In the last week I've had more than one conversation with several of my coaching students on how to stop procrastinating. Whether it's keeping up with course work, taking the next step towards our goals, or starting a new habit, we drag our feet when the task feels daunting. I've spent some time reflecting on this and wanted to share my insights with you.
Why we procrastinate
Based on personal experience and coaching my students, I've come up with 2 reasons why we put things off. The task is either not important or it's VERY important. If it's not important then we simply don't care enough to make time for it. On the other hand (and more often the case), if it's very important it often scares us. The important things (like focusing on our goals) often require that we step out of our comfort zone and into unknown territory. Humans detest discomfort and avoid it at all costs. When the time comes to step forward into our growth edge we slam on the brakes and check our email instead.
Play the long game
We're hard-wired to choose instant gratification over long term rewards. Mentally we know what's good for us, but in the moment, we just want to feel good. When we're building a new habit, we need to exert some effort. However, our nature is to take the path of least resistance. One way to overcome this roadblock is to
Take a teeny, tiny step forward
One of the methods I teach in helping people implement new habits is to make it so easy you can't say no. In a culture of all or nothing mindset it might feel pointless to take a seemingly insignificant step forward, but baby steps compound into giant results. If you want to start meditating regularly, start with just one minute a day. Another approach is
Give yourself an out
If the task you're procrastinating feels like a big deal, set a timer for 5 minutes and tell yourself that you can quit after the 5 minutes is up. I use this strategy with coaching students trying to build a morning exercise habit. After 5 minutes you're getting your groove on and most likely will want to keep going. But knowing that you're allowed to quit tricks your mind into getting started.
Find ways of holding yourself accountable
One way I'm able to execute on big ideas is to tell people I'm doing it before I've even started. This is how I've created several of my courses and workshops. First, I write an outline, then I tell people about it, and THEN I actually create the course. Once I've put it "out there", I want to be true to my word (especially if people have actually paid for it). What kind of commitment device can you create to help hold you to your word? Do you need to tell someone who will keep you accountable?
Don't pay attention to how you feel
This is contradictory to the advice I usually give on listening to your body. However, since we've established that humans avoid discomfort, and discomfort is a requirement for growth, don't pay attention to it when it comes down to procrastinating on something you've decided is good for you. I exercise every morning, whether I feel like it or not. And sometimes I really don't feel like – but I get on my mat and go through the motions anyway.
The pain of putting things off is more painful than the effort needed to get started
Once you've taken the first step it's rarely as bad as you made it out to be in your head. Guilt, shame, and anxiety are far worse than the effort required to complete the task. The longer we procrastinate, the more we erode our self-worth, lose trust in ourselves, and enforce old stories of being "someone who can't stick with anything". If we can remember this intellectually, we can just take a small step forward. The first step creates momentum. Once in motion, it's much easier to keep going.
My number one strategy for avoiding procrastination: my Sunday planning session
Every week I schedule a planning session with myself. I've built a ritual of going to my favorite tea shop, opening my goals spreadsheet, my Google calendar, my project management tool and planning the week ahead. (I teach this in great detail in my Do Your Dharma course). My weekly planning is key to continuously taking aligned action. Study after study shows that people who explicitly state when and where their new behaviors are going to happen are much more likely to stick to their goals.
Part of my weekly planning session entails scoring the previous week to see if I've kept my commitments to myself. I have a spreadsheet with the habits I'm currently working on automating. Everyday, I track my progress and give myself a +1 if I did the desired behavior, a 0 if I didn't. It's a very effective way to see how consistent I am. We tend to over or underestimate how much we do. We're good at beating ourselves up and never feel like we're "enough" and we're not great at celebrating our accomplishments. A scorecard gives you a measure of reality that's undeniable.
We all fall prey to the pull of procrastination. But with a few systems in place, and habits around getting started and taking baby steps, change is possible, and our goals, within reach.