Ok, enough putting it off. No more checking Facebook for status updates of people I don’t remember from high school but can’t unfriend because I’m afraid of offending them. No more binge-watching Orange is the New Black. No more scrolling through the App Store to find the perfect habit tracker. No more games of Words with Friends. I have to stop procrastinating and write a blog post on procrastination.
The beginning of September brings out the inner student in all of us, even if it’s been decades since we last smelled the intoxicating possibilities contained in a brand-new box of Crayola crayons. A new school year is a blank slate—a chance to start over with pristine notebooks and no overdue assignments.
Unfortunately, life isn’t quite like school. Time isn’t measured in semesters. There are always endless projects to complete and opportunities to avoid them.
Dealing with procrastination requires a tough love approach. No excuses. No second chances. Just do it. Now.
Easier said than done, of course. It calls for a major cognitive overhaul. New rules.
Memorize, and repeat often:
1) Later isn’t a better time.
2) You’re fooling yourself.
3) There is no better time.
4) You don’t have to feel like it to do it.
You can work on your capacity to follow through with a plan by practicing just one small behavior every day. Meditation is a good choice because it can help you sit with uncomfortable feelings. Over time, it may actually strengthen the part of the brain involved in organization and planning.
But any behavior (preferably one that doesn’t take more than a few minutes) will do. You can decide you’ll sweep the kitchen floor every night at 8 pm, or empty your in-box at the end of each workday. The point is to choose an activity and carry it out, no matter what.
Procrastinators also should practice resisting the overwhelming impulse to give into avoidance. One way to power through the urge to avoid is by not hitting the Snooze button when your alarm goes off. You’ll be working on ignoring the self-sabotaging messages your brain is sending you. And as an added bonus, you’ll be starting the morning with a sense of accomplishment that can boost your motivation to take care of business throughout the rest of the day.
No matter how long your To Do list, crossing off even one item can help you break through the inertia of procrastination. I feel so much better already! But I’m just getting started. I’ll have more tips on how to deal with this irksome problem in future posts.
I recently heard a popular media doctor talking on the radio about making dietary and exercise changes to promote optimal health. He gave some sound advice.
“Write down your goals. Think about why you want to lose weight and get more fit.”
So far, so good. But then he added a suggestion which flies in the face of what we psychologists know about behavior change: “Thinking about what you want to avoid is the best way to motivate yourself.” He went on to explain that a family history of diabetes keeps him on the straight and narrow. In other words, he’s motivated by fear.
Maybe this approach works for him ( though given his success, I suspect he’s more disciplined naturally than most of us anyway, so he probably doesn’t need much of a motivational boost). But it’s not the most effective way for most people to stick with a diet or exercise plan.
If scare tactics worked, wouldn’t those gruesome, anti-smoking PSAs impel more smokers to quit? Knowing something isn’t good for us—potentially fatal, even—usually isn’t enough to make us stop.
Thinking about what we want to achieve is much more motivating than envisioning the dire consequences of unhealthy habits. So if you want to get in shape, don’t imagine yourself in ten years, three sizes larger and insulin-dependent. Instead, picture yourself six months from now, crossing the finish line of your first 5K.
If you point yourself in the direction of where you want to go, you’ll get there faster than if you run the other way.
If you’re like me, you have no shortage of ideas about how to improve yourself. Eat more vegetables. Cut down on sweets. Meditate. Get more sleep. Lift weights. Drink more water. Learn to cook Thai food. Practice the piano. Brush up on conversational French. [Insert your own favorites here.]
And if you’re like me, and many others, you also may have trouble following through with your plans.
Why is it so easy for us to think of all the ways we’d like to create newer, better versions of ourselves and so hard for us to make the changes happen?
I think it’s because we don’t just set out to develop healthier habits or find new creative outlets. We imagine no less than a total transformation and deem anything short of a complete makeover as insufficient—not worth the effort.
Take a writer I know. She lives alone. She works from home and can follow any schedule that suits her. She’s a night owl and has a surge of energy after 10 pm, often staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning when her creative juices are flowing. As a result, she usually sleeps until noon unless she’s scheduled a morning meeting. But she always sets her alarm for 8 because she views herself as lazy for spending half a conventional workday in bed. She starts every morning with the fantasy of getting up when she “should” and always winds up hitting Snooze five times before she turns off the alarm in disgust and goes back to sleep. When she finally does drag herself out of bed, never fully rested due to the interrupted sleep, she feels upset with herself. Not the best way to start the day.
Yet when I suggested she just face the fact that she’s not a morning person and set the alarm for a more realistic time (say, 11:30), when she actually might be able to get up, she looked aghast.
“I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s so late!”
Sure she’d like to bound out of bed at 8. But right now she’s not starting her day until noon. So why wouldn’t it make sense to try rising just a half hour earlier?
Because she’s letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Seems silly, doesn’t it? But when it comes to ourselves, we often can’t see as clearly how our visions of The Perfect keep us from even beginning to make a dent in the patterns we’d like to change.
Think about one of those self-improvement ideas you’ve had for a while but never seem to carry out. If the undertaking seems overwhelming, you might just be letting your vision of the perfect you block your path forward. So instead of focusing on where you want to be (which may seem impossibly distant), look at where you are right now, and start by taking just one ridiculously small step in the right direction.
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