As a master procrastinator, I’ve tried almost every trick in the book to change my lingering ways. Along the way, I’ve discovered two bittersweet truths about procrastination:
1. The experience of procrastinating is often way worse than the experience of just doing the thing we’re avoiding.
2. There is no “one size fits all” approach to switching procrastination for productivity
The most important question we can ask ourselves when we notice we’re avoiding something is: Is this something I really want to do? If not, is this something I have to do? (For example, it’s part of adulting, it’s something you need to do to be a functioning member of society, or it’s something that would get you closer to your goals or lead to desired outcomes).
Procrastination often feels like this mysterious, untameable beast, but many times it makes perfect sense: if we don’t want or need to do something, then why would we do it? Could you delegate it, or remove it from your to-do list altogether? Being self-employed, I know how easy it is to assign myself arbitrary tasks, only to have them reappear uncompleted each week as a mental thorn in my side.
It you dig deep and discover the source of your procrastination isn’t something you want or need to do, then congratulations: problem solved. Take it off your to-do list and move on with your life.
If, however, it falls into either of those categories then this post is for you. Here are five tried and tested ways to swap procrastination for productivity:
1. Set a timer for 10 minutes
Dedicate these 10 minutes to working on the task you’ve been avoiding and give yourself permission to stop after the 10 minutes. This part is important. We often experience a nagging voice urging us to continue, saying “10 minutes isn’t nearly enough,” especially if this is something we’ve been avoiding for some time.
But the aim of this exercise is to break free of the immersion or inaction cycle and replace it with consistency. Practice devoting just 10 minutes a day to whatever you’ve been avoiding. So if you want to stop after those 10 minutes, do it. You might be surprised by how much you can accomplish in even a scant amount of time. Tomorrow, return and do another 10 minutes. That incremental time will soon add up.
2. Break down big projects into smaller action steps
One of the key contributors to procrastination is overwhelm, and one of the key contributors to overwhelm is a lack of clarity around what we’re actually doing. “Start journaling again,” “Write three blog posts,” and “Work on my book” are all worthy goals, but what individual steps do you need to take and what decisions do you need to make for those things happen?
The key difference between a project and an action is an action step is a single action or task—one individual behaviour— while a project is a series of multiple action steps.
If you’re currently avoiding something that has more than one action step, break it down into individual action items. Here’s an example:
Write three blog posts:
- Choose 3 ideas/topics
- Outline posts
- Write first draft
- Add to WordPress
- Create image
At any point in this process, you only need to focus on the very next step in front of you. Nothing else matters.
3. Enlist public accountability
Human beings are inherently social, which is why public accountability can be so useful for motivating us even when it seems like nothing else will. Declaring we are (or aren’t) going to do something in public is a very different experience to simply making a commitment to ourselves and can be a useful way of breaking a procrastination streak.
Public accountability doesn’t have to be a grand declaration to everyone you know. Even having one friend or accountability buddy with whom you can check in regularly helps.
4. Use the 20-second rule
In his book The Happiness Advantage Shawn Achor talks about the 20-second rule. If you want to come home from work and read instead of flopping down on the sofa and switching on the TV, take a book off the shelf and put it on the sofa right next to where you usually sit. Equally, take the TV remote and put it in another room. Even better, take the batteries out so you must not only retrieve the device but find the batteries and replace them before you’re able to turn the TV on.
This is a simple example, but it plays into one factor that contributes to our procrastination in the first place: we’re most likely to take the path of least resistance. Make it as easy for yourself as possible to work on the project you want to work on and make it as hard as possible to engage in your regular modes of procrastination.
Open your writing file on your laptop so it’s the first thing you see when you sit at your machine in the morning. Put your journal by your bed so it’s there when you wake up. Follow Shawn Achor’s example and leave your laptop open on the relevant chapter-in-progress on your sofa, so when you flop down at the end of a hard day, it’s the easiest thing to reach for.
Turn of distracting notifications. If you need to, enlist the help of software like Self-Control or Newsfeed Eradicator. Adding an extra layer of effort to our procrastination attempts can quickly change our behaviour.
5. Ask yourself: what if this didn’t have to be a struggle?
If you’re procrastinating out of dread or because this action or project is way outside your comfort zone, changing your mindset will be more helpful than adopting any external hacks.
Start by getting curious with yourself: Why am I dreading this task? What is my worst-case scenario here? What beliefs do I have about my ability to do this thing?
Then, try looking at the situation from a different perspective: How can I make this as fun as possible? What if this didn’t have to be a struggle? In fact, what if it were easy? What would I do differently if I didn’t have those beliefs about myself? What is the most helpful thing I could say to myself about this right now?
Sometimes the only thing that needs to change is we need to get out of our own way.
What are your tried and tested methods for switching procrastination for productivity? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.