This scenario plays out regularly for me: have important work to do. Open YouTube to do some ‘research’. See a video about deep sea monsters in the sidebar. Put up a futile fight to resist clicking it. Give in. Fast forward an hour and I’m now reading a totally random article about how North Korea discovered a unicorn lair. What the hell happened?
Once you jump aboard the procrastination train, there are no stops in sight. You quickly spiral out of control down deep interweb rabbit holes. You’ve managed to spin your wheels by doing everything but the task you set out to do. Why is procrastination so tempting? And how do we get ourselves to do the important stuff?
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Most psychologists think that the reason we procrastinate is simple: we do it to avoid fear, pain, anxiety, or some other emotion associated with an important task. So, you might ditch your run to avoid heading out into miserable weather. You know you always feel better after a run and warm up quickly. But there’s Instagram feeds to check, coffee to drink, and cat memes to keep you busy.
Psychologists also have other ideas about why procrastination is so hard to stop. Some think that it’s linked to our deeper perceptions of time and how we think about our present and future self.
The idea is that we care more about our present selves than future selves. If given the choice of eating a doughnut now or being healthier in one year, we often go for the doughnut.
We know that our present and future self are the same, but we treat them as different people. We focus on our present selves because we care about how we feel right now. We get the reward (doughnut) and leave the unwanted weight gain for the future self to deal with. Here’s Homer’s take on it:
Why Is Procrastination a Problem?
I wrote this blog because I procrastinate (especially when it comes to writing). Just about everyone struggles with it. But is it really a problem? I think so.
When we procrastinate, we waste our most valuable asset—time. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, we all get 24 hours in a day.
Our time on this earth is limited. Every day that passes is another day you could’ve been doing that one thing you keep putting off. It could be planning to travel, learning a language, finding yourself on a walkabout, or losing some weight.
So, how do we tune out distractions to focus on things that enrich our lives? Procrastination is complex. And I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some approaches I’ve found that can help.
Use Fear as Your Compass
We can group a lot of emotions under the umbrella of fear. These could include pain, stress, anxiety, vulnerability, and so on. To be able to stop procrastinating we need to do something counterintuitive—move toward the fear. This isn’t an easy feat, but like any skill can be learnt. As writer Steven Prefield explains:
The best way to get comfortable with fear is by exposing ourselves to it in low-risk situations. Fear thrives in the shadows, but when we shine a light on it and face it, it loses its hold over us. Here’s how you could do this:
- Want to lose weight but are worried you won’t stick to your workouts? Start with a 5-minute daily walk or any small change you can manage.
- Want to change careers but don’t want to leave your job? Start a side project and spend a few hours a week on it.
- Want to try a new sport or activity but are afraid you’ll fail miserably? Go with a friend who can help you out the first time around. Or you could simply go watch a game to get a feel for it before jumping in.
- If you have to give a presentation at work but hate public speaking, start small by making conversation with strangers. Or you could join a Toastmasters.
You get the idea. To stop procrastinating (especially with big-ticket items) you need to identify your fear and expose yourself to it in low doses.
Getting Started Builds Momentum
When we procrastinate, we turn our tasks into a storm in a teacup. The longer we push them off, the bigger they seem to get. But there’s a simple way around this that I learned through trial and error.
I’ve been writing weekly blogs and publishing them every Monday for a while now. You’d think I’d have a streamlined system in place. But the truth is that most posts are painstakingly hard to write. It’s a messy process. There’s usually a battle going on between the rational and emotional parts of my brain that plays out every time I try to write. It looks like this:
But I noticed that when I stop looking up YouTube videos of Steve Irwin catching crocs and just start one little part of my blog, I’m usually able to keep going. The resistance I feel is mostly to getting started. Once I do something (anything) I build momentum and it’s much easier to keep moving. This fits with the idea of the three-minute rule.
The Three-Minute Rule
Psychologists have found that we’re much more likely to complete a hard task if we can make a start on it, no matter how small. That’s where the three-minute rule—three minutes isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are also two- and five-minute rules that are based on the same idea—comes from.
Think about one big thing you’ve been putting off. Now think about all the tasks that you need to do to achieve that thing. If you’re like me, this gets overwhelming. Then, procrastination troll swoops in to save us from the pain with never-ending distractions.
But what if you only had three minutes to make a start on that big, scary task? Pick one three-minute action that you can do right now to move closer to your goal. It can be anything. Just pick something. Set a timer. And get going.
When you do this, you’re able to trick procrastination troll. You cut a deal with him: “look troll, we’ll just spend three minutes doing this task, then I promise we can go back to searching the net for the world’s deadliest animals.” Procrastination troll reluctantly agrees to leave you alone for a few minutes. But once you start your task, he buggers off and falls asleep (lazy bastard). Suddenly you’re on the productivity train to getting shit done.
The three-minute rule works because you can easily commit to it. It breaks down a complicated task into small pieces. Most of the time, you’ll find that as soon as you start, it becomes easier to keep going. Three minutes turns into 30 minutes, then an hour . . .
Here are some ideas to put the three-minute rule into practice:
- Want to write a blog or report? Start with a three-minute brainstorming session to come up with ideas or a rough outline.
- Want to workout but can’t be bothered? Do a 3-5 minute warmup and if you still aren’t feeling it call it a day.
- Have a tough project at work to start? Spend three minutes talking to a colleague who can give you some advice or background on it.
- Want to read more books (books are still a thing, aren’t they??). Read for three minutes a day.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration
One of the best things you can do to avoid procrastinating is not waiting until you feel in the mood to do the task. When you ignore how you feel and just start, you’ll find what you need. As Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination, explains:
To make it easy to start, Pychyl suggests breaking down tasks into very small steps. For example, if you’ve got a 50-page report to write, open a Word document and write the heading.
Don’t Confuse Procrastination With a Lack of Clarity
Are you procrastinating or do you need more information and direction to start a task?
There are two areas of our brain that need to work together to create change. The limbic system or emotional brain and the neocortex or the rational brain. Our rational brain is responsible for analysing and planning. And if it’s not given clear direction or doesn’t have enough information, it’ll spin its wheels.
Whenever I try to write a blog without doing enough research it’s really messy. I’ll often write pages of notes and then scrap most of it. But if I spend more time up front doing a detailed outline and researching points, the process goes much smoother.
Make sure that you’ve got everything you need before you dive into a task. Give your rational brain crystal clear directions to stop it from wasting time. For example, every morning at 9 am make five cold calls to increase sales.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) pick something you’ve been putting off and try the three-minute rule. Start with something really easy. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
I Need Your Help
I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.
You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what gets you out of the procrastination rut when nothing else seems to work.
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