By Joel Lee
Everyone procrastinates… but not everyone is a procrastinator. Only you can determine if you deserve that label, and that’s only after a lot of honest self-reflection. But if you are a procrastinator, what can you do about it?
A procrastinator is someone whose life is marked by a day-to-day gap between one’s goals and actually acting upon those goals. It’s more than just “not wanting” to do it. It’s a mental block that can stem from all kinds of roots.
But there’s hope. With a healthy dose of time and effort, you can break out of the procrastination loop. And what better time to start than now when the New Year is right around the corner?
1. Learn How to Plan the Right Way
Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.
— Napoleon Bonaparte
Procrastinators are masters of planning.
Of course some level of planning is beneficial. It can make your paths clearer, it can help you avoid big mistakes, and it can increase your working efficiency. But you can only plan so many details before it starts being an exercise in postponement.
It’s like writing a novel. It’s fine to prepare character outlines and plot skeletons and world building notes ahead of time, but when you’ve spent the last five hours researching medieval cuisine just so you can pick a favorite food for one of your side characters, a line has been crossed.
Don’t wait. The time will never be just right.
— Napoleon Hill
If you absolutely must plan, limit the planning phase. Give yourself one week to do all the planning you need to do. Focus on the big parts. Get it out of your system. That’s the first step.
Goals like “I want to be rich” or “I need to renovate the kitchen” or “I’m going to make a mobile app” are good for stoking your ambitions, but they won’t get you anywhere. Those goals are so long-term and vague that they’re more like dreams than goals — and as long as they stay dreams, you can pretend like you’ll get to them “one day” without feeling guilty when you don’t.
If you want to make solid progress, you have to turn those abstract dreams into concrete goals. A concrete goal has three important attributes:
- It’s atomic. Atoms are indivisible units. You put atoms together to create molecules, and molecules together to create cells. If your projects are cells, then your goals are atoms — each goal should be a task so simple that it can’t be divided into subtasks.
- It’s measurable. There should be a quantifiable component in the goal that makes it an objective measurement. “I want to be rich” is subjective, but “I will save $1,000 this month” is objective — ask anyone and they will be able to say with certainty whether you succeeded or failed.
- It’s action-oriented. A good goal defines a willful action that you can take rather than a result that you’re aiming toward. “I want to make the next Flappy Bird” isn’t directly actionable, but “I’ll work on my game for 2 hours every day” is. Forget about results. Focus on actions.
The beauty of a concrete goal is that it lowers the activation energy required to accomplish said goal. “I’ll find a new job” is murky, uncertain, and therefore daunting to begin, but “I’ll post my resume on Monster” is clear, defined, and therefore easier to start.
2. Live by the 5 Minute Rule
You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
For most procrastinators, getting started is the hardest part. Once you can get the boulder rolling, it’s a lot easier to keep it rolling (though you may still take breaks every so often). But how do you get the boulder to roll?
Well, the fact that you see it as a boulder is part of the problem. Boulders are huge, heavy, and overwhelming. There’s no way you’ll be able to push a boulder, right? It seems like an impossible task, so why bother.
This is the biggest reason for my own procrastination. When I have a big article to write, the end feels so far away that I just don’t want to get started. If I get started, then I’ll have to commit four hours to work, and that’s too much time. I don’t want to sit through four hours of boredom, so I push it back. And back. And back…
Which is why I live by the 5 Minute Rule: you pick a task that you need to work on (remember those concrete goals from above?) and vow to work on it for five minutes.
What I’ve found is that those five minutes are usually enough to get the metaphorical boulder rolling. I start off with a begrudging attitude, but quickly start to get some work done knowing that I can quit if I want to after five minutes. By minute five, I feel confident enough to keep working another 10, 15, or 30 minutes.
Then I usually take a break. Rinse. Repeat.
In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing to do, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
— Theodore Roosevelt
The key to the 5 Minute Rule is giving yourself permission to fail. You may feel like “getting started” has to be the same thing as “getting it done”, and if you don’t finish then you’ve failed. But that’s wrong.
The 5 Minute Rule reduces the stakes to manageable levels. Instead of seeing your thesis paper as a monstrous 10-hour endeavor, take it one paragraph at a time. Failing to writing one paragraph isn’t as devastating as failing to write the entire paper. Lower stakes, lower consequences, lower fear of failure.
3. Create Deadlines with Real Stakes
You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.
— Bill Watterson
What if you’ve made your concrete goals (resolution #1) but you don’t care enough to actually implement the 5 Minute Rule (resolution #2)?
For example, let’s say you want to be a novelist and your concrete goal is to write 100 words every day. Excellent! But you sit down for five minutes and not a word comes out. You take a break, come back, five minutes… and nothing. Rinse and repeat for an entire week.
The problem here is a lack of stakes. It’s not enough to have a goal, and it’s not enough to just get started. There has to be an element of risk involved. What is the cost of failure? What will happen if you don’t succeed? What is the reason why you must get this done?
As an aspiring novelist, for example, the cost of “not writing” is almost non-existent. Nothing bad will happen if you don’t meet your word count quota for the day, so it’s extremely easy to rationalize your way out of it. There’s no sense of urgency tied to the goal.
So you’ll have to manufacture your own sense of urgency.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
— C. Northcote Parkinson
And the easiest way to do this is through deadlines.
For every goal that you have, assign two things: a due date and a consequence. The due date should be reasonable. The consequence should be a reward (for success) or a punishment (for failure). Think of it as an “or else” clause.
The crucial aspect is that the consequence needs to be something that you can’t personally circumvent.
For example, I’ve read so many articles that recommend using a chocolate bar or an Amazon purchase as a reward for meeting a goal — but don’t address the fact that I could just as easily eat that chocolate or buy that item even if I fail. If I don’t have the self-control to meet my goals, how would I have the self-control to refrain from indulging?
Same thing with punishments. What good is it to tell myself that I can’t play video games until I finish my thesis paper? Playing games instead of writing that paper is the procrastination problem I’m having in the first place!
As such, I’ve found that rewards and deadlines only work when you get another person involved. It could be your spouse, friend, brother, sister, parent, or even a coworker. They become the dispenser of rewards and punishments, meaning you can’t just skip out on your commitments. It keeps you accountable.
Or you could use an app called stickK, which allows you to sign a Commitment Contract that puts your money on the line for every week you don’t meet your goals. The psychological phenomenon known as loss aversion explains it:
Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it’s better to not lose $5 than to find $5. Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.
A combination of deadlines and stakes will light that fire under your feet and get you moving even when you don’t feel like it.
Beating Procrastination is Possible
I used to be a procrastinator. Now I just procrastinate. By reflecting on my reasons for procrastination (fear of failure is a big one) and learning tricks like the ones above, I’ve been able to overcome it and make it manageable.
It still happens from time to time, of course. In fact I’ve procrastinated a bit on this article! But it no longer grips my life. I can fight it and win. You can, too.
What are your resolutions for the New Year? Tell us your goals, dreams, and how you intend to achieve them. Share with us in a comment below!