One of the strange things that’s happened for many of us over the past few weeks, is we’ve suddenly had a lot more of something there never seems to be enough of: time. Usually time feels like a scarce resource that we have to carve up between work, friends and family. Now all of a sudden we’ve been given some of this back, in a circumstance most of us have never experienced before. While there’s an active movement on social channels and message chains for us not to feel like we need to use that time in a productive way, if you’re ambitious the sudden lack of freedom offers an opportunity.
Whether it’s a website you’ve been meaning to create, a book you wanted to write, improving on the piano, or reorganising your wardrobe, lack of time is no longer a reason not to actually deliver on something.
However, while it’s easy to see time as the greatest blocker when it comes to achievement, accomplishing isn’t just about finding time, but using it in an effective and efficient way. And while we may now have been gifted some time, we may still be finding ourselves in a state of perpetual procrastination.
One of the great enemies of achievement, the tendency to procrastinate is a very genuine challenge and not something to be embarrassed about or seen as a personal weakness. Procrastination comes when you have this frustrating feeling that while you know you want to have done something, there are a million other ways to spend your time than in the doing. We reassure ourselves that at some point we will do and then we realise… we didn’t.
In his brilliant book on the challenges of the creative process, Stephen Pressfield gives procrastination an alternative guise: “resistance”. I think resistance is a great word to describe this process as it’s an internal battle you’re fighting but your mind and body genuinely are resisting doing the work for whatever it is you want to do.
Whichever way you dress it up, the avoidance of productive activity is a very real challenge and something almost everyone struggles with. It isn’t something that you need to accept as a part of your character. Procrastination is really the result of three possible underlying things and it’s those root causes you need to address to help reduce the amount you procrastinate.
As is perhaps helpful, I’ll first tell you a bit about me and why I feel qualified to tackle this subject. I have a full time job in marketing at one of the most famous brands in the world. I run an online publication, for which I write but also edit and review submissions, I have a podcast with new episodes weekly, which I host and also edit working with a support team of four, I DJ which includes a weekly residency and events, and I’m writing a book. Between you and me, I’m desperate to finish the book so that I clear some space to start producing music. With all these things going on, I do not have a lot of time to procrastinate. If I don’t use my time efficiently, then I would be forced to admit that perhaps I’ve taken on too much.
While for many people, their focus is more single channel, my work, every part of it, is like my second family and the idea of giving up any one part would be like picking children. Each contributes to my identity and so choosing one lane would be less fulfilling for me. And I defend my right not to have to choose, provided I can still fully deliver on each thing. Oh and still find space to chill with my friends and family, relax, meditate, date, and drink too much wine. All activities I’m also very fond of.
While I’ve always been interested in lots of different things, I haven’t always been good at doing much with my interests. For a long time I was more of a dabbler and also a person who lived with a belief that things would exist in the future not realising that I had to actually create that future. It wouldn’t just happen.
There are three fundamental reasons we procrastinate. Sometimes it’s a combination of all three, sometimes just one. The first way to start overcoming them is to understand what the reasons are and then you know what it is you have to address for yourself.
The first reason we procrastinate is out of fear.
We tend to think of fear as something rational, protecting us from handling dangerous animals or walking near the edge of tall buildings. In our daily life though much of our fear is quite irrational and therefore limiting. So often we put off doing something because we’re afraid that when we do it, we won’t get the result we want.
Say you’ve seen your dream job online and you really want to get that job, you can put off applying because you’re scared your application won’t be good enough. That you’ll put all this time in crafting a cover letter and then either it won’t get read or, scarier, it will but the company won’t want you. It’s easier and less scary to not apply and live with the illusion that if you had you could have got it.
Or say you like the idea of being a successful content creator. You have the vision in your mind of getting thousands of views and everyone loving your videos, but you know there’s also a possibility that no one will love your videos and after hours of editing, your video will sit on youtube with just 167views. 49 of which you built up by clearing your cookies and refreshing your page. That idea is scary and it’s much safer never to create the content in the first place and stay in the safe space of, “if I did do it, then I would be very good”.
If the fear that when you do the work, you won’t get the result you want, is putting you off doing then you need to reframe your notion of what success actually looks like. You need to realise firstly that none of us are owed success or applause for the work we do. How people receive what you put out into the world is totally outside of your control. Then you also need to realise that success is something which only comes after you’ve started to accept this.
Amy Poehler, who is far more successful than I, summarised this well:
“You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.” — Amy Poehler
It also might help to ask yourself whether not trying is actually saving you from anything? It’s a bit like not dating anyone because you’re too scared of rejection or heartbreak. Well, I don’t think those are things you get to avoid and the trade off is not getting to experience the joy and fun of meeting and falling for someone. Start seeing the doing as the most important bit and any results as a “nice-to-have”.
Side note, when I applied for my current job I saw the role and applied within an hour. I’m really glad I didn’t procrastinate on that one.
The second major cause for procrastinating, is that you aren’t specific enough about what you should be doing with the time you have. You may know ultimately where you want to get to but not know exactly what you need to be doing right now to make the journey to get there.
My solve for this is much simpler, and actually a great thing to be doing in lockdown while you have the headspace. It involves taking some time alone, with a notebook and pen, and really working it out. You may want to start by looking at the journeys of some people who inspire you, or looking at credits of people the level above. Ultimately though, I think your next steps will come from within.
When I first started trying to overcome my personal blockers, I was inspired by certain writers, so despite not necessarily wanting to be a writer, I just started writing on a simple blog. I didn’t tell any of my friends or family what I was doing. I didn’t know what it was or would become at that stage, but the process of having a specific task, helped me start to find my way.
I think a big reason so many people follow the career paths of their parents is because it is one they have seen directly how to achieve it. Without having someone close to you show you the way it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly what you should be doing to get to a different endpoint. So if you don’t have the exact steps in mind then take a step back. Focus instead on breaking down different ways you can start moving towards your areas of interest and you’ll get to know yourself more intimately in the process.
The third and final, and if you’re the one not looking for a life changing move but simply putting off doing your taxes, this is you. Your procrastinating out of laziness.
It’s OK to be lazy. You’d probably be surprised to know how lazy some of the hardest working people in the world can be at times. The difference is, they only allow laziness when they’ve earned it.
If you want something, but you can’t be bothered to work for it, you won’t get it. It’s as simple as that. Sorry if that wasn’t the answer you were hoping for but I really believe in being truthful. The front runners always work the hardest. There are actually some very practical things you can do to address mental laziness. Going for a walk or a run activates your system, and eating less carb-heavy food makes you less lethargic. Really simple things like putting on jeans instead of leggings and playing specific music can also really help. I would also stress the importance of working with your body clock. If you know your enthusiasm wanes throughout the day, then make sure you get up earlier and use the morning. If, on the other hand, you get a second wind at 9pm, then make sure you work your day around being able to use that.
Laziness is not a fixed character trait and therefore it isn’t an excuse to not do something. Unless you’re totally comfortable with it, in which case, I don’t really know why you would be reading an article about overcoming procrastination.
If you’re procrastinating out of fear or uncertainty, then get to the core of that and your resistance will ease away. If it’s laziness then it’s on you to either abandon your dreams or to not accept laziness as a trait in yourself.
Either way, I hope this helps,