I have intended to write this post for 3 months now. My process has been as follows:
Identify the topic – check.
Brainstorm an outline of what I want to say – check.
Stagnate – check.
Stall – check.
Finally get around to actually writing – check.
Granted, other things have come up that demanded my attention. Some legitimate, some mere distractions, some blatant attempts to not do the thing that had been hanging over my head. This is the very essence of procrastination. I put off to tomorrow what could have been done today. I know better. I counsel and advise others on how to avoid this pitfall. I know the short-term benefits of avoiding are not outweighed by the long-term consequences that will follow. Yet none of these chiding thoughts prodded me into actually writing this post. Up until this moment as I write, I had not followed my own advice.
I have been on both sides of the procrastination battle; both as a victim to the temptations of delay and as a victor over the siren’s song of postponement. I can say that being the victor is far more satisfying and rewarding. Following the three simple principles that follow will help guide you to be victorious over procrastination more often than you fall victim to it. I know firsthand: it is simple, just not easy. But it is well worth the effort.
Front Load the Work
We often have a lot of things that need to be done and a lot of things that we could do that would be beneficial, wise, and productive uses of our time. Some of them are responsibilities and some are things to unwind and relax. Most likely, the items on the responsibilities lists are the ones that will be put off to some other time. We prioritize other activities over what should be done. How this typically plays out is that we will engage in some other (less important) activity, all the while feeling the weight of the thing we are not doing hanging over our heads. This tends to rob us of some of the enjoyment of what we are doing. It is likely to be hard to fully enjoy going out with our friends if we know that we really needed to be working on a report that is due the next day.
The fix for this is to “front load” the work. Do the thing that needs to be done first and then you can fully enjoy the rest of your time, free of the burden of knowing that work awaits you once you are done. You will feel good about getting the to-do item accomplished and then you can engage in whatever activities that follow with a clear conscience.
If you get into the habit of doing the work first and then playing afterwards, you can achieve a balance to where you are fully productive and fully engaged in fun and fulfilling activities as well. This balanced approach will help prevent you from feeling burnt out or overwhelmed.
Present Me and Future Me
The second principle is to remember that future me is not going to be any more motivated, energetic, or capable than present me. To understand this principle, you must first understand that you hold two versions of yourself in your mind at any given moment. The first is “Present Me,” which is the you that you are currently experiencing. Present Me is currently reading these words. Whatever you are thinking, feeling, and doing in this moment makes up Present Me. Future Me is the idea of what you are going to be like outside of this moment. You may be thinking that Future Me is going to cook dinner, or go to that movie you have been wanting to see, or take that vacation you have been dreaming about. Future me gets to do all sorts of things, both pleasant (like the movie or the vacation) and unpleasant (like chores, pay bills, and get root canals).
Problems with procrastination occur when we start to assign too much stuff to Future Me. We may begin to think that Future Me is going to develop super-powers of super-human will, motivation, and energy. Or at least Future Me would need to develop these super-hero abilities in order for them to accomplish all that is being assigned to them. When there is this rift between what Present Me and Future Me is capable of, we are deep in the waters of procrastination. And we are likely drowning in those waters. We need to understand that Future Me is going to feel exactly like Present Me does. Future Me does not like doing dishes any more than Present Me does. Future Me does not possess an amazing ability to balance the checkbook any more than Present Me does.
Future Me and Present Me are the same person. When we understand this, we may be less likely to heap loads of responsibilities onto Future Me. If you use the first principle of front loading work, Present Me can accomplish some things and then go and have some fun rather than Present Me hogging all of the fun and Future Me getting the raw end of the deal.
Motivation Follows Action
The final principle deals with how we perceive how we get things done. When asked, people will often respond that they do something when they feel like doing it. “I get the inspiration to accomplish something and then I set about doing it.” Some things will happen in this sequence. But if we are procrastinating, it is this process that has gone awry. We are waiting to feel the motivation to do something before we start doing it. And typically, that motivation just ain’t coming any time soon. This way of thinking is what I call “action follows motivation.” You can think of it as motivation being the engine and action being the trailer that is pulled along by the engine.
This simply does not work when we are faced with a procrastination problem. In this case, we must force ourselves to flip the sequence and realize that motivation will follow our action. When discussing this, I often think of how I feel when there is a sink full of dishes from dinner. I don’t really want to do them, but I know that I want them to be done. If I wait around to feel like doing the dishes, I would probably still be sitting here with a sink full of dirty dishes. So instead, I start doing them and, after about the second plate, I realize that I am motivated to finish the job. It feels good to be making progress towards being done with this chore and I am looking forward to when I can go sit down and enjoy some quality time with my family and unwind. What has happened here is that motivation has followed my action. And when you think about it, the flipside of that is that being unmotivated follows inaction. The longer we avoid doing the things we know need to be done, the less motivated we feel.
Procrastinate No More
We will all likely struggle with procrastination from time to time, but now you are armed with these three principles to assist you in combating procrastination. It may have taken me three months, but I eventually took my own advice, kept these principles in mind and completed this post. And I feel much better for having done so. I wish you the same success!