Beating procrastination with these 4 simple (but hard) techniques
Have you ever been stuck with some external deadline creeping in on you, unable to make any progress?
Or simply inventing all kinds of BS reasons and activities just to avoid the one useful thing you could be doing?
Yeah, me neither. I never once washed the dishes instead of doing the taxes. </sarcasm>
This post describes what I do when I have enough wits about me to recognize that I’m (again) knee deep in this rut, standing head-to-head with Resistance1.
And I recognize that the ‘Net is filled with tons of self-help, from various gurus. Be warned: I’m not a guru. This isn’t some fool proof method; it’s not even original. Your mileage may vary. And that’s not incense.2
Ignoring all the things that did not work, these are the ones that keep working for me:
- “I’ll just casually look at it for 3 minutes… and if I don’t like it, I’ll quit”
- Reframing: Turning the ominous black cloud into little fluffy clouds
- Morning pages: have a routine no matter what
- Chunk the task (divide and conquer)
I’ll talk expand on each:
I’ll just casually look at it for 3 minutes…
The thinking behind this one is tricking my monkey brain by using a bit of bait and switch. By saying that I’ll just casually look at the sucky task for a few minutes and can quit afterwards if I still don’t feel like digging in.
In all honesty, I’m still baffled that this works despite me knowing that I’m lying to myself. But the power of momentum is usually on my side, so after three minutes… I warmed up a bit, and can sustain digging in further. And more often than not, I end up accomplishing something of substance.3
And if this technique doesn’t work out? Well, what’s three minutes “wasted” in between washing the dishes and reorganizing my book collection alphabetically?
I’m still very fresh to reframing, but it goes like this:
I visualize the task as an ominous black cloud just out on the horizon. Big, towering, scary. And I let that really sink in.
Then I transmute it into little fluffy clouds in a blue summer sky. Same task, different look. A change of clothes, if you will. Let that new image firmly etch in your mind.
Sounds like total new age bullshit, right?
Indeed it does.
But a few times just this exercise got me unstuck and moving, despite having a bad mood about the whole project just minutes before.
Basically – change your mood about the thing, change the outcome.
Morning pages is a practice popularized by Julia Cameron. The idea is to write three pages of virtually anything (stream of consciousness style), first thing in the morning.
But while that is an excellent idea in itself, it’s not directly helpful if you’re supposed to deliver a piece of code, a CAD design, or a design doc.
My derivative: just spend 30-60 minutes working on your longer-term project, first thing in the morning. Before your consciousness has time to fully boot up and tell you how idiotic the thing you’re working on is.
Chunk the task
At the risk of being captain obvious – sometimes I found myself procrastinating on a project because I perceive it as ominously big and under-defined. Maybe even unconsciously so.
So while the reframing takes care of my feelings about the task, actually splitting the task to smaller (more digestible) chunks helps to avoid unproductive thrashing and cognitive overload4.
Divide and conquer, eh?
At the risk of coming across very guru-y now, here’s what IMO makes these things tick.
I think it boils down to two principles:
- Changing the frame of reference
- Establishing a habit
Changing the frame of reference is IMO behind all but “Morning pages”. Either you change your feelings/view of the task, or you change the task definition itself.
Establishing a habit is another powerful tool. I’m betting you don’t doubt this; if you do, go through your morning routine (or perhaps just the shower) using the opposite hand than the one you usually use. Much ink has been spilled on the topic of habit formation, so I’ll leave it at that.
I’m uneasy posting this. It seems too simple, deeply in the “captain obvious” territory.
But – I’m also writing this mostly for my own reference. So I have a place to turn next time I conveniently “forget” what these techniques were5.
Speaking of Resistance, do yourself a favor and read Pressfield’s “The War of Art”. And you can thank Steven later. ↩
I’ll buy an ebook version of The War of Art to the first person who can be bothered to email me and correctly “place” that reference. ↩
Say, at least a non-technical blog post when I feel like I’m stuck with nothing worthy of a post right now. ↩
Stuffing too many things at once in my head, said in a fancy way. ↩
My capacity to self-bullshit knows no bounds. And a checklist helps. ↩