procrastination

How to Break Procrastination With Just a Journal

I recently stumbled across a little anti-procrastination trick that has been working surprisingly well for me.

To briefly set the stage, I occasionally find myself procrastinating on some major projects that require constant effort to keep moving forward. They aren't the type of project that can be knocked off with a long weekend of work and some reason I keep finding myself unable to work on them. It's not a problem of motivation -- these projects are something I care deeply about. It's not a problem of not knowing what to do next -- I'm pretty neurtoic about making sure my to-do list is filled with truly concrete next action steps. I couldn't figure it out.


I carry a hard cover medium-sized notebook with me everywhere I go. I decided that instead of bashing my head against the procrastination wall every time I struggled to work on something, I'd write in my journal instead. I think my brain immediately latched onto the idea because it gave me a seemingly productive task to do ("Procrastinating? What?! I'm writing! Look at my hand go!") even though it wasn't what I wassupposed to be doing.

What I quickly discovered, though, was two things. First, writing in my journal while I was procrastinating often uncovered interesting data on myself about what triggers my procrastination. I've come to a couple realizations about my work, ranging from understanding my next action weren't quite right, that I needed to delegate a task to someone else, or I actually needed more information before I could move on. Instead of sitting at my desk feeling badly about how little work I was doing (and not really knowing why), writing in my journal helped me better understand where my procrastination was coming from.

The other benefit to writing in my journal each time I found myself procrastinating was the fact that very often I jolted myself out of my procrastination just by writing about it. I'd find myself writing about the project I couldn't get going on and excuses would start flowing out of my pen. Very quickly I'd realize that those excuses were terrible and that procrastinating on a project you truly care about just because it's hard or big is one of the most immature things you can do. I think I essentially shamed myself out of procrastinating more than half of the times I started writing in my journal.

The way I see it, it's a win-win situation. If you don't outright break through the procrastination just in the act of writing out your thoughts about why you're procrastinating, you've at least gathered valuable data on yourself. Over time you'll collect more data and specific patterns may emerge. Once you've identified a pattern then you can take steps to change your work habits, projects, -- whatever it is your pattern of data suggests -- to break your procrastination.

It's a simple idea, but the next time you find yourself procrastinating just start stream-of-consciousness writing about it. You might be surprised how so simple an activity can have huge results.

Photo by [E]mmanuel17

Distraction is Procrastination

Procrastination is often more about distraction than anything else. When you are easily distracted, or there are many things that can distract you nearby, it is easy to procrastinate. With the new year I'm sure many people will be resolving to stop procrastinating. Whether that means your job, school work, or other tasks you need to get done but can't seem to sit down and do, procrastination is a killer. Instead of resolving to end your procrastination, try resolving to eliminate distractions instead. In my experience, distractions are the true culprit. If you've trained your mind and prepared your environment, the distractions are removed and the procrastination seems to fade away.

What distracts you? When you sit down to do some serious work, what do you find yourself doing instead? My biggest distractions come to the fore when I try to write. My biggest ones are:

  • The need for order: If I sit down to do something that is not particularly easy (like write a blog post or prepare a lesson plan) I immediately seem to realize that my surroundings are out of order. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't bother me too much that my books are not in alphabetical order or my pens are not arranged in my drawer by level of remaining ink. As soon as I sit down to write, however, I have an incredible (and utterly useless) urge to clean, organize or put things in order. It never fails.
  • Perfectionism: How can I expect to write an article when I haven't picked the perfect title?! How am I supposed to plan a lesson on World War II if I haven't found the perfect opening question or activity?! I can't use this PowerPoint presentation because all of the pictures are not perfectly aligned! That battle between attention to detail and perfectionism is one that quite often will stymie me from doing anything particularly productive. Breaking out of that commitment to perfectionism is incredibly important to getting anything done.
  • My own inadequacies: Writing for this blog has made this a new distraction for me. I've always been pretty good at the things I try to do. I was a pretty good hockey player. I was an excellent student. However, I've never written for an audience (even the small one I've been able to accumulate at this blog). How can I sit down and write about this stuff when a.) I'm not very good at the stuff I write about (even though I think about it a lot and try to implement it) and b.) there are so many other blogs out there with huge readerships and really interesting things to say. 
  • The need for constant new information: This might be the number one distraction that constantly begs for my attention. Checking email, checking my RSS feeds, Twitter, instant messaging, and news websites all provide little shots of stimulation that aren't particularly important but take up an disproportionate amount of my time. One of the biggest "tips" that I've discovered I need to do to do anything particularly productive or difficult is to turn all of that off. All of it. No texting, no Twitter, no email, nothing. Breaking the hold that these services have over my attention is something that I work on everyday. Anything that breaks up your attention is something that takes away from you doing truly great and important work. It's tough, but get rid of it as much as possible. 

Lastly, I realize the irony of writing an article about distraction when the chances are  I'm distracting you by writing this article.  Please forgive me for taking a few minutes of your time. However, if this has gotten you to think a little bit more about the role distractions play in your work, I think this initial time investment might be worth it. Now stop being distracted and go do what you know you're supposed to do!

 

Attention to Detail vs. The Curse of Perfectionism

Originally I was going to write an article about how paying attention to detail and "going the extra mile" is a fairly simple way to make yourself stick out from the crowd. I still believe this, but I realized that it is a more complex issue than I initially thought. As with almost anything in life, there is a delicate balance between two extremes that must be negotiated. Attention to detail vs. the curse of perfectionism, a battle royale for information workers everywhere!

People like to be recognized for hard work. Everyone has their own reason for working hard, whether it be in the hopes of a promotion, to impress someone, or because of their own innate desire to do good work. Whatever the motivation, good work is the goal. In an environment where you might be vying for attention or prestige, taking the time to pay attention to the details of your work can be what separates you from the pack. When I student taught, I tried to make sure that all of the handouts I made for my students, all the presentations that I gave, and all the homework I assigned were free from grammatical and typographical errors and were very well formatted. When I was a student, I was always annoyed to receive a worksheet with a spelling error on it or when I had to look at a PowerPoint slide that looked like it was thrown together by a 2nd grader. I think these transgressions, albeit minor, really give off a sentiment of carelessness by the teacher. The last thing I want my students to think is that I'm careless or sloppy in my own preparation. How can I demand top-notch work from them if I can't demand top-notch work from myself?

However, this can be a dangerous and slippery slope. While attention to detail is important, obsession to detail is self-defeating. The saying, "The enemy of the good is the perfect," fits this concept very well. How many times have you been afraid to start a project because you got bogged down by the details? Have you ever had to write a paper and spent more than two seconds thinking about a title before having even typed a sentence? Or, on the flip side of that, have you ever felt like a project wasn't finished because you just had "one more little thing" to do to it?

I quickly discovered while I was student teaching that at some point I just had to admit to myself that my lesson might not be as perfect as I wanted it, but it would be suitable. I always wanted to add a couple more pictures to a slideshow, or look up a couple more facts for my lecture, or change the wording on my worksheets a little bit more. It was tough for me to admit that I would never create the perfect class materials, just like I would never be the perfect teacher or perfect anything else-- and that's OK.

So, how can I sit here in good conscience and tell you to pay attention to the details in order to stand out while simultaneously stating that striving for perfection is folly? I don't pretend to know where that equilibrium between the two extremes lies. I think I am constantly finding out for myself. Sometimes I feel like I should have spent more time on something, and sometimes I feel like I passed the "sweet spot" on a project several hours earlier. However, if you keep these two conflicting principles in mind I think you are much more likely to come closer to that ultimate balance.

 

Future Me Is Awesome

There is somebody in my life who I think very highly of. I think he has more money, is better looking, has a better job, more self-discipline, and more interesting hobbies than myself. He's always the life of the party and the driving force of any intellectual conversation. Most importantly, I think he is able to finish incredible amounts of work with the greatest of ease. He's kind of like Superman minus the crippling geologic allergy.

MEET FUTURE SAM

Future Sam is awesome. In fact, I think he is so awesome that I often leave important decisions for him to decide. Future Sam will know what to do so I just ignore the troubling situation. Writing this article is hard and time consuming -- I know, Future Sam will do it! Going for a run is tiring and inconvenient. It's ok though, because Future Sam is in excellent shape. As you can see, Future Sam is a pretty incredible dude.

The problem, however, is that I've never actually met Future Sam. I thought we had an appointment set a couple times but each time he flaked out. It always seems like I'll be meeting Future Sam soon, but never today. He must be a pretty busy guy, considering how much stuff I keep delegating to him. I can understand why he wouldn't be able to meet me for lunch next week. I'm starting to get a little bit worried, though.

THE FALLIBILITY OF "FUTURE ME"?

People keep telling me that Future Sam is getting pretty run down. He's overworked, under respected, and utterly exhausted. They have to be wrong, right? If Future Sam isn't going to do it, who is going to do all this work that I keep putting off? If Future Sam ceases to exist, does that mean I need to start making decisions now?

They've got to be wrong. Future Sam is out there and as healthy as ever. But, just in case, maybe I should lighten his load a little bit. Maybe I should stop putting complete and utter faith into his ability to be everything that I'm currently not. I'm sure Future Sam would appreciate that.

I think Right Now Sam is feeling a little unloved recently. He doesn't like being lazy and unproductive either and is eager to increase his responsibilities. He's not nearly as awesome as Future Sam, but I think I should probably give him a shot. What do you think?

Have you met Future You, yet? Is he or she nearly as awesome as you assume? Any chance you could do something to make Right Now You a little bit more like the fictional Future You?

 

Breaking the Alliance of Perfection and Procrastination

It seems like every Sunday night I tweet something that surprises me. For whatever reason, maybe it’s the opportunity to relieve my mind of work stress or the fact that I’m well rested, Sunday evenings seem to be a time when ideas form. The tweet of notice this week was when I said something along the lines of, “The level of perfection I expect from an endeavor is directly proportional to how long I've been procrastinating. Therein lies the problem.” Those two sentences sum up a phenomenon that I’ve struggled with for years (other than the fact that I evidently like to quote myself) —- and I’m sure I’m not alone.

SELF-PERPETUATING PROCRASTINATION

I can currently think of at least three projects that are languishing in stagnation due to the massive levels of procrastination I’ve permitted myself to allow to grow (one of which is this article). The longer I stay away from a project the larger the expectations I have once I finally turn my attention back to it. And the problem is that this attitude is completely and utterly self-perpetuating. Who wants to work on something that has been built up to such monumental levels that you're positive you can never reach that level? It’s surely easier to keep procrastinating and thinking about how awesome something is going to be once you finally start working on it than it is to actually get down and dirty with the act of creating.

BEING AFRAID IS EASIER THAN FACING THE FEAR

This phenomenon grows like a snug blanket of mold insulating last week’s yogurt in the back of the fridge. You’re not about to scrape that fuzzy layer off tomorrow’s breakfast. But how many of us leave that strange science experiment marinating in the back of the fridge? How often do we take the time to admit that we messed up by not eating it before it went bad and just toss it in the trash? Every once in a while we get fed up with the detritus and clutter and clear out the fridge — but why do we even let it get that far?

Fuzzy kitchen metaphor aside, how many projects have you not touched in weeks because you’re afraid of what you might find? I tremble when I pop the top off that Tupperware I forgot I owned hidden behind the jelly just like when I brush off the e-book draft of that has sat dormant for the last 5 months. The only way to break the cycle is to remove all expectations for the work — and just work.

BREAKING ALLIANCES

This post may not represent the best writing I’ve ever done. I can accept that. But if I only wrote when my best writing was boiling just below the surface I would very rarely “make the clackity noise”. If I only published what I believed to be my most inspired, my most world-changing writing, then this would be an empty blog.

What it comes down to is breaking the alliance between the Perfectionist and the Procrastinator within my own mind. On a good day they are mortal enemies, but if I'm feeling particularly stuck it usually means I need to root out the unholy partnership they formed while I was busy fretting about the work I wasn't doing.

Dominate Your Laziness Today

You aren't stuck because you're afraid.

Every personal development blogger has written about fear. The fear of succeeding, the fear of failing in public, the fear of being laughed at, the fear of failing, the fear of being afraid. Evidently there is a lot of fear in the personal development community. I'm not going to throw my hat into the fray because I think there is a different explanation as to why people don't accomplish the things they think they want; laziness.

Being afraid removes the responsibility of action. Everybody knows what it's like to be afraid and therefore we can easily empathize with somebody who is fearful. Fear has evolved for a pretty excellent reason, keeping us alive. Thousands of years ago, if you were a fearless human you were probably a dead human as well. Nowadays, people let fear, or what we seem to be describing as fear, keep them from doing awesome things with their lives. Every time I've found myself thinking about why I'm not doing more to move my goals forward or why I seem stuck in a rut, I never think about being afraid. Fear is a function of a dangerous environment and frankly, I don't face much nowadays that is particularly dangerous. In fact, my problem is that I spend a lot of time in extremely comfortable situations. My apartment is cozy. I have some hot coffee by my side. I have enough money to feed myself. Life isn't THAT hard right now. And so, I get lazy. I don't accomplish things, I don't push myself and most importantly, I'm definitely not afraid.

My hypothesis is that you feel lazy a lot more often than you feel afraid. It's OK to admit it. I know I felt a lot better once I realized all of these articles about conquering my fear didn't seem to apply to me. The question, however, is how can I overcome the laziness and use my time most effectively as much as possible? In my experience, these five things are helpful tips to try:

  1. Get started on something, anything: Motivation seems to be an incredibly inertial beast. It's hard as hell to get moving, but once you get that sucker moving, look out! If you find yourself being incredibly lazy, try finishing the easiest of easy tasks first. Then, tackle something only marginally more difficult. Then, a little bit more difficult. Before you know it, you've eased into your primary project and you have the momentum at your back.
  2. Change your environment: My body is an idiot. Try as I might to convince it that it's ok to do work at the desk in my apartment, it's convinced that this desk is only for doing fun things. It's nigh impossible to be productive in the same space where I go to relax. So, when I have serious work to do, I have to take my idiot body to the library or a coffee shop. The change of surroundings is what it needs to be convinced to actually get to work. Maybe your body isn't as idiotic as mine, but it's a useful tip to try.
  3. Look back at past accomplishments: Even the laziest of people have bursts of inspiration. Look back on things you've accomplished in the past as proof that this laziness can be conquered. Sometimes, when I feel particularly lazy I will read through my old blog posts. Every once in awhile I'm moderately impressed by what I've written. Present-Me doesn't like feeling more lazy than Past-Me and the next thing I know the laziness has lifted.
  4. Read, watch, or listen to something inspirational or motivational: When I am in the depths of laziness, it's easy to feel like everybody is this lazy too. It doesn't make sense, I know. To help me snap out of it, I like to read about inspirational people. Reading about Teddy Roosevelt usually helps. Or, an even quicker fix is to go to TED.com and watch a couple of the videos tagged as "inspirational." Guaranteed pick-me-up.
  5. Organize and plan: A lot of the time, laziness stems from being unclear about what to do. When it's not clear, it's easy to just mope about and do nothing. Spending some time reviewing my projects, figuring out what I have to do to move them forward, and updating my next action lists is usually enough to get me inspired to work on them. I try to only commit to projects I'm excited about so spending some time thinking and planning helps remind me why I was excited about it in the first place.

Fear isn't holding me back and I don't think it's holding you back. We are all far too intelligent and comfortable to be afraid anymore. As a fellow occasionally lazy person, I don't feel bad for saying it but, you're being lazy. Stop it. Pick one of these five tips (or all five if you're feeling EXTRA lazy) and get your rear in gear.

 

 

Getting to the Source of Your Procrastination

Procrastination is often more about distraction than anything else. When you are easily distracted, or there are many things that can distract you nearby, it is easy to procrastinate. With the new year I'm sure many people will be resolving to stop procrastinating. Whether that means your job, school work, or other tasks you need to get done but can't seem to sit down and do, procrastination is a killer. Instead of resolving to end your procrastination, try resolving to eliminate distractions instead. In my experience, distractions are the true culprit.If you've trained your mind and prepared your environment, the distractions are removed and the procrastination seems to fade away.

What distracts you? When you sit down to do some serious work, what do you find yourself doing instead? My biggest distractions come to the fore when I try to write. My biggest ones are:

  1. The need for order: If I sit down to do something that is not particularly easy (like write a blog post or prepare a lesson plan) I immediately seem to realize that my surroundings are out of order. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't bother me too much that my books are not in alphabetical order or my pens are not arranged in my drawer by level of remaining ink. As soon as I sit down to write, however, I have an incredible (and utterly useless) urge to clean, organize or put things in order. It never fails.
  2. Perfectionism: How can I expect to write an article when I haven't picked the perfect title?! How am I supposed to plan a lesson on World War II if I haven't found the perfect opening question or activity?! I can't use this PowerPoint presentation because all of the pictures are not perfectly aligned! That battle between attention to detail and perfectionism is one that quite often will stymie me from doing anything particularly productive. Breaking out of that commitment to perfectionism is incredibly important to getting ANYTHING done.
  3. My own inadequacies: Writing for this blog has made this a new distraction for me. I've always been pretty good at the things I try to do. I was a pretty good hockey player. I was an excellent student. However, I've never written for an audience (even the small one I've been able to accumulate at this blog). How can I sit down and write about this stuff when a.) I'm not very good at the stuff I write about (even though I think about it a lot and try to implement it) and b.) there are so many other blogs out there with huge readerships and really interesting things to say (Zen Habits, The Simple Dollar, Productivity 501 etc.)?
  4. The need for constant new information: This might be the number one distraction that constantly begs for my attention. Checking email, checking my RSS feeds, Twitter, instant messaging, and news websites all provide little shots of stimulation that aren't particularly important but take up an disproportionate amount of my time. One of the biggest "tips" that I've discovered I need to do to do anything particularly productive or difficult is to turn all of that off. All of it. No texting, no Twitter, no email, nothing. Breaking the hold that these services have over my attention is something that I work on everyday. Anything that breaks up your attention is something that takes away from you doing truly great and important work. It's tough, but get rid of it as much as possible.

Lastly, I realize the irony of writing an article about distraction when the chances are  I'm distracting you by writing this article.  Please forgive me for taking a few minutes of your time. However, if this has gotten you to think a little bit more about the role distractions play in your work, I think this initial time investment might be worth it. Now stop being distracted and go do what you know you're supposed to do!