The One Phrase to Beat Procrastination

Procrastination plagues all of us.

Whether it’s a writing an essay or cleaning the house – we have tasks we want (and need) to do and put them off anyway.

To combat this, we’ve probably read a number of useful things on stopping procrastination. Break down the goal into small and manageable tasks, plan your day, set deadlines, and work without distractions and so on.

They’re all helpful but we still put things off. When we think of the task, we begin to feel uncomfortable. Let’s delve into that feeling of resistance.

What do we feel when we procrastinate?

Should we actually spend time with these feelings, we might learn a few things.  We’ll split the tasks into the classic Eisenhower matrix.

If it’s important but not urgent, we’ll find comfort in procrastination because we don’t have to do it but feel guilty because we know it will be helpful. If our thinking continues, we might feel guilty for having these feelings at all.

If it’s urgent but not important, we might feel anxious or on the other hand, apathetic towards the task. The task’s urgency means we have to think about it but since it’s unimportant, the deadline might just zoom past without consequence.

If it’s urgent and important, the feelings  of guilt, dread and discomfort are multiplied. We’ll feel trapped within the confines of our own procrastination – like slaves to distraction and quick entertainment.

Depending on how bad the procrastination is, the task will remain undone and we’ll just deal with the consequences.

There are many feelings we have while procrastinating. A lot of it stems from the fear of discomfort and results in self-criticism that makes us feel bad rather than change action in a sustainable way.

How can we combat this?

The phrase to beat procrastination

“It’ll be better after I start”

Since all of our feelings from procrastination are born of inaction, using them it’s useless to gauge how well the task will be done. We often overestimate the difficulty or underestimate our ability to try.

Stop thinking about how you might feel during the task and quieten the internal monologue convincing us to give into instant gratification. Start the task then experience how you feel.

Starting something always feels better than not starting but wanting to.

I’ve never felt worse for starting something I’ve needed to. Of course, I’ve abandoned things or disliked them for a variety of reasons but it’s better to have justified reasons and progress under your belt rather than being guided by fear.

Conclusion

When you find yourself procrastinating, say “it’ll be better after I start”.

Because it will and you’ll be OK.


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Other helpful reminders for procrastination:

Create without expectation

What’s wrong with now?

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

Stop Watching Motivational Videos (and what to do instead)

They fade from black with one person as the focal point. The music is starts calm but it’ll build up to something. It’s a Hans Zimmer score, after all.

You see a fit person running up some stairs or someone boxing. If you’re lucky, you get to see scenes from The Pursuit of Happiness again with a speech from Rocky Balboa layered over the top.

As the video progress, more stuff about getting up after a fall and dreaming big is shown. You’re told you’re worth it and can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. You’re reminded of all the rags-to-riches stories that exist like J. K. Rowling living in a council estate to earning millions a day and getting rejected a number of times before finally being accepted.

You feel good.

You’re motivated.

But motivated to do what? Finally start on your goals? But only after one more video…

Stop watching motivational videos

They’re akin to depending on sugary energy drinks rather than a good night’s sleep to combat tiredness.

Motivational videos (and images) feed procrastination in a special way.

They make us feel productive without all the work required in between. They might lift our mood temporarily but do nothing to combat the problem. The problem might be perfectionism. It could be that you’re simply trying too much and the goals need to be broken down. Or a number of other things that continues procrastination.

Motivational videos do nothing to solve these problems. It’s far too easy to continue doing nothing at all to further progress.

Hell, there’s even a chance you’ll feel guilty because you still haven’t done anything.

Since the improvement in mood is temporary, we always need to be motivated to even consider working. That in itself is unsustainable. After a while, they lose their desired effectiveness and become boring like any other entertainment.

It leads to only doing work when we feel like it and waiting for magical inspiration to strike us on the head. Such things don’t happen. To work consistently towards something, you’ll have to do it when you don’t feel like it.

Depending on how we feel in order to start working is a poor strategy. With all the quick entertainment and instant gratification at our fingertips, when will we ever feel like working if we haven’t already become disciplined enough to make it a habit?

In this case, dependence on motivational videos is actually detrimental.

Clichés, clichés and more clichés.

If you’ve watched many motivational videos, you’ll hear many of the same things over and over again. You might repeat them a few times but if it doesn’t result in any action, it’s literally just an empty chant. For example: “When you breathe as bad as you want to succeed, then you’ll be successful” is a reasonably new phrase that’s creeped its way into motivational diction.

I don’t want to say it’s useless but it is somewhat unhelpful. It hides the work actually needed to be done in order to achieve those levels of hard work.

Let’s say you want to exercise and embodied that phrase.

Does it inspire feelings of moderation or extremes?

After hearing that, do you want to aim for a huge personal best every gym session? Or do you want to start running for a few minutes and try a few more the next day?

The first choice is inspired by these motivational videos. It’s unrealistic for a beginner and unsustainable. The second is achievable but doesn’t fit too well in a catchy phrase.

Small starts and consistent work isn’t shown in such videos because their nature isn’t to show you the hard work. They show the end result and say ‘just do it’.

Small starts and consistent progress is how we actually achieve our goals.

But of course, that isn’t as romantic. Discipline is rarely romantic. But it works.

What should I do instead?

Start small – Make the goal so small you can’t say no. Or work for 3 minutes and decide if you want to stop afterwards. For example, this article was started by simply writing the title.

Be kind – Don’t berate yourself with hatred and negative thoughts for not doing something. It only serves to make you feel bad and does nothing to further progress. It actually makes you less likely to do anything. If you feel like you’re worthless, why bother starting anything?

Be specific – A huge reason why we procrastinate is because we don’t know what to do. Saying ‘get fit’, ‘read more’ or ‘write essay’ doesn’t mean much. Saying you want to write 500 words by the end of the day or lose 10kg in 3 months makes the goal much more real and attainable.

Conclusion

Motivational videos aren’t helpful unless what we’re looking for is to feel good for a few minutes. If that’s the case, we should admit we watch them for entertainment rather than their life-changing abilities.

We simply don’t need to be intensely motivated for everything. It’s fine to just go for a run or write some words without becoming your own personal cheerleader in the process. It’s called being normal.

Consistent progress will beat motivational videos every time. That’s what self-discipline grants us.

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Do you find motivational videos helpful? If so, how often do you watch them?

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Keep goals to yourself or tell everyone?

If you read around, there are two approaches to accomplishing goals that seem equally obvious but contradict one another. Tell people and don’t.

Advocates of broadcasting goals say that you’re more likely to accomplish them since you have some accountability and they can help you along with your goals.

The opposing party says it gives a premature sense of accomplishment and makes you less likely to even get started on your goal.

I’ll look at them one by one.

Tell the world

The main selling point of this tactic is that it creates accountability. Telling your friends and family about your goals means that other people will know if you fail or succeed. This might put a helpful amount of pressure onto your shoulders which helps getting through the initial moments where the first few steps are difficult.

However, all the accountability in the world is useless when it offers no consequences. If your friend simply invites you out to dinner after you’ve said you’re going to the gym and dieting, you’re not going to make much progress. Some friends might not want to push too hard since they think it’d put the friendship in jeopardy. Which makes perfect sense if boundaries aren’t made clear.

Sites like beeminder and HabitRPG make it easier to have accountability with consequences. If you’re prone to just ignoring consequences or consequential situations completely, these might be unhelpful.

Keep it to yourself

This school of thought veers slightly from intuition and says you should keep your goals to yourself. Broadcasting them gives you feelings of accomplishment and makes you less likely to start working on it.

Peter Gollwitzer completed a study and found, in a four different tests of 63 people, those who announced their intention to complete task were less likely to do so.

All were asked to write down a personal goal. Half of the group made their intentions clear and the other half didn’t. They were asked to do 45 minutes of work on their goal and the quiet group averaged 45 minutes of work. The vocal half averaged only 33 minutes.

Now, there are other factors that could have influenced the amount of time spent on the goal. For example, if the goal is something like ‘earn an extra $10K over the next 3 years at work’ it’s difficult to think of what 45 minutes of work would look like in a study scenario. However, it does look like the controlled variable (announcing the goal) is the most important. But please, welcome such claims with healthy scepticism.

This approach is appealing. When I began journaling, I told no one and just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it without other people keeping an eye on me. If I told people, I’d fear I might disappoint them. But that fear alone wasn’t enough to stop me from disappointing them. Which multiplied the feeling of guilt.

Start secretly then let the world know

Instead of telling people I was going to write every day, I wrote every day without others knowing. After I hit a milestone (30 days) I told people what I had done.

I call it healthy bragging.

Rather than saying:

“From next week, I’ll go to the gym 3 times a week!”

Say:

“I’ve been going to the gym 3 times a week and I’m going tomorrow”

The second statement requires us to have evidence supporting our future intentions and you get to tell people about what you’re doing. And feel good about it!

You also get the added benefit of some accountability. You won’t fear you’ll disappoint people because you’ve proven to yourself that you’re capable of working towards your goal.

Your goal affirmation sounds more powerful to the people who hear it and yourself.

***

  1. “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?” by Peter Gollwitzer et al [PDF]
  2. Derek Siver’s TED Talk explains it much better. (~3mins)
  3. Healthy bragging is my own term. It’s brilliant.
  4. It’s important to keep your first steps small.
  5. I’ve used HabitRPG for some time and it’s been useful. It’s recommended.

Thanks for reading.

What’s wrong with now?

The next time you catch yourself putting something off for ‘later’ try asking yourself the question: “what’s wrong with now?”

What’s happening right now that’s making me put the work off? Why can’t I do it now?

I find the value of this question comes in a few ways.

It makes us truly aware of what we’re actually doing. The spiralling of bad habits such as procrastination, binge-eating, excessive gaming/movie watching, are often born from mindlessness. Asking this question brings us back to the present moment and makes us aware.

We look at what we’re doing and honestly assess whether it’s more worthwhile than the other important task.

Say I’m watching something on Netflix and remember I have an essay to write, assessing my situation lets me understand that what I’m doing isn’t actually going to help in the short or long-term. I can put the show to the side and work on my essay instead. Most of the excuses we use often appear weak when we put a little bit of pressure on them. The movie can be paused, Reddit won’t shut down and we can save YouTube videos.

What happens when we face an excuse that actually has some strength behind it? At that point we can set priorities. If we’re doing something that we honestly feel takes priority, then we’re doing the most important task. Which is the main goal. After the first task is done, we can move onto the next without guilt.

Answering this question requires honesty but that mustn’t be mistaken for self-hatred or criticism. This isn’t a plea to fill all of your waking hours with meaningless work. In fact, I think that would be counter-productive. Resting after work or just taking a day off with friends can be the most important thing to do.

Now, deciding which task is genuinely the most important is slightly more difficult. However, that’s fine as it’s just something we have to wrestle with at times. Asking this question helps us start deciding what to do instead of getting lost in distraction and later being disappointed at the end of the day.

As with many things, taking advantage of the moment and overcoming your internal fear of starting (or finishing) a task requires practice. There are still times when I ask this question with another task in mind, answer it with ‘nothing’ and continue putting it off. However, it’s still a helpful question that’s made me more mindful of my desire to find procrastination and move onto more meaningful work.

Set priorities. Be honest. Be mindful.

Soon you’ll answer the question and find nothing is wrong with the present moment because you’re doing all you should and want to be doing.

Why you’ll fail your new years resolutions

They are created impulsively.

They are vague.

They are unplanned.

They are too big.

They are ultimately unimportant to you.

Many goals start off in such a fashion. Our pursuit of them works for a short while because we’re still in the ‘This year is a new me!’ stage. We have vast amounts of motivation because we now write 2014 instead of 2013.

After all, that was the push we needed to pursue the change we want. A change of date.

When we make new resolutions on new years, we attempt to change almost instantly. If you’ve been eating bad food for years, why would it be easy for you to change your mindset towards food in a day? If you spend all your days sitting down, why would it be easy to start a rigorous exercise regime after a New Years party?

We move far too quickly with no real direction when we attempt to complete our new years resolutions. It’s why the gym is packed to the brim in January but quickly empties during February. They’ve probably told everyone about their new goals which leads them to feeling slightly accomplished about their goals (even if they’ve done very little). No one will ask for a follow up on their friend’s progress because they have better things to do. Then they’ll look back on the statement they made at the beginning of January and realise they haven’t stepped into the gym for over 6 months.

How do you stop that from happening this year?

Making valuable progress towards your goal 

  1. Start small

This is probably the most important thing you can do if you want to make progress. It makes it much more difficult for you avoid and much easier to make steady progress towards a goal. Focusing on one goal is much better than making a weak effort towards five foals.

2. Focus on a routine rather than the goal

This emphasises consistency. Working on building a reliable routine more than you do a goal means you’re more likely to work towards it steadily throughout the year instead of making random bursts of effort towards it.

If you want to improve your writing over the next year, make sure your routine involves writing regularly (if not everyday). If you want to lose weight (or gain muscle), make sure your routine involves going to the gym at least 4 times a week.

3. Make your goals specific

No more ‘I want to be happy’ or ‘I want to be a better person’. If you want to improve your grades in school, say what grades and by how much. If you want to lose weight, say how much and how you’ll do it.

A new year is not the reason why you’ll become a better person. You are. You shouldn’t depend on motivation throughout the whole year because it burns out quickly.

Start small, remain consistent and that’s the way we make progress.

Are you keeping any resolutions for the new year?