Allow me to tell you about a little friend — rather, an acquaintance — I have who tends to pop in uninvited a bit too often.
Typically, he sneaks up behind me just as I’m thinking of doing something productive, like writing a new blog post or working out, and he distracts me with notions of other things I could do instead. I’m sure you’ve met him before too. Around these parts he’s known as Procrastination.
Okay, whom am I kidding? He’s basically my mortal enemy.
Procrastination is a sleazy creature. I envision him as a skinny little gnome. Skitterish, pointy ears, high-pitched voice. The whole enchilada. He might seem cute at first, but he always shows up at the most inopportune times thinking out loud about all the other things I could be doing in the moment besides what I was intending to do. His ideas do always seem good, at first. In fact, he’s downright persuasive.
Here’s what an interaction between us might resemble:
I’ll be coming from a delight little walk in the woods feeling all inspired and ultra-spiritual and eager to write a full 1000-word blog post that will generate dozens of new followers and get a bazillion likes and be shared all over the internet, but even before I make to the front steps, the little gnome hops out from the bushes and yells, “Hey, Nicholas! How’s it going? You look so great today. What’re you up to?”
“Oh, I’m just planning to write for a bit,” I respond, still eagerly trying to hold on to all my new brilliant ideas before I forget them.
“Oh, that’s cool,” he quips. “Such great ambition. You’re such a good writer. Maybe some day you’ll actually be able to prove it to yourself and to the world. Hey, you’re probably really hungry from that long walk, huh? Why don’t you have a quick little something to eat before you get to work, you know, to nourish the brain and all that?”
I’m a bit apprehensive. I know I should probably get straight to writing whilst my ideas are still fresh and my motivation is hot, but he does kind of have a point, doesn’t he? I could just eat something now and get it over with so I wouldn’t have to stop for it later on.
“Well, okay,” I concede, “maybe I could; but just something really quick, and then I’ll get straight to it as soon as I’m done.”
“Of course, of course!” he says with a shrill liveliness. “And don’t even worry right now about the clothes you left in the dryer. You can fold those tonight.”
Oh yeah, I think to myself. Those still need to be done too; but he has a point; I should do them later.
As I’m eating, however, he leans over my shoulder and whispers, “You know… you still haven’t finished transferring all the information from your old bank account to your new one. That’s actually important grownup stuff that needs to be done.”
I feel a little offended. “Writing is grownup stuff,” I mumble through a mouthful of bagel and cheese, trying to convince myself that it’s actually true.
“Oh, sure! No doubt about that in the least!” Now he’s sitting on the table in front of me. “But this is more important in the moment; and besides if you get all this boring stuff out of the way first, then you can relax and have as much time as you want to write without having all the other stuff hanging over you.” He says this as he hangs over my plate.
“Well,” I swallow my food and stand, “I guess there is some sense in that.”
“Yes! Yes! It’s the smart thing,” he jitters up at me as I pick up my plate and try to maneouvre around the kitchen without tripping over him. By now most of the motivation from my walk has started to dissipate.
The gnome is still talking: “And since you’ll already be on your computer anyway, working on all that mundane stuff, you could go ahead and finally clear out all those old emails from your inbox, eh? They’ve been there for ages!”
I sigh. “I suppose I should do that too.”
“Yes. Yeeees,” he snickers sinisterly.
Then, however, as I’m sitting at my computer trying to get my “grownup” tasks out of the way, but somehow continuously finding more to do, I see his pointy ears poke over the edge of the desk.
“Hey!” he whispers. “Hey! Sssspt! Hey! It’s been, like, a whole six minutes since you last checked Facebook. Maybe now there’s something new and interesting to look at.”
“Leave me alone,” I command. “I’m busy.”
“Oh, I know! I’m not trying to distract you. It’s just that you’ve been working so hard, and maybe taking a little break will help you relax. Just a couple quick scrolls down the ol’ feed, nothing more.”
Before I even realise what I’m doing, my hand reaches for my phone and I’m scrolling mindlessly down Facebook. Next thing I know, I’m watching cute cat videos and remembering I need to start getting ready to leave for that movie night I had later in the evening.
And on and on.
Now, I’m obviously not trying to disassociate myself from the fault of my procrastination habit and blame it on an imaginary gnome.
(Though sometimes that would make things easier, I think.)
I’m just recognising it for it for what it is — a habit. A bad one.
Fortunately, that’s one of the first steps towards overcoming procrastination.
And I was going to wrap up this post with practical ways to stop procrastinating, but I think I’ll save it for later.
Just kidding. I’m not that bad.
Though I admit I did think about it.
Nearly everything I’ve read on overcoming procrastination breaks down the process into three basic steps:
- When it happens, admit to yourself you’re procrastinating.
- Recognise why you’re procrastinating.
- Enact a strategic step to combat the urge.
Okay, let’s be frank. How often am I really being truthful with myself when I think, “Oh, it’s fine if I eat four more cookies now. It’s the last week of the month. I’ll just let myself splurge this one last time and start really taking care of my diet next week.”
Too often I let the fleeting pleasure of the moment suffocate my desire to face reality.
Being honest with yourself is just plain healthy in general.
The gnome likes to sit on the edge of my desk and catch me in my weak moments. “You’re not really thinking of putting your writing out there just yet, are you? Why not wait a little bit, til you’re actually a good writer? A legitimate writer.”
For many of us it’s probably less a matter of laziness and more just a fear of failure, isn’t it? Or perhaps that all-or-nothing mentality. (“If I can’t do it well, why do it at all?”)
One of my slipperiest slopes is, “Eh, cleaning isn’t that important right now. It can wait. Just keep it somewhere near the bottom of the list and you’ll get around to it when you have the time to spare.”
Yesterday I had to snatch him up by the ears and hold him at eye level.
“Let’s get one thing straight, you little runt,” I said fiercely. “There never really is ‘time to get around to it,’ (and if there is, I’m usually too tired or just ‘not in the mood.’) Furthermore, there will always be something else to do. So no more excuses.”
That sent him scampering off and I was actually able to sit down and start this post.
Willpower is good, but it’s very limited (at least in my case) and it typically tends to run out, oh, I don’t know… usually around the time I smell that fresh batch of brownies in the kitchen or when I hit my first grumpy-bump of the day. From what I’ve learned over my short life, the best way to break a bad habit isn’t so much by exerting energy to avoid it, but by shifting the focus to something else, namely, other good habits. It’s indisputable that what we keep our focus on will eventually determine our actions.
Almost all the articles I found had these same techniques in mutuality:
- Believing in yourself, and believing that what you want to accomplish is actually important.
- Rewarding yourself for accomplishing something. (I confess. My problem is that I like rewards for doing nothing.)
- Concentrating on starting the process, rather than finishing it. That way it doesn’t seem so daunting.
- Having concrete thoughts on how to practically start something instead of always daydreaming. (I insert the “always” because I actually benefit a lot from daydreaming. There’s a balance.)
- Creating — blegh! — schedules and deadlines. (Honestly, I’d probably prefer to drink toilet water.)
- Forgiving yourself for whenever you fail. (That just applies to all areas of life.)
As my friend Steven Jones always says,
Just starting is 90% of getting the job done.
Probably because most don’t even get that far.
There’s definitely a legitimate allowance for taking breaks and prioritising, but when it’s a matter of having a procrastination gnome sitting on your lap saying, “Eh, this is hard. Wasn’t there some folder or something in your documents that needed to be organised?” then usually I know it’s time to do a little exterminating.
No, it’s not easy, but what valuable endeavour ever is? I believe progress is just as admirable as the end results.
Gradually, the gnome starts to feel less welcome, and when he does show up, I bash him over the head with a good Pablo Picasso quote: