I have no boss, no deadlines, and enough passive income to pay my bills. Therefore, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to procrastinate. I work every day, but not always in a timely manner, and it’s because of five procrastination triggers.1
Fun: Sometimes I’ll be attracted to an easier alternative to writing. Video games and TV are easy, fun, and provide an instant reward. Writing is hard, and in the case of books, the reward can be delayed for over a year! There is some intrinsic reward for work, but it’s more subtle than entertainment.
Fear: I’ll fear that I’m unable to produce good content. Our response to fear is one of two options: run from it or face it. It’s easier to run, and that means procrastination.
Overwhelm: I’ll feel overwhelmed at the work required for the total accomplishment I’d like to see, whether it’s a finished blog post, guest post, or entire book. Sometimes my life as a whole will overwhelm me. Regardless of where the feeling originates, the instinctual reaction to overwhelm is to escape and distract yourself.
Brain Overheating: This form of procrastination is unique in that it happens during work. As I’m writing, I’ll come to a difficult decision, my brain will overheat, and I’ll find a way to distract myself to remove the uncomfortable demand I’ve placed on myself. I don’t usually notice it happen until I’m on Youtube five minutes later and remember that I was writing. I’ll return to my work to see that I had come to a difficult decision (writing is exhausting because it’s constant decision-making).
Responsibility: Remember what it was like being a kid? I had very few responsibilities as a kid because my parents took responsibility to feed me and take care of me. It’s a lot less stressful to have fewer responsibilities, though it isn’t always better. When you get tired of your responsibilities and neglect them, you’re procrastinating, but you still have them. Responsibilities don’t go away if you ignore them!
The Common Link: Procrastination Is Comfort
We procrastinate because it’s more comfortable. Responsibility is uncomfortable. Fear is uncomfortable. Difficult tasks are uncomfortable. Fun, easy, unproductive distractions are not great for building fulfilling lives, but they are comfortable.
How interesting. If procrastination is due to a desire to be comfortable, then the logical solution is to learn to tolerate discomfort. We could glorify it because it’s a solution, but let’s be honest instead—discomfort isn’t enjoyable, and it’s not as if being uncomfortable yet productive all the time is a viable lifestyle. But within that last sentence is this key phrase: all the time. To beat procrastination, it’s true that you must face discomfort. You don’t, however, have to do it forever or in infinite amounts! That brings us to a real, and comforting solution.
The smartest way to conquer procrastination is to embrace the discomfort of productivity for a limited time or amount of work.
How Limits Beat Procrastination
To work, we must embrace discomfort, and we can do it by clarifying a limit. It’s more popular to want to be “limitless” than “limited,” but the latter is a more powerful tool when it comes to daily living. It’s like a water hose—to get the most powerful water flow, you place your thumb over the nozzle, limiting the size of the opening for water to escape. Since the volume of water flowing doesn’t change and the opening is smaller, water shoots out with greater force. In the same way, when you give yourself a limit, your productivity will burst forth
and spray the world!
By giving yourself a limit, you will feel more comfortable working.
I mentioned fear as one of the procrastination triggers, and fear is most powerful when it’s vague. Responsibility was another trigger, and it’s most uncomfortable when it’s vague. Overwhelm is always due to a vague viewpoint of “all this stuff I have to do.” If procrastination is caused by discomfort, it seems that the greatest discomfort is caused by vague pressure we place on ourselves. This is where limits come in.
When you place a limit on a task, you clarify exactly what you expect to happen and/or how long it will happen for. This destroys the roots of procrastination because it clarifies that you won’t feel discomfort for long, your responsibility to work isn’t forever, and relaxation is in sight (important).
Two Limits to Choose From: Time or Small Steps
Which one of these sounds more difficult?
Embrace discomfort for 10 minutes.
The one with a limit of 10 minutes is far more digestible and doable, isn’t it? The vagueness of “embrace discomfort” is why people procrastinate. If you must decide between embracing discomfort in general or being comfortable, of course you’re going to choose to be comfortable! Who would blame you for that?
Slap a simple time modifier onto it, however, and you’ve got yourself a deal. Anyone can dive into discomfort for a few minutes in order to get something important accomplished. That’s the first way to beat procrastination. The other way is small steps.
Rather than “completing this project,” a small step is a very specific and limited goal without any further implications. Work gets harder psychologically the more you zoom out your focused. A truly focused person is not looking at the big picture, they’re focused on this moment. A moment can only contain one step, nothing more. Okay, Usain Bolt might be able to fit two steps in one moment, but he’s really fast.
Every giant, billion dollar company was created by a string of small steps and decisions. Even huge, company-shifting decisions are comprised of sub-decisions of related factors, like whether to grow vertically or horizontally, whether growth or profitability is more important at the moment, and so on. None of the steps or decisions that created these massive companies were impossible, but the end result sure seems to be. Did you know that Apple Corporation makes several thousand dollars every second? That’s unreal.
The people who struggle with small steps have trouble breaking down the components of larger chunks of success. They’ll try to practice small steps—maybe because I suggested them—and continue to think about the big, glorious result. This is not how it works. You can’t focus in the moment while thinking about the big picture.
To succeed with small steps, you have to respect them in the same way you respect steps on a staircase. Who, while climbing steps, tries to skip six of them at a time? Nobody, because they know they’d fall flat on their face. But if they wanted to skip six steps and knew they’d fail, what would they do? They wouldn’t move up the stairs at all. They’d procrastinate! In the same way, the person who wants the big, giant-leap win stands motionless because they refuse to take the small step in front of them.
Small steps create (seemingly) impossible victories. Impossible steps create motionlessness (or bloody shins).
Use Time and Small Step Limits Situationally
I call one of my favorite time techniques “The Work and Play Carousel.” This technique alternates work and play in timed segements. For example, 30-minutes of writing, a 30-minute TV show, and repeat. As for how much time to allocate to each one, that depends on you and your situation. I decide based on how I feel at the time.
If you feel resistance, shrink your work time limit to something more comfortable. Productivity is less comfortable than drinking rum on the beach, but it doesn’t have to be miserable! Discomfort is relative, and the point of using time and small steps is to make you more comfortable with discomfort by making it temporary. But if you put your time limit at 14 hours today, you might not accomplish anything, because that’s probably the amount of work time that you feared!
In general, use time limits when you’re more open to working. If you feel especially strong resistance, aim for small individual steps and try to focus on the steps themselves rather than what the steps are supposed to “do for you.” Small steps are not a magical gimmick in the same way that actual steps on a staircase are not a gimmick. They’re the way from A to B.
The goal with each of these limits is engagement in your work. The greatest discomfort you’ll experience is probably going to be before you begin working because the thought of working is often more painful than the act of working. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started working and wondered why I resisted it so much. Work is not that bad—and it’s even enjoyable—when you’re engaged.
The Power of Engagement
The reason I love video games is because they’re so engaging. These interactive digital worlds pull me in. Most video games, however, are a lot like the work we do! There’s problem solving, puzzles, analysis, and decision-making. The tasks in a game can be just as mentally difficult as ones in real life. This shows the power of perspective.
In Role Playing Games (RPGs), there’s a concept called “level grinding,” in which you repeatedly fight enemies to increase the level of your character. There’s also something called “farming,” in which you fight the same enemy repeatedly, possibly hundreds of times, in order to obtain a rare item it drops. I’ve done both of these! In a game called “Elder Scrolls, Oblivion,” your character gained experienced by jumping, and in order to level up my acrobatic ability, I remember jumping for a couple of hours. I’d run up a hill, jump down it, run back up, and do it again… in a video game! This is not about how strange I am (that’s a story for another time), it’s about the power of engagement to make menial tasks fun.
If you can engage with an activity, you will not only stop feeling discomfort, you’ll enjoy it. I very often enjoy writing—even editing—because I’ve gotten better at engaging with it. The same goes for cleaning and cooking. Whenever I struggle, I use small steps and time limits to get myself to this place. Some times are harder than others, but consistency makes it easier over time.
The next time you catch yourself procrastinating, think about how you can limit your goal in order to make it more appealing. Expect some discomfort, especially at the beginning, as good things come from hard work. Once you begin, you can set additional goals, focus on each moment, and attempt to engage with the task at hand. You’ll get better with practice.