I started this blog in March last year because I wanted to write. You see, I have a bit of a procrastination problem and I thought that having a regular deadline would help with this. I’m not sure if you also have a procrastination problem but even if you don’t I’m sure you can see the irony in that sentiment. Well, I’m pleased to report that out of the past 43 weeks I’ve only missed one post (that was some really nasty food poisoning on holiday) and the satisfaction of knowing I can manage to keep on top of this corner of the internet gives me hope that one day I might win in my struggles to get stuff done.
I have a notebook where I jot down ideas for the blog. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere, or are inspired by books I’m reading, but usually they come out of something I’m dealing with in my own creative practice or business. With so many ideas in the notebook you’d think that it would be easy writing these posts… but no. Most weeks, despite the deadline always being Wednesday, I find myself in a mild state of panic (usually on the Tuesday) about what to write. There have been the odd perfect moments where the posts have written themselves, as the topic was so close to me that it just needed to emerge. But mostly I have to drag them out. I have tried micro-managing the blog post writing, scheduling it for the week before to get ahead of myself, and I’ve even tried binge-writing so that I have some posts banked. But generally these instances are few and far between. Things quickly return to the status quo of the last minute.
I’m sharing this with you because I think it helps to hear that other people struggle too. I may offer advice or point people in the direction of things that may help them, but I’m not without my own issues and challenges. I was intending to write this week’s post, in this last week of January, about goal setting and keeping motivated – a way to round up the start of the year. But, if you don’t actually get going then none of those things really matter. So, here are some thoughts and pointers for people who, like me, find themselves putting things off, dodging certain tasks, getting anxious or worried about the things you never quite manage to do.
1. Identify what’s actually going on
By my estimation I’ve been dealing with procrastination problems since I was at secondary school, so easily for the last 25 years. Early signs were things like spending way too much time planning revision (colour coding, elaborate timetables, selecting new pens etc etc) rather than actually revising. At university a regular schedule of essay deadlines helped a bit, but I would often find myself typing frantically late at night, printing out minutes before the deadline and rushing to hand it in. I think I probably believed the old chestnut ‘I work better under pressure’ but in reality I didn’t and I didn’t know any better.
A couple of years ago I read The Now Habit by psychologist Neil Fiore and it helped me to understand why I keep putting myself through this cycle of guilt and frantic panic. Rather than being a simplistic look at a complex problem (like a lot of online ‘advice’ articles) this book is based on decades of Fiore’s practice and treating patients and is rooted in understanding the psychological basis for procrastination. It does not just tell you to pull yourself together and work harder. Everyone will procrastinate for different reasons, but they share a common theme, anxiety: Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.
Figure out why you procrastinate, and how you do it, and you’ll be well on your way to doing something about it.
2. Look around for advice & test things out for yourself
It’s easy to type ‘procrastination’ into google and find yourself a wealth of advice on how to work more productively, how to stop getting distracted, how to start tasks… but who is writing these articles? Be selective about whose advice you take, look for sources you trust whether it’s from more traditional media sources like newspapers or magazines or newer online content from blogs or social media. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to procrastination and tips and tricks that work for someone else may not fit with you.
Be willing to try things out. The Now Habit contains quite a few tools to help you reframe your putting-off tendencies and strategies to deal with them, and I knew at first reading that they probably wouldn’t all work for me, but I gave them a go. Some of the strategies I gave up on quite quickly but others I return to again and again, especially if things get a bit stressful. But I would never assume that they would work for everyone else. So often I find myself wanting the quick fix and looking to others to solve my problems with great solutions, but realistically this challenge is mine to figure out by myself, in a way that works for me.
3. Get inspired by others
Procrastination is something I keep to myself. It’s something that often surprises other people because on the surface I look like a person who deals with things and gets stuff done. Most people aren’t aware of the added layers of stress I put on myself to do the work. So, when I hear other people talk about these things, in a way that I can relate to, it helps no end. These are the people who inspire me and remind me that I’m ok. I like to check in with them every now and then to calm me down.
My go-to source of procrastination inspiration is Tim Urban of Wait But Why. His TED talk is great: “The people of TED reached out to me and invited me to do a TED talk… now, of course, I said yes – it’s always been a dream of mine to have done a TED talk in the past.” A humourous look at a serious topic.
Here’s an inspiring short film about American artist Gwyneth Leech that begins with truth about the difficulty of procrastination, and the blight it has on people, but which develops into a moving account of the joy of creating, the liberation of acceptance and the possibility in difficult situations.
4. Be kind to yourself
Sometimes I think I should get this tattooed on my forehead, it’s something I need regular reminding of. At the heart of it, procrastination isn’t a terrible failing, it’s a reaction to genuine feelings of anxiety and fear. Being unhappy with myself for acting in certain ways or telling myself I should be better at dealing with it isn’t going to help. Acknowledging the issues, and finding solutions in a kind and supportive manner is much better. But that takes practice. I find it helpful to talk about things with other people, and I also like to write things down. I like to write myself notes, reminding myself of things that have gone well or things that I tend to forget about myself which I shouldn’t. This strategy works for me.
Something else that seems to be working for me at the moment is keeping an eye on the big picture, understanding the values behind my work. I did some values exercises as part of a coaching session and I keep the list of values pinned up over my desk, on a post-it in my diary, scribbled in the back of notebooks, anywhere I am likely to see them. I find it’s much easier to get started on the things I’m resisting if I remind myself what it’s all for, why I care about doing it. This isn’t a fail-proof method, but it seems to work the majority of the time. I’ve written a post about the importance of values to your work here.
So, I realise that I have probably written the most unhelpful blog post on procrastination ever. Sorry about that. Just know that if you are struggling with some of these issues, I understand. And if hearing me talk about how things are for me has helped you feel even a teeny bit better, then that’s great.