In a recent Mini Habits audiobook giveaway (subscribers only), I asked people what they were struggling with. About half of the 160 responses mentioned some form of overwhelm and procrastination as their primary struggle.
Procrastination—being a decision-making and execution problem—has two stages. The first stage you can get stuck on is deciding what to do, after which comes the choice and challenge to do it promptly. Before we address these two challenges and stop procrastinating, there’s an important first step for both.
First, Do Nothing
Uh…what? Doing nothing is the definition of procrastination!
Yes, but this time, you’re doing it purposefully. I know it’s counterintuitive, because we want to HURRY UP AND DO SOMETHING NOW.
The reason: a hastened, frantic mental attitude breeds procrastination.
Give yourself time.
When you’re frantic and overwhelmed, your primary problem is no longer productivity, it’s your emotions. Emotional problems always trump our other problems, in that we instinctively address them first.
So what is a person’s instinctual response when they’re overwhelmed?
I usually escape by mindlessly surfing the web and checking book sales or web stats. This is a non-solution that delays having to deal with life, and most of us only have about 29,000 days to live. Whenever you distract yourself or engage in unplanned entertainment, it’s probably because you’re overwhelmed with something. It’s the world’s favorite coping mechanism, after all (think about it: entertainment is escapism).
I love entertainment, but there’s a big difference in deciding to enjoy a movie or game versus using those to escape your indecisiveness.
How Giving Yourself Time Cures Overwhelm
Feeling overwhelmed? It means your to-dos outmatch your mental capacity to manage them (and physical capacity to do them). It’s an overload of the mind, which is frantically trying to calculate how all of these tasks can get done, and in which order. You’ll have several ideas about what you want to do, and even more ideas “outside of your mind” that are queued, constantly knocking on your mental door and screaming, “Hey! Don’t forget about me!”
Giving yourself a brief break relieves this pressure. Believe you deserve to have the burden lifted; believe it will help you, do it, and it really will help you!
Life has so many variables and our minds are so (relatively) limited, that we need to plan for being overwhelmed. The human default seems to be to (try to) accommodate all thoughts; a big mistake! You might feel productive because you’re managing a lot of information: “Oh yeah, I should do that…oh, that is important…oooh, this one I’ve been wanting to do forever.” But that’s not productive unless you’re writing the tasks down or actually doing them.
When I say to give yourself time, I don’t mean “enough time to get all of this done.” I mean to actually give yourself a few minutes of zero obligations. Tell yourself that for 1-10 minutes, you don’t have to do a single thing. Don’t think about what you need to do in this time either. When you come out relaxed and focused, you’ll more than make up for the “lost minutes” (trust me on this one).
I recommend closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. You’ll have no visual input, silence, and can shut down rogue thoughts (they will fly by and distract you, but serenely go back to breathing when you notice you’ve tangented). It does a great job at eliminating variables to decrease overwhelm.
Notice that the world isn’t exploding while you do this. Observe as your sense of control begins to return. In this breathing meditation, your only goal is to keep going back to focusing on your breathing. Simple. Easy. Doable. This is not a religious exercise, it’s about calming your inner thought storm and setting aside your mile-long to-do list and problems (if only for a few minutes). The worst procrastinators are also the worst decision-makers, which means they struggle to firmly choose one focal point. Meditative breathing trains you (and prepares you) to focus on a single, simple focal point.
You may not even have to take a “full break.” Try taking several seconds to relax and regroup and it might be enough.
Many times when I take this first step, I come out focused and defeat my procrastination just like that. I often emerge and know exactly what to do. When your mind is calm and focused, it’s EASY to beat procrastination, mostly because it makes the next steps infinitely easier.
If you’re relaxed, you’re ready to move on to the first of our two procrastination problems: deciding what to do.
Since we’re talking about procrastination, it’s usually in regards to something specific. You’re stalling to work out, to file your taxes, or to reply to emails. If this is the case, your job is that much easier and you’d start with “simplify your thoughts” (seen below). But other times, it’s that you don’t know what to do: you have so much on your plate that you don’t know where to begin.
When you don’t know where to begin, there are two ways to solve the problem (assuming that you’re calm now): prioritize or just pick one. Either one of these methods is fine. Choosing the perfect task matters less than doing something good. But if you really want to prioritize, try moving through this list and see if something rises to the top.
- It’s [time] right now. Is there an activity I need to do right now with a specific deadline coming up? If it’s non-negotiable, that’s your answer.
- If there’s not a must-do task, what would I like to do (not what you feel like doing, but what sounds like a smart choice right now)? That’s your answer.
- If there isn’t a clear winner, decide on ideas one at a time: would working on this task today make me feel good about it tomorrow? Tomorrow’s you is a better judge of what you should (have) do(ne) today.
- If yes, that’s your answer. If no, try another idea.
Now you have a clear project or task to focus on.
Simplify Your Thoughts
When a task or project emerges from the pile, ask: what is the first small physical action I can perform with my body to move forward on this? Take that step and you’ve stopped procrastinating. If you lose focus, refocus by asking what the next physical action is. Many times, you’ll get into a groove and make significant progress just because you started.
It’s that easy. Procrastination dies when you have a single, easy next step. You’ve proven this to yourself tens of thousands of times in your life. For example:
The subscriber-only message on 5/20/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest.