I think one of the biggest questions I get asked is why we procrastinate. As writers, we want to complete these grandiose projects, but we can’t seem to get started.
And while I have covered how to stop procrastinating before, I feel like it’s time for an update. I have some new information that may or may not change the game for you.
Before we get very far into it, I want to make sure I share with you that I’m not perfect. Like, seriously. I still procrastinate all the time. Like, if you were to ask me when the last time I mopped my apartment was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. That’s how long I’ve been procrastinating this task.Why We Procrastinate (and How to Stop!) Click To Tweet
And while I told you in the title of this post that I could tell you how to stop procrastinating, I have to say that it doesn’t always work. If you don’t want to do a task, it may not be that you’re procrastinating. It could be, that subconsciously, you’re just avoiding it. And I’m a fan of taking a page out of my subconscious’s playbook and I have mostly just chosen never to mop my apartment.
(Judge all you want, but it’s not like I’ll ever serve a four course meal off the floor. There are no kids crawling across that floor, and as long as it gets swept, I feel pretty okay. So take your judgment elsewhere.)
Why We Procrastinate
I’m not sure if there’s a universal reason why we procrastinate. But if there is one, it’s probably got something to do with the general human desire to just chill.
I can’t think of anything I’d like to do more than just chilling out and sitting in front of the couch with nothing to do. Like, if you asked me what I’d do if I won the lottery, I’d probably travel and quit my job so I could focus on writing. But I would also spend a lot of time just doing nothing.
(Imagine how much nothing you can do when you have the money to pay someone to cook and clean for you, and when you don’t have to worry about where your next paycheck comes from.)
But another reason I think we tend to procrastinate is because we just haven’t evolved that much. Sure, we, as a species, are capable of sending robot vehicles to Mars to investigate the terrain, and we can create heartbreaking literary works, but ultimately, we still approach most of our lives with that lizard brain mentality.
So, it’s hard to do a thing you can put off when your lizard brain is still trying to help you hide from wolves or mammoths, and also telling you there are no imminent threats, and you should just chill.
It wasn’t too long ago that the average human didn’t live past 30 and the average person would probably die from a minor infection that you or I could treat with Neosporin. So, it makes sense that our brains are still acting the way they did back then. That is to say, our brains are still behaving on that animalistic level.
So, when you see your dog take the seventh nap of the day before noon, know that it’s not because he’s inherently lazy. He’s just an animal that follows his whims. And we, my friends, are also just animals that want to follow our whims.
Every semester I give my students a pep talk. I tell them that writing papers always sucks. I tell them there is no reason to feel bad if they want to watch Netflix instead of writing the paper. I tell them that every college student procrastinates. And honestly, it’s mostly true.
No one really wants to do things they don’t want to do. And we live in a time when there is always a more interesting leisure activity to partake in. I mean, I would be lying if I said I always wanted to write blog posts or work on YouTube videos. Mostly, I want to curl up in my bed and scroll through Instagram until I pass out.
Then, I’d wake up and get a snack and start the process all over again.
But that’s not how things get done. So, when I catch myself attempting to put off until tomorrow what I know I should be doing today, I have to check myself.
Here are the steps I take to stop procrastinating.
How to Stop Procrastinating
001: Identity Why You Are Procrastinating (and If You Really Want to Stop).
Sometimes we put stuff off because there are better, more fun things that we could be doing. And sometimes we put stuff off because we subconsciously don’t want to do the thing.
If you find that the latter is the reason you can’t seem to get started on a project or a task, know that it’s totally cool to quit. Quitting is a highly underrated thing in our society, and everyone glorifies going through with something we hate as if we have unlimited time on this planet.
You don’t. So, you need to make sure you’re trying to tackle the things that matter to you.
Now, if you find that you really do want to achieve something and you keep procrastinating, it’s only because you’re a poorly evolved human who hasn’t achieved that higher state of being yet just like the rest of us.
And that’s okay. Because there are more steps when it comes to stopping procrastinating.
Don’t worry, little lizard brain. I got you.
002: Get Rid of Barriers that Make It Easier to Procrastinate.
If you find that you can’t seem to get up in the morning to work out, it’s nothing to get mad at yourself over. In fact, if you find that your warm bed is far too comfy first thing in the morning, and you couldn’t possibly fathom a life where you didn’t sleep in, you’re not alone.
But, if you really wanted to start this habit, you need to make sure you’re removing any unnecessary barriers.
So, you could put your alarm clock on the other side of the room. That way, you couldn’t simply lean over and hit snooze. You’d have to actually get up to turn off the alarm.
You could go to sleep in your workout clothes. (I have been known to do this.) It eliminates one step from the morning and puts you that much closer to the thing you want to achieve.)
You could also enlist the help of a friend who is going to meet you at the gym or the running trail. That way, if you didn’t show up, you’d have that shame to deal with.
All of these things are very small, but when you add them all together, they really push you toward that wake up goal.
I like to use browser extensions that block social media when I’m trying to write or grade papers. These prevent me from bingeing YouTube or going on a Twitter spiral. I’ve also removed phone notifications from the equation so I don’t always feel like I need to be checking something else.
There are a million little ways you can sabotage what you’re trying to do. But there are a million little ways to set yourself up for success.
003: Set a Timer and an Intention.
If you were to ask me to clean my apartment, I would fall on the floor and cry like a toddler.
This is who I am. It ain’t pretty.
Even though I intuitively know that I can easily clean the space, I just know that it involves multiple steps and multiple rooms. This is something that, for me anyway, is a procrastination trigger.
So, I have to remove the “bigness” of the task. Instead of cleaning my apartment, I can straighten the coffee table. I can tackle that in under 5 minutes (unless I’m in the middle of outlining a project, because that’s a lot of paper to organize) and it makes me feel like I’m actually making headway a lot quicker.
So, I like to break up big projects into small tasks. And then I only focus on those small tasks.
Let’s say I needed to clean my office. Only, I wouldn’t say that because it’s too big of a project.
I would make a list of things that go into cleaning the office: Clear off desk, organize papers, put away the piles of nonsense hanging on the back of the office chair, straighten book cases, dust, and vacuum.
Those tasks are all very small, and I can do each of them quickly.
So, I may set a timer for 10 minutes and see how many of those things I can accomplish. Then, when the timer goes off, I’ll take stock, have a small break, and then go after it again with another timer.
It may seem unnecessary, but there are a lot of things I know I need to do to trick my brain into tackling tasks. And when I have a list of specific things and a specific amount of time set aside to do them, it makes it so much easier to tackle those things.
004: Make Small, Manageable Goals.
So, my last example was all well and good for cleaning your home. But what about the big projects? What about those things that you really want to do but they feel so far out of the realm of possibility?
You can totally do those too. You just have to break them up.
Remember my office cleaning example from a few paragraphs ago? You can apply that to novel writing.
Instead of putting “write a novel” on your to do list — possibly the most demoralizing way you can approach that project, by the way — you can create a list of small tasks that make up that project.
So, for example, you could break it up into phases. You’d have the outline phase, the drafting phase, and the editing phase. Each of those phases would be broken up into smaller parts.
For outlining, each act could make up a sub-phase of the process. For drafting, every 1,000 words could be a sub-phase of the process. For editing, each chapter could be a sub-phase.
When you list it all out, it might actually make the project seem a lot bigger than it normally would. But you can see everything that has to be done. And then you can mark off each sub-phase as you work so you can see where you’re making progress.
This is literally something I do on a monthly and weekly basis for everything from the writing projects I’m taking on to the blog posts I put out. You can even track this in something like Trello or a bullet journal. Just find a system that works for you and tricks your lizard brain into believing that it’s making a lot of progress.
005: Give Yourself Breaks.
I’m never more distraught or unhappy than when I don’t know what’s coming next. I love to be in control of my schedule, almost to a point where you might wonder what sort of tragic incident befell me in the past to make me so anxious about the schedule..
(I’m pretty sure it was formal education system and the 9-to-5 work environment. I AM NOT A SHEEP YOU CAN HERD, INSTITUTIONS.)
This is why I need to know when my next break will be. I have to have that to look forward to.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I like to schedule breaks into my projects.
One way I do this is with the Strict Workflow Chrome Extension. I just click on the little tomato (it’s basically a Pomodoro timer) in the tool bar, and it activates. It blocks all the websites I know I shouldn’t be accessing for the next 25 minutes. That means I have 25 focused minutes to attack writing or paper grading or video editing.
Then, when the 25 minutes are done, I get a five-minute break. In those five minutes, I can check whatever I want. (I try to avoid YouTube though, just because most videos are more than five minutes.) Then, the break timer will go off and I go back to the task that I’m tackling.
But I always know that every 25 minutes, I will get a five-minute break.
This makes it really easy for me to dive into the task at hand, and make some progress because I know there’s some rest time coming up.Read this post later, you little procrastinator! Click To Tweet
What’s One Way You Stopped Procrastinating?
You’ll notice this post didn’t include anything like “wait so long until the panic sets in and you have to tackle the task.” This is because I don’t recommend that method, and I’m pretty sure that everyone is already aware of that way to approach work.
To each their own, though.
Do you like to break your tasks up into smaller pieces? Do you use a timer to make sure you get more done? How addicted to knowing your scheduled breaks are you? What are some ways you remove procrastinating triggers?