You’ve just finished a game of Mario Kart. “One more,” you think to yourself, “and then I’ll finish doing my taxes/start that workout regimen/write that paper.” Inevitably, “one more” turns into twenty more one-more’s, each adding incrementally stronger feelings of self-hatred than the last. You just can’t bring yourself to unglue your ass from the TV, put down the Cheetos, and do the thing you know you need to do (and that you know will make you feel instantly better once you do).
“Only commit to doing the things you love and procrastination will go away,” said no mature adult ever. The fact of the matter is, part of becoming a responsible, self-actualized individual is rubbing uncomfortably against that all-too-familiar reality that no matter how awesome your life is generally, there are always going to be the little (or not so little) activities you just don’t want to do. Hell, even the things we love to do don’t always sound so appealing, because even these things usually require that we perform a whole host of less-than-desirable activities beforehand.
Take my current situation, for instance. This article is, admittedly, a bit of an experiment in gonzo journalism. I have, to one degree or another, procrastinated in writing it. But why? I genuinely do love writing, and I love the freedom it gives me as well. But sometimes I just don’t feel like writing. Sometimes I’d prefer to sit here and watch House Hunters International because if I write, I have to plan and outline, and then when I’m done, I’ll have to edit and submit, plus, “Look! This lovely couple on House Hunters just got shown this beautiful loft in central Prague! Will they choose this one over the sleepy cottage on the outskirts of town? I’ll work after I find out…I promise!” And the cycle continues.
When that happens – when you realize you’re stuck in the thick of a procrastinator’s funk – what should you do to finally break free?
As Much As Possible, Limit Commitments to Doing the Things You Don’t Love
While this won’t help you much when you do have to do things you hate, it certainly helps to think ahead of the problem going forward. What I said before is true: even the things you love require doing things you don’t want to do. However, it’s also true that when doing the things you hate is in service of doing the thing you love, it makes doing them easier. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so when given the choice to make a commitment, ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this thing?” If not, ask yourself, “Do I really have to?”
Get Up, Right Now, and Do the First Step of the Thing You Don’t Want to Do
“But Colin, that’s the problem. The thing about procrastination is that I just can’t seem to bring myself to do that thing, whether it’s step one or not!”
Wrong! The problem is not bringing yourself to do the first step! The problem is bringing yourself to do the first step, knowing that once you do, there’s a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, and so on waiting for you afterward. That’s pretty daunting, and in lieu of this depressing reality, it becomes very easy to put off doing any of it.
Unfortunately, doing nothing doesn’t serve you if you keep pushing it all back indefinitely, which – heed my words – you will, as each push-back makes procrastination easier and easier to justify; what’s one more day, right? Wrong!
So, to short-circuit the pleasure center of your brain (that little voice in your head responsible for keeping you sedentary), we are going to disrupt its ability to trick you into backing out of the job yet again. We will do this by requiring only that you perform the first step necessary in doing the thing you don’t want to do. That’s right; after doing part one, if you still feel like going back to whatever fruitless activity you were doing beforehand, then you have my permission to go back to that.
The reason this works is because you are building momentum. You’ll do part one, realize it’s not so bad, and since you’re up and at it already, you might as well keep going. Congratulations, you’ve just jump-started your life again.
Set a Deadline and Proclaim It Loudly to Those You Respect
I picked this one up from my buddy David, and it’s become a favorite of mine. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but here’s the basic idea. Set a hard deadline for the task you need to complete and make it a public proclamation among those you respect. Make sure to ask them to follow up with you daily, and to give you a tremendous amount of s**t for failing to complete it. By doing so, you are, in a sense, creating a point of no return. You will have no choice but to actually do the thing you need to do or else risk loosing the respect of your friends and/or colleagues.
I implemented a minor version of this strategy to my editor here at Weekly Gravy by telling him that I would complete this article by today, and, as of this writing, I have two hours left. It’s looking good for me.
In conclusion, while these strategies are invaluable in combating procrastination in the here and now, they can only get you so far. It’s important to remember that procrastination is not a malady in and of itself; it is a symptom of a malady. These strategies get you through the day by short-circuiting your tendency to procrastinate, but they do not treat the most likely underlying causes: the fear of success or the fear of failure. Perhaps these topics can be discussed in a later article, but for now, go fourth and conquer the day!