Okay, it’s been a while since my last article – still, that’s appropriate since we’re discussing procrastination.
Anyway, last time, we looked at how and why your instincts can cause you to procrastinate. Today we’ll look at what you can do to get things done and reduce the time you spend procrastinating.
Once you’ve started putting off a task, pretty much the only way your instincts will help you do it is if you get thrown into a ‘fight’ response. This isn’t great because you’re either taking out your frustration on someone else – “OKAY! Shut up. I’ll do it, okay!” – or on yourself – “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I adult? Everyone else can!”
Fortunately, there are tactics you can use that will get you past the emotional barriers between you and completing the task.
The first way is to change your emotional state. The barrier between you and doing the task is emotional, so changing things relating to your emotions can help you get past the barrier.
Things that cause dopamine – music, novel experiences, positive associations, exercising before you want to work. You can ride that dopamine wave to get past the barrier, and hopefully, you’ll be on a roll with the task by the time the dopamine peters out.
The other method is to try and reduce the barrier itself rather than get past it. It’s probably not as efficient for getting the thing done this time, but if you can whittle down the barrier a bit, that will hopefully lead to it being a bit smaller the next time you have to do something similar. And the time after that, and the time after that.
So, for things that are a one-off and you don’t regularly need to do anything like it, probably you just want to find a way through the barrier. But for things you do semi-regularly need to get done, shrinking the barrier is a better tactic long-term.
Going ‘through’ the barrier
So, as I said before, going through the barrier is all about finding something that can help you get through it by changing your emotional state.
There are several ways to approach this.
Put your brain in work mode
You should do something that acts like a ‘pre-match’ ritual before attempting to work. Create a set of actions that keys your subconscious into ‘work mode’ and do them whenever you’re about to start work.
- Sitting down somewhere that you only sit at when you’re working.
- Playing a specific piece of music while thinking about your intention to work. (While this is to set your mind into ‘work mode’, you could also have some music you only listen to while working to try and keep it there).
- Planning out what you need to accomplish and how you’re going to approach it.
- Thinking about all the times you’ve done well with similar tasks.
- Anything else you can think of that you can learn to associate with switching into the right frame of mind.
The key here is to create the ritual and then stick to it. The more you get used to doing it every time you start work (yes, even after a break), the more reliable it’ll be as a signal for your brain to start working.
Give yourself a kickstart
Another option is to do things that give you a little burst of neurochemicals to help you overcome the difficulty of getting started.
- Do some exercise just before starting to work.
- Eating something nice, maybe even having something to snack on while working (this one’s not so good for watching your weight).
- Thinking about all the times you’ve done well with similar tasks before starting (yes, that was in the previous list).
- Set a goal for the session and a time to achieve it, plus a possible reward – if you meet the goal in time, you get to roll a die, where a roll of ‘6’ means you get the prize (surprisingly, the chance of a reward works better than automatically getting it, and it allows you to give yourself bigger things).
- Or anything else you can think of that’ll get you fired up in a positive mood and eager to attack the task at hand.
Make it more pleasant
The final option for breaking through the barrier is to make the time more pleasant.
- Play some music you like (but nothing distracting – lo-fi, classical music, and other instrumental things are often good choices – but anything you like works as long as you don’t find yourself not working because you’re thinking about the song or too busy singing along to it).
- Working in a coffee shop or library, so you don’t feel like you’re locked away on your own (this doesn’t work so well if you’re easily distracted).
- Doing just about anything else that won’t distract you but will make things a little more pleasant.
Reducing the barrier
Getting through the barrier is fantastic, it actually gets us doing the action we want, but it’s short-term. It can only work long-term if the same trick keeps working for that task.
For example, maybe you’re someone who finds writing in a coffee shop helps (it totally doesn’t for me, I get way too distracted). If so, you can go to a coffee shop any time you need to get writing. Great, right?
Well, yes. You could definitely do all your writing there, but it doesn’t help you to write at home. Plus, frequently spending all day in a coffee shop can get expensive. If you could break down the barrier so that you can do your writing at home, that would be more convenient and cheaper.
How do we start reducing the barrier? Well, by looking at the negative feelings it’s made out of.
Make sure you’re properly prepared
If you feel like it’s going to take ages, the next time you do something similar, time it. It might not take as long as you think it will, so by being aware of that. Some people (especially those with ADHD, but others too) look at how big the barrier between them and a task is and associate that with how long it’ll take. So maybe you think something will take all day, but when you think back to times you’ve done it before, it’s actually more like a couple of hours.
Another thing that can help is planning the task properly. Sometimes one of the things getting between you and the task is that it’s too vague, so you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Other times, it’s that the task is intimidatingly big and needs to be broken down into smaller actions. So, by planning properly, you can make sure everything on your ‘to-do’ list is specific enough that you know what you need to do and is an appropriate size to be tackled in one go.
You need all your tasks to be clear so you know what you’re doing, and you need to know what ‘done’ will look like. You also need to make sure that the task is what you want to get done at once. “Write novel” is a terrible task to have on your list, but “Outline chapter 2 (based on the plan for the whole book)” or “Write 1500 words” are both much better.
Don’t get suckered into ‘all or nothing’ thinking here. If something is more of a project than a task, break it down into smaller tasks.
Give yourself time to switch gears
Another thing that can be useful is to allow time for transitions. Some people are great at shifting from one task to another, but others need more time to shift gears. A commute can be really useful for this, but coffee breaks, lunchtime, and other natural gaps can also help. Use that time to think about the task, get past the initial burst of anxiety without feeling you should be actually doing anything, and plan how you will start.
Do a ‘post-mortem’.
Something else that’s really useful is to take a look at how things went with difficult tasks:
- Did things go how you wanted?
- What did work?
- What didn’t work?
- What should you be proud of?
This kind of reflection helps you learn and gives you strategies for next time. Don’t forget, when looking at what didn’t work, don’t beat yourself up (this is reflection, not self-flagellation); you’re looking for things you can learn from rather than things to blame yourself for.
This kind of post-mortem can help you feel and be more prepared for next time. Some people don’t like doing it because it feels like a waste of time if you’re not used to doing it. However, let’s say it takes you half an hour to do a post-mortem on a task that you think needs one. If that breaks down the barrier enough that I start the task five minutes earlier next time, and I’ve learnt enough that I get it done in five minutes less time, then that means it’ll take ten minutes less from starting to psyche myself up to finishing. So, I’ll only need to do the task three more times to save the time I spent thinking about it.
Another good technique is meditation. Meditation is all about refocusing your mind and your attention. With practice, meditation will help you regulate your emotions in real life and be better able to focus on the things you want to.
However, forgiveness is the most important thing for reducing the scale of your barriers to getting things done.
When you judge yourself, when you listen to others judging you, that builds up those negative emotions. Instead, come from a place of compassion and empathy. Reframe your failures:
- Does it give you new opportunities?
- Are you stronger from it?
- Have you learnt from it?
- Was it actually a failure, or did it just turn out differently than you expected?
This doesn’t mean you should be blind to your flaws, but it does mean that you don’t dwell on them. Instead, think of how you’re working to reduce those flaws, think of ways that are more suitable to your talents, and take the mistakes and criticisms as things you can learn from, not signs you’re a terrible person. Forgive people who are harsh with you, but most importantly forgive yourself.
Everyone makes mistakes. Everybody has something they’re not so good at. This is normal, don’t make your life hell because of it.
Procrastination happens, but there are ways to deal with it.
Short-term, you can deal with it by:
- Putting your brain in ‘work mode’, so your subconscious knows you should be working.
- Give yourself a kickstart to help get you going in the first place.
- Make it more pleasant, so it’s not so scary and easier to put up with.
- Make sure you’re properly prepared for the task and know what you need to do (or what you need to do now if it’s something you won’t finish today).
- Make sure you’ve had enough time to transition from whatever you were doing before so your brain isn’t stuck thinking about the previous thing.
Long-term, you can make procrastination less likely by:
- Creating a ritual to help put your brain in work mode.
- Making sure you’re properly prepared and plan your tasks properly.
- Giving yourself time in your schedule to switch gears between tasks.
- Doing a ‘post-mortem’ of your tasks and projects so that you can do similar things better next time.
- Practising mindfulness and being willing to forgive your mistakes and learn from them rather than beating yourself up about them.
Do you have anything you do to help beat procrastination? If so, I’d love to hear from you.