Overcoming Procrastination: A Quintessential 5-Step Strategy
Some months ago, I asked the people who are active in my inner circle to identify the main sticking point in their personal development journey. One topic stood out, above all others: Procrastination.
So, after popular demand, I decided to face my demons, get over my fears and share my views on what I believe is the KING of all self-growth topics – overcoming procrastination.
And to be bluntly honest with you, it wasn’t that easy.
Before I started working on this article, I procrastinated way too much. I watched 2 episodes of Narcos, I went to the bathroom 3 times, I ate a whole jar of cookies, I played with my dog, I posted around 5 tweets and I answered to at least 10 emails. All that while going back and forth from my computer trying to find the right words to kick off this potential masterpiece.
Nonetheless, I finally made it.
In the next paragraphs, you will find everything you need to know about procrastination, as well as a step-by-step guide that will maneuver you through the entire process I use to finally get some work done.
It’s going to be educational, instructional and full of great revelations.
But before we do that let’s procrastinate a bit.
The awareness-action principle
Before I get to the nitty-gritty of procrastination, I am going to share with you one of my latest findings.
I want to introduce you to a new principle that I have been pondering upon for some time now.
You know how when you have a problem with something and you have no idea where to start in order to deal with it? Let’s say you exhibit a behavior or a habit that you don’t really like and even when you try to stop it, it is so difficult?
That’s because you are not familiar with the awareness-action principle.
The awareness-action principle is my latest finding and what it suggests is that in order to deal effectively with any problem, first, you need to find its roots and then you need to focus on effective ways to tackle it.
Let me illustrate my point with an example.
Let’s say you want to wake up early and despite your most admirable efforts, you fail to do so and snoozing becomes second nature to you.
This happens because you don’t really understand the science of sleep and you think that sleeping random hours and waking up whenever you like is effective.
Well, sleep is way more complicated than you might think and therefore requires a specific strategy to get the most out of it.
As I mentioned in my sleep strategy article, you first need to understand that during our sleep we go through sleep cycles and each sleep cycle consists of 5 sleep stages. In order to get a good night’s sleep, you need to complete at least 5 sleep cycles and wake up in the first sleep stage, which is the light sleep stage. Waking up in that stage will eliminate grogginess and snoozing won’t need to be an option.
Getting better sleep is just one of the numerous areas where the awareness-action principle can be applied. It can also be applied to emotional intelligence issues, social intelligence issues, confidence issues and so on and so forth. It is not rocket science. It is common sense, but I mention it here because common sense is not usually common practice and that’s something very important to have in mind.
Therefore, we are going to use it today while trying to face our procrastination demons.
First, we are going to raise awareness by understanding where procrastination comes from and then we are going to propose some effective ways to tackle it.
Now, enough with procrastinating on procrastination. Let’s get on with it.
The science of procrastination in a nutshell
The reason we procrastinate can be explained by understanding two powerful concepts: “temporal discounting” and “the path of least resistance.”
I am sure that you have probably realized by now that humans generally prefer momentary pleasures and immediate brain stimulation than long-term achievements and successes.
Though the psychological causes are still debated, there is a human tendency to over or underestimate the value of a reward based on its temporal proximity.
For instance, if I offer you $100 today or $110 in a month, you will most probably take $100 without a second thought.
However, if I offer you $100 in a year or $110 in a year and a month you might as well reconsider and decide to wait the extra month.
As it turns out, human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is.
So, the further away the reward is, the more you discount its value.
This is what temporal discounting is all about.
So, for you, being on Facebook, Twitter, and other procrastination-friendly websites, is more rewarding than finishing that report or studying for your exam.
However, when the deadline approaches, temporal proximity kicks in and you start working like there is no tomorrow in order to deliver in time.
On top of that, whenever something enjoyable happens you get a small dose of dopamine, which modifies the neurons in your brain making you more likely to repeat the behavior.
Video games, browsing the internet, etc. provide a lot of those small doses, urging you to crave for more and that’s why you find yourself procrastinating for hours. 1
The path of least resistance
Most of the time we find ourselves procrastinating when we face a task that requires a lot of creativity or something that we haven’t encountered before. This is also called resistance and Steven Pressfield has dedicated a whole book on the topic called “The War of Art.”
Resistance is faced whenever we try to do something out of the ordinary and it manifests itself in many forms. It can be manifested in the form of fear, in the form of laziness, in the form of paralysis and also in the form of procrastination.
Our mind, whenever it needs to process new information, it usually relies on our strongest memories in order to draw conclusions and give answers.
Everything we do in life is governed by past experience. Events in our past and specific things we have learned, act as mental guides in order for us to solve mental problems. Therefore, whenever we face a new task and especially if this task requires some novelty to be deployed, our mind fails to recognize this process as familiar and decides to follow the path of least resistance.
So whenever you feel resistance creeping in, don’t get frustrated. It is a very natural process and it happens to everyone.
The thing is that with the right mindset it can be overcome.
The solution: Efficacy – Focus – Flow
Procrastination, like every other challenging mental issue, requires a well-defined strategy in order to be tackled effectively.
My plan is based on years of experimentation and research that allowed me to use my brain and available resources to my advantage regardless of my working environment.
With the plan that I am going to suggest below, you will be able to finish important tasks effortlessly and view procrastination from a different perspective.
What do I mean by that?
Procrastination is a natural human tendency. No matter what you do you can’t always be in work mode. There are times where you just need to chill, do nothing or inject your brain with small doses of dopamine.
And that’s ok. Your brain is a very sensitive organ that has a limited amount of capacity in its disposal every day. From the almost 16 hours you are awake, usually 4-5 hours and maybe even less, you are able to work in deep-work mode. What we are trying to accomplish here is to make use of these hours in order to finish your most difficult tasks.
And when it comes to overcoming procrastination, procrastination is not your problem. Your mindset is the problem.
Procrastination should be perceived as a reward for your hard work. When you finish your important tasks, you can allow yourself to procrastinate non-judgmentally, and that is a very liberating feeling.
So, now that we have clarified the awareness part in our procrastination predicament it is time to concentrate on the action part.
As I said before, I will explain my personal strategy, which works extremely well, and I have been using it almost every day. Any comments and suggestions are welcome in the comment section below.
Overcoming Procrastination Strategy
Step 1 – Efficacy
For step 1, I want to give credit to Tim Ferriss. In an article published back in 2013, he suggests that successful people aren’t something extraordinary. They are normal people who might lack efficiency, but they managed to find ways to maximize efficacy.
The way you maximize efficacy isn’t rocket science. It is actually quite simple and straightforward. Efficacy is all about doing the right things. So whatever life scenario you find yourself into there is definitely one thing in your life that stands out and you consider more important than others.
What you need to do is give all your attention to this “thing” for 2-3 hours per day. That’s it. Whether your “thing” is to prepare for a big exam, a big presentation, a pitch, an application, etc. dedicate 2-3 hours per day to it and you are good to go.
In Tim Ferriss words:
“Block out at 2-3 hours to focus on ONE activity for today. Let the rest of the urgent but less important stuff slide. It will still be there tomorrow.”
In the following steps, I am going to show you how this is possible and the right steps to get the most out of these 2-3 hours.
Step 2 – No distractions, please
Another huge parameter of the strategy is that it suggests that no distractions should be present during the work. What this means is that if you are doing your work on your computer, you should focus on the programs and websites that are relevant to your work. The rest of the programs and websites should remain closed.
No Facebook, no Twitter, no news sites, no email.
Some people suggest using apps that help your stay disconnected from the Internet or allow you to access apps only relevant to your work, but I don’t use them because I prefer to work simultaneously on my self-discipline.
If for any reason you need to interrupt your task because a meeting is scheduled or something unexpected comes up, you need to either end your task right there or inform the party who distracted you that you need to meet later. If you decide on the latter here are some important actions to take:
- Inform the other (distracting) party that you’re working on something right now.
- Negotiate a time when you can get back to them about the distracting issue in a timely manner.
- Schedule that follow-up immediately and add it in your calendar or your task list.
- Call back the other party when your main task is complete and you are ready to tackle their issue.
Step 3 – Music is your guide to flow (optional but it works for me)
Wherever you decide to work on your task, whether this is your office, your room, the library or a coffee shop, sound distractions will be constantly present.
Music can help you deal with that very effectively.
Save some money and buy a quality set of headphones. This is the only way you can experience great sound quality and let the music be your guide to flow.
I strongly suggest listening to music with no vocals because vocals can be distracting. I usually prefer electronic music but if this is not your thing, melodic jazz, classical music or ambient are also great alternatives.
Step 4 – Start small and build up momentum
The most difficult part of every task is the first minutes. It is the time where you face your creative block and resistance is raising a huge wall between you and your desired outcome.
The thing, however, is that you can’t expect your brain to enter flow immediately. You need to provide it with some small bites of information relevant to your task in order to process that information and consequently help you get immersed in the activity.
For example, when I start writing I feel like a crippled person. The words won’t come out, whatever I write makes no sense, my grammar and sentence structure sucks. After 10-15 minutes, however, everything is formed naturally and I enjoy the writing process a lot.
So, whatever your task is, start small, allow yourself to produce a not-so-special result and once you enter flow you will create extraordinary ones.
Flow is achieved the same way when you are out. In a social environment like a nightclub or a bar you can enter flow by building up momentum. This usually takes 2-3 good interactions.
Step 5 – Enter Flow
As I mentioned above, it usually takes 10-15 minutes to enter flow. Once you are there, everything you do happens naturally, non-judgmentally and with a great sense of self-worth.
Have you ever wondered why this happens, though?
Brain imaging shows that when in flow states we often actually switch off the part of the brain that gives us our ‘sense of self’ and the part that regulates our brain function. This part is called dorsolateral frontal cortex. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that allows us to analyze and question our own behavior, which can be highly useful. Unfortunately, it also slows everything down because it means that all our decisions have to go through it, and it can act as a “creative barrier.”
By switching off this part, we allow all our attention to go to the part we want to use without censorship or micromanagement. This results in quick reactions and uninterrupted productivity.
Flow state has fluctuations but once you are there you are actually aware of it and can become consciously productive. Because it is quite an energy-draining state, however, we can’t stay there long so reaching it for small time frames during these 3-4 hours can help us achieve great results.
I really hope that my 5-step strategy can prove useful and help you get over your procrastination predicament.
If you enjoyed this article and you find the strategy helpful, let me know in the comment section below. If you enjoyed this article, but you want to keep procrastinating, follow me on Instagram, or by email (form below) so I can make your procrastination more meaningful.
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