How To Overcome Procrastination

Without relying on willpower (or double espresso)

Procrastination is a first world problem. In ancient times there was no such thing. If you were a hungry bushman roaming the Kalahari, your options were to find food or starve. Raining? Quick, build a shelter. Cold? Better scrounge up some kindling and get that fire started. Procrastination only arises in a luxurious circumstance where immediate needs are met.

We can have a book brewing inside of us, lying dormant and waiting — endlessly waiting — for the perfect moment to spring forth onto paper. Health goals. Charity work. Asking for a more significant leadership role at work. All these things sit by the wayside, as the newest episode of America’s Got Talent or CNN’s endless political chatter takes precedence. We blame procrastination and our supposed lack of will, but this belies the truth.

I’m not saying we should all retreat to caves and give up our creature comforts. I am saying that it’s important to understand the nature of procrastination, and what we can do to deal with it in a world where more (not less) creature comforts are the norm. Our society is careening forward towards more prosperity and abundance. This is a good thing. However, it creates a problem…

We have too many options

Procrastination thrives in a world of plenty and choice.

When there is no choice, we move to action automatically. Procrastination also grows when you cast your thoughts into the future. It’s in the future that all the reasons why something isn’t needed (or how it will fail) manifest. It’s in the future that you see a plethora of options, obviating the need for completing the one meaningful project that should be the focus of your attention right now.

What can we possibly do about this?

The good news is, defeating procrastination has nothing to do with summoning courage or mustering the last crumbs of your precious willpower. It is precisely the opposite. You prevail by doing less not doing more. Relax into your work, don’t power through it. In this blog post I’ll explore a few ways that you can change your relationship to your work, and in doing so, break up the logjam of procrastination.

Showing up is way more than half the battle

“It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”
– Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

A while ago I had a new roof put on my home. The weather was windy and cold. Snow was in the air. I was worried the crew might not show. Lucky for me, they did.

Right on time, a few guys showed up, along with the contractor overseeing everything. They got straight to work. Steady and light on their feet, they worked all day, taking a few short breaks. With a job well done, they called it quits for the day. No doubt some of the crew didn’t feel like roofing that day. Did they give up? Not a chance. They still showed up and did the work.

What are you procrastinating about? Come on, there must be something? What if you had no option but to get to work? What if you approached your work with the same mindset as my roofing crew?

As my own boss, I know how important it is to do the work I know I need to do, regardless of my feelings about it. Perhaps this is what you need to do as well. Show up and get to work, irrespective of how you feel. In doing so, you will notice that Buddha was right, your thoughts and feelings can’t be trusted. Your worst fears or concerns never come to pass as it plays out in your mind. Put in the time, even if it means twirling your thumbs in front of a blank sheet of paper (or empty Word.docx).

Showing up is way more than half the battle. It’s more like 80% of it!

Your expectations are killing your progress

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
– Stephen Hawking

Your expectations get in the way of starting in the first place.

Take, for example, this blog post. I started with a topic, “procrastination” that I was inspired to write about. It’s a common topic amongst my coaching clients. Even the highest performing tech leaders I work with suffer from it. It is an important topic to write about. I also have some interesting thoughts about it (at least they are interesting to me!).

The irony of this, however, was that up until a few minutes ago, I was procrastinating about writing about procrastination! I was hung up on the right talking points. After stewing on the outline for about ten minutes, I decided just to start writing and see what would happen. Within minutes, I began to get a more definite sense for what to say and how.

To overcome procrastination, I had to ignore my expectations about this blog post being high quality and ready for public consumption. Instead, I had to just get the words out of my mind and onto paper. I had to do the work and eradicate any expectation of a desirable outcome. Once done, pressure dropped and my supposed writer's block turned into a torrent of words.

The gift of thought

The capacity to think, plan and envision is a powerful gift. Potentially, a gift unique to humans (though we don’t know for sure). However, future thoughts aren’t real. They are an illusion. We have a special-effects factory in our mind more powerful than Marvel Studios. You can spend all day lost in the rapture of thought, just as you can spend all day watching TV. This isn’t inherently problematic until it becomes, well, a problem. If you are procrastinating, it’s definitely a problem!

It’s doubly problematic when you begin to understand that your mind has evolved to dwell on the negative more often than the positive. This is a feature, not a bug. It’s kept you alive. It also explains why your expectations about how something is going to be received by the world gets in the way of anything happening at all. Chances are your expectations are biased to the negative.

If procrastination is an issue, remember that the present moment is where you have the most significant leverage over your predicament. It’s here and now that you can make a simple choice just to do the work. Your expectations and rumination don’t matter. They will only get you stuck. Even positive thinking is a trap. We can just as easily get caught in the warm glow of our happy expectations, and still, avoid the work to be done.

Curiosity can cure your fidgety, procrastinating mind

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
– Albert Einstein

Boredom and procrastination are close cousins. The good news is that the world can be infinitely engaging and interesting if you would only give it a chance to captivate your attention.

Here’s a fun experiment: Have you ever eaten an apple (or any whole food) with your eye’s closed? It’s a fun way to explore the power of your senses. The simplest of foods burst with flavor and aliveness! The same is true with walking around blindfolded (don’t do this alone!) or spending a day in silence. Closing off any sense organ allows one to tap into the fuller potential of others.

Likewise, curiosity is an antidote to boredom (and procrastination). It throws you headfirst into the present moment. Think of anything that you have been really curious about. Notice how interested and engaged you were about that thing. Your level of interest and engagement tend to rise and fall together. More curiosity leads to more engagement. Next thing you know time has flown by. Working on your project isn’t a struggle, it just flows along.

Very young children don’t procrastinate because they have an insatiable curiosity that trumps their likes and dislikes. They try things without fear of judgment or getting too caught up with expectations (that is, until they develop an ego).

Being curious might just be the gateway to overcoming your procrastinating tendencies. What if you were incredibly curious about your work, regardless of the outcome? What would it take for you to 10x your curiosity?

Defeating procrastination

You don’t need to be the Incredible Hulk to smash procrastination.

Quite the opposite, overcoming the boredom and confusion that leads to procrastination is about doing less, not more. Let go of endless thought and planning about the future. Let go of expectations about how things will work out (or not work out!).

Allow curiosity to flow in naturally as your senses tune into the present moment. Then, do the work and see what happens.

There are countless best selling novels, thriving business ideas, and adventures waiting to be had in the hearts and minds of each of you. It’s about time you were unleashed to work on your dreams. With so much possibility ahead of you, how can procrastination possibly stand in your way?

How do you overcome procrastination?

Let me know in the comments below!

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