You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.— Abraham Lincoln
How often do you find yourself procrastinating by, say, watching YouTube or Netflix instead of what you must actually do?
And how often do you scorn yourself for being lazy?
The good news is that procrastination doesn’t have to do anything with laziness. The reason people indulge in the vicious cycle of chronic procrastination is the negative emotions — boredom, fear, anxiety, etc. — looming around the task they have to do.
Thus, the definite formula for overcoming procrastination is shrinking or short-circuiting the negative emotions around the task and taking the first steps.
There are many hacks — I’ve learned from the titans —which precisely focus on bursting the bubble of negative emotions and pushing you to get started.
Without further procrastination, let’s delve in.
1. Divide and Conquer
Fear or ambiguity are two other negative feelings that are like rocket fuel procrastination. When you ponder the immensity of the task you want to do — say finishing up your academic paper — it would ignite anxiety within you which is enough guide to binge-watching Netflix.
In such occasions, the best technique is to start very, very small. I mean embarrassingly small.
If writing a 200+ thesis manuscript feels your anxiety, just settle on writing one page. Still stressed? Go for one paragraph.
I once decided to do 20 push-ups every morning. I failed many times. The only reason I could finally do it persistently was that mentally, I decided to do just one push-up every day.
Once you start, you will gain momentum and continuing from there would be almost effortless.
Pro tip: Make the first step embarrassingly small.
2. Do Not Get Started
I learned this hack from the legendary writer, Neil Gaiman.
To make sure he gets his writings done, Gaiman always puts himself into the dichotomy of either writing or not doing anything at all.
Ironically, a potent way to dismantle procrastination is not to do anything at all when you feel the resistance. The reason is that if you engage in an activity — not related to what you must do — you beguile your subconscious mind into believing that you are being productive.
When deadlines are dangling in front of you, you feel “positive” stress (called eustress). The problem with being busy with an irrelevant activity is that it numbs this positive stress that would compel you to work otherwise.
So, for the next time, promise yourself that you would either do the work or you will not do anything at all. You may stare at the wall in front of you, meditate, or take a brief walk. But you may not do anything rewarding or distracting. In the words of my beloved guru:
Focus on being productive instead of busy. — Tim Ferriss
3. Establish a Ritual
A dear one told me: “When I want to procrastinate on working, I start cleaning out everything around me.” I asked her if she ends up actually working after she’s done the cleaning. Yes, she replied.
Then I told her: “cleaning up is not procrastination in your case, it’s your ritual to getting started.”
When you repeatedly do a series of routines — let’s call them rituals — before you start to work, your brain learns to associate that ritual to starting to work.
And here’s what happens when your brain makes this association (which takes a couple of weeks): as soon as you start your ritual, your brain’s state shifts into the working mode.
How can you exploit it to overcome procrastination?
When you don’t feel like doing what you must do, simply start your ritual. This ritual will immediately give you the comfortable state of mind that you need to start working.
I have a very simple ritual of mine in which I also have embedded several productivity hacks:
- I write down my time block window e.g. 8:00–10:00 — during which I isolate myself from any distractions.
- I write down what I want to accomplish. e.g. Finish writing the draft.
- I shoot up my working music — a single song on repeat.
- I start my Pomodoro timer — set in front of me.
- And, I start to work.
Whenever I don’t feel like working, all I need to do is stepping through my ritual.
Your ritual can be far simpler than mine. I have a friend who’s ritual is counting from five to zero (I guess she’s inspired by Mel Robbins’s five-second rule.)
Designing this ritual is up to you, but here are some ideas:
- Brew a cup of coffee (or any special tea of your taste) before you start working.
- Clean out your desk.
- Write down three mini-tasks that should be completed
4. Listen to an Uplifting Music
Absence of joy or enough stimulant in the task, spark a profound resistance in you. In other words, if you find a task boring, you would most certainly prefer watching Netflix.
So, spicing up things a little provides enough excitement for you to be willing to tackle the task.
A marvelous hack I use is shooting up a piece of badass music that would lift my spirit.
It has almost never failed me. That is why it’s also part of my ritual. Often times simply starting the music is enough for me to get started.
5. Turn to Your Friend and Say: “I have to get X done, if in Y hours I still haven’t done this, kick my ass.”
We choose to go to the Moon— John F. Kennedy
This is the classic technique of using peer pressure or holding yourself accountable to an external source.
Walter Mischel — author of the book The Marshmallow Test — used it to quit smoking, by telling everyone around him: “I’m about to quit.”
John F. Kennedy used it to make the US be the first country to land on the moon where he publicly announced: “We choose to go to the Moon.”
Holding yourself accountable is a serious thing. I have decided to do 72-hours fasting every season.
To make sure I hold up to it, I let everyone (my colleagues, close friends, family, etc.) around me to know exactly when I’m going on the fast.
6. Go For a Quick And Intense Run
The sneaky boredom that I mentioned earlier is both a psychological and biological state. You can immediately alter this dull state into a vibrant one by increasing your heart rate.
An intense run is one way to do it.
This is the technique that the mighty Tim Ferriss uses to pierce through procrastination.
If, like me, you don’t have a treadmill at home or running around the block is not convenient for you, 10–20 push-ups would do the trick.
Procrastination is a devil that hunts everyone. If you do not learn how to battle this devil, it can take your loftiest dreams into the grave.
I shared 6 hacks in this article which I have found effective. Consider them as an arsenal of weapons. Chose your’s and as Epictetus once said: Go to war.
I would like to end this article with an excerpt from a masterpiece by Seneca — On the shortness of life:
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested… So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it. — Seneca