doing and what the timeframe is.
Set the initial bar of quality low: Give yourself permission to produce a crappy first draft or to have a bunch of horrible ideas right off the bat. This is one of my most important “tricks” — I allow my first draft to be the child’s draft. The point is to show up and write. And then I know I can edit and iterate on my article later. But if I wait to write until I can say it just perfectly, I’ll never get it done.
Delegate or delete: If there is a task or project you’ve been continually putting off, try to delegate if you you can. Or, if it’s something you don’t have to do, consider just dropping it altogether. If it’s important, it will re-surface. And it’s better to be honest with yourself (and others) that you’re not going to get to the project than it is to keep putting it off.
Clean your workspace when you’re done: That way, when it’s next time to do the work, there are no distractions or road blocks standing in your way. You have a tidy workspace and you know what next you need to work on. Then, when you’re done working, clean up again so you’re ready for the next time.
Make a lifestyle change: Even a temporary one. Eliminate the most common distraction sinks from your life. Say to yourself: “I don’t play video games.” Or, “I don’t go to the movies.” Or, “I’m not on Facebook.” Or, “I don’t check Twitter or email before lunch.” Now stick with it.
Act fast on your ideas: Seize that initial wave of motivation and momentum. Ideas demise over time; act on them and begin iterating as fast as you can. Set milestones which can be accomplish in a week’s time or less, and work toward that goal riding the adrenaline for 5-7 days. Then, set the next milestone and repeat.
Track your small wins every day: By recognizing and logging the daily progress you’re making on your work, you’re able to see the small victories you make each day. You realize that you are making progress on meaningful work. This increases your morale and momentum — contributing to a healthy inner work life — and thus gives you a boost in your ability to be more productive and creative.
By the way, a version of this article was sent out this morning to The Fight Spot newsletter — my new, weekly email about creativity, focus, and risk.
If you want to stay in the loop with the creativity and productivity-centric writing I’m doing (as well as be notified when my new book comes out, The Power of a Focused Life), then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.