Putting off creating great stuff will get you nowhere. Here are a few tips and tricks to flip procrastination on its head.
I am a professional procrastinator. Well, I would be a professional procrastinator if I ever got around to turning it into an income source. I’ll do that tomorrow, but for now I’ll write about the pervasive problem of avoidance in our creative work.
You may be one of those gifted people with a preternatural ability to focus, never succumbing to distractions. Maybe you don’t have any sort of attention deficit and aren't prone to wasting large chunks of your day accomplishing jack shit because why not the Internet exists. Well congratu-friggin'-lations, you’re way better at adulting than I am. You can stop here and hang your valedictorian certificate on the wall after reading all of Infinite Jest in a single sitting. I’ll meet back up with you in my next post.
For those of you still with me, way to be normal. I feel your pain when you kick yourself for not being more productive. I know, it’s not “cool" to "feel stuff," but there’s nothing we can do about that now.
Much digital ink has been spilled on the scourge of procrastination, that irrepressible urge to do anything other than what you’re supposed to be doing, even when you know it’s the wrong decision. I’ve personally read quite a few methods for beating the put-it-off beast. Many systems involve things like:
- Clearing your work area of all distractions
- Throwing your phone into the microwave so notifications won’t tempt you
- Using a fire extinguisher to put out the fire you just started by microwaving your phone
- Scheduling blocks of time when you’ll do nothing but work
- Doing the things you’re least psyched about first
- Looking through your phone’s warranty terms to see if they cover “accidental” microwaving
- Only allowing yourself to focus on your one or two most important tasks
- Recognizing your urges to lose focus and understanding they are based on fear, possibly fear of failure or discomfort
- Embracing said discomfort of those fearful urges while letting them pass
These are all good ideas other than the microwave thing; they attempt to tackle the underlying psychology of procrastination and cut it off at its source. When I’ve tried other people’s systems, they work for a little while, then they start to wear off like a drug that I’m building a tolerance for. Soon I’ll have to switch to another method to achieve that sweet, sweet high I originally got from not procrastinating. It’s a constant battle, like a disease that will never completely go away, because procrastinating is a very personal thing. We all enjoy dicking around in our own special way, so everyone’s solution will have to be personal as well.
Because of that, I’m not going to claim to have the definitive answer, but I have some of my own strategies that have been fairly successful for me—and if you’re struggling, maybe they will help you. Maybe they’ll even inspire you to come up with your own system.
1. You Have a Priority Problem
Procrastination may be about willpower and distractions and fear of failure and discomfort and all that, but those are just psychological offshoots of the root of the problem: priorities. You are constantly deciding what’s most important to you at any given moment. Research has shown that multitasking is largely a myth; you can only do one thing well at a time, and at every moment of every day we decide exactly what we will use our time to do. Choosing one thing over another is assigning it your top priority. And while finishing your young adult novel about sparkly vampires might seem like your priority, every time you procrastinate, you definitively decide that it is not. Even worse, you decide that something like marathoning Netflix is. Even as you watch the next episode of M*A*S*H, you know you should be working instead. (Even though it’s totally a good show and maybe you’ll get some creative ideas from watching, right?) In your mind, you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that your novel is still your priority, but your actions are demoting it below TV watching. If it’s really your priority, you will work on it right now.
What’s most important to you? Social media? A movie? Creating something amazing? Playing a game on your phone? If three of those sound a little ridiculous, there’s a reason for that. Thinking about doing something accomplishes nothing; actions speak far louder than intentions when it comes to beating procrastination.
That’s not to say some of these alternate activities can’t be relaxing ways to spend your break time. But if you’re prone to putting things off, make a point of using your breaks for activities that don’t endanger your productivity by seductively beckoning you down a rabbit hole.
Step one is to stop lying to yourself. Every time you procrastinate, remind yourself that what you’re doing now is your priority. If it seems silly to be prioritizing whatever it is you're doing, call yourself out on it and reprioritize. You know that guilt you feel after procrastinating? That exists for a reason, and you can use it to your advantage. Whenever you feel guilty for not working on something, that’s a very clear signal that you’ve been prioritizing poorly. Use that guilt as motivation to work on something great.
2. Your Time Budget is F#$%ed
I used to buy a six pack of beer every Friday, as if it were a Pavlovian response to the end of the week. I didn’t think much of it—the weekend was starting, I like beer and it didn’t cost much, particularly compared to buying drinks at a bar during the traditional Los Angeles $9 beer night specials. But then I stopped the habit. From week to week it didn’t seem like it made a huge difference, until I realized that after a year I’d have $520 in my pocket that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s a significant amount. Just imagine being able to buy something for $500 every January without putting in any extra effort. If I made other small changes like packing more lunches instead of eating at restaurants, just think of how all that money would add up in a pretty short time.
Your time is similar, but with a key difference: your overall pool of cash can, theoretically, keep growing indefinitely. Your time, on the other hand, has a strict daily budget that will never change. Slaying the procrastination demon requires diligent time budgeting. Much like salvaging a few dollars here and there can add up to big savings over the course of the year, salvaging a few minutes of your day here and there for creative purposes can add up to hours of productivity in the longer term. But where you giveth, you must also taketh away. In order to give time to one thing, you have to choose something else to cut out. This is directly related to our little conversation about priorities from a minute or two ago. Remember that? If not, you may want to see a doctor. Also you owe me fifty bucks, trust me, you just forgot.
If you cut a half hour of TV out of every day, you have over 182 extra hours in a year that can be used for creating. Think of how much progress you can make in 182 hours! And think of how easy it would be to cut one half hour show. It may seem hard when so many episodes end on tantalizing cliffhangers, but if you take that feeling of “Oh man I gotta see what happens next” and just chill for a second (and turn off the TV or close the browser window you’re watching on), you’ll find that it goes away pretty quickly. And after you start drawing your graphic novel, you realize it wasn’t such a big deal.
Step two is to start making small adjustments to your limited allocation of time and see how these little chunks add up to bigger productivity. Paying attention to how you spend your time on the micro scale will make a difference on the macro scale. And when you find yourself 50 more pages into that graphic novel than you thought you’d be, it will get easier and easier to keep up the habit.
3. Trick Your Mind With Reverse Procrastination
Our brains are dumb. I mean, they’re totally freaking amazing and intensely complex works of evolutionary art. But they’re also super dumb and easily tricked. Ever heard of reverse psychology? Well if you haven’t, don’t look it up, because I don't want you to learn anything.
I mention the dumbitude of the brain because this next tip might actually sound a bit dumb itself, but it can really work. It's something I like to call reverse procrastination. Does this sound familiar: "I could start mixing that song I recorded, but I'm gonna watch an episode of Game of Thrones first."
Well, what's stopping you from pulling a switcheroo to: "I could watch an episode of Game of Thrones, but I'm gonna mix a few tracks of that song I recorded first."
We've somewhat arbitrarily assigned the things we use to procrastinate and the things we procrastinate from. Much of the time, you don't actually like the thing you're doing now any more than the thing you're putting off. Do you really enjoy getting mad at ignorant tweets more than you enjoy, say, painting? If so, I'm actually a little jealous because you're probably having more fun on Twitter than I am.
This feat of mental gymnastics boils down to something simple: the shit you do while procrastinating winds up making you feel bad. The shit you do when you're being productive makes you feel good. The mini dopamine reward from mindless tasks and the fear of tackling something harder sometimes fools you into forgetting this, but that's always temporary. Eventually, the guilt we talked about before always kicks in. When we procrastinate, we're usually putting off something we think will be hard (makes us feel "bad") with something we think will be easy and pleasant (makes us feel "good"). So most of the time, we've got the damn thing backwards.
Try mind-hacking yourself and trick your brain into thinking you're procrastinating when you're actually working. Start thinking of the stuff you are trying to accomplish as the fun part rather than the part you need to slog through. Make productivity the reward rather than the punishment. Make Game of Thrones seem like the thing you should be doing but are putting off.
I think part of our procrastination habits come from a dirty little feeling that we're being naughty and getting away with something. The third step is a way to flip that whole thing on its head. You could watch TV, and you'll get right to it after you practice piano for a half hour, then chisel a bust of Bob Ross out of that slab of marble in your living room.
4. Procrastinate Creatively
The thing is, you are going to procrastinate once in a while. There’s no way around that. It’s not even that big a deal when it’s not a chronic habit. But what would happen if you worked while procrastinating? There's no rule that says you can't do both. And while we’ve established that multitasking doesn't really help you accomplish much, if you're already accomplishing nothing, it's worth trying to get a little half-assed work in.
For example, I like to draw or practice guitar while watching TV shows. I'm essentially goofing off but also making a little progress, even if it’s not as effective as focusing on one thing at a time. Try to incorporate your creative process with your procrastination methods. Like: you want to have something awesome to post to Facebook while you waste time there, so that's a good excuse to write a bunch of jokes for your comedy act or paint a really cool picture so you can share with your followers and get some likes. If you're addicted to reading articles online, force yourself to read content that helps you learn something new related to your creative pursuits or inspires you to create more. I'm writing this post while watching a football game. I could've just sat on my ass for three hours and done nothing but watch a game, but now I'm being entertained and getting shit done.
Step four is to sneak some creativity into your procrastination. Obviously this won’t work in every situation, but I’ll bet you can find some way to simultaneously waste time and create shit.
(THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED)
5. Find Your Own Annoying Habits
I know none of this is easy. I fail at it regularly. I’m not some hypocrite standing on a virtual soapbox pretending I’ve permanently solved all my focus problems. But these tips can be incredibly effective weapons for your anti-procrastination arsenal.
Now that I’ve gotten the ball rolling, I encourage you to find your own new ways to stave off your creativity procrastination. Build a rotation of techniques so you can switch it up whenever you get bored or a strategy starts losing its effectiveness. In the end, maybe you won’t get as much done as if you’d mustered up laser focus for an eight-hour period, but since you’re not doing handfuls of speed (I hope) that’s an unrealistic goal anyway. I guarantee you’ll accomplish more than if you’d allowed yourself to sit on the couch and watch all the special features of your new Road House Blu-ray in one sitting. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because Road House is a f#$%ing amazing movie in so many ways. Pain don’t hurt, but procrastination does.
Most of all, stop being so damn afraid of actually getting off your ass and doing something. Besides a total lack of motivation, which may mean you need to get more sleep or exercise more or eat better, the main reason people put creative stuff off is because they’re afraid—afraid of the hard work ahead, of discomfort that comes along with being vulnerable and unsure how your work will turn out, of failing badly. But that all means exactly dick if you never start, and equally dick if you never finish. The discomfort is what makes it feel worthwhile and the failure is both inevitable and insignificant beyond giving you a new goal to destroy. Stop making excuses and start creating amazing shit.