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 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, then joining the email list is one of the best ways to be notified.