What Is Procrastination?
You will be surprised to know how many highly talented people fail to live up to their potential simply because of procrastination. Procrastinating is basically the behavior of not doing things and putting them off until they become absolutely necessary to do. If you are a procrastinator you will never be able to take charge of your life and do the things that you know you can do to become highly successful. If you look at any high achiever in just about any field, you will find that they minimize procrastination as much as possible. Be it billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates or sports personalities like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Roger Federer, procrastination is a word unknown to the super successful. And perhaps it is one of the biggest differentiators between successful people and the mediocre folks.
One of the biggest ideas that is widely accepted by scientists, researchers, philosophers, artists, businessmen, and highly successful people from all walks of life is that the harder you work, the luckier you get. It simply dictates that the more you work, the higher your chances of getting better at whatever you do, the better will be your chances of you getting a lucky break, and the more likely you are to achieve success. Now the problem is that most people will dream big, but they procrastinate and won't execute to make their dreams happen. And in many cases they procrastinate their lives away. On the other hand, the doers do all kinds of stupid things, people even make fun of them, and every now and then something works out for them that takes them to the next level. I can go on and on and on about the problems of procrastination, and I am pretty sure that you are well familiar with them as well, that’s why you are here, right?
So without any further ado, let me give you 10 practical things that you can start doing from today to overcome procrastination once and for all.
1. Stop Making a Big Deal Out of Things
One of the biggest reasons why people procrastinate is that they have a habit of catastrophizing everything. They make a huge deal about of what they're trying to get done. For example, if there is a task that needs doing, they might say how boring it is, how painful it is, or how difficult it is. This habit of whining about your job or the task at hand develops a self-defeating mindset that prohibits you from doing anything at all unless it becomes absolutely inevitable.
The problem is that you can convince yourself that the task or project is too big or too hard and then you just put it off. Now I'm guilty of this too. Sometimes I look at key things in my business and think man I just don't want to get down and do that as it seems like a lot of effort or back in medical school putting off exam revision of a hard topic like neurology as I felt it was boring.
The way I dealt with this was to switch my mindset up to tackle hard things head on and to remember that most things are easy if you break them down into smaller chunks. I'll sometimes remind myself that if someone else has done the hard thing I'm trying to do then so can I. This removes any excuses and puts leverage on myself to just do it.
2. Be 100% Clear What You Want to Do
Not having clarity is another major reason for procrastination. Most people live in a wishy-washy world, where they are dabbling with the idea of doing something. They want to do a lot of things but they are not too sure how to go about it, they just know they want to do all those things. Don’t be like them. Get rid of all the brain fog. Be 100% clear as to what you want to do at any particular time. It is better to focus on one thing at a time than on a huge to-do list of unordered tasks. One of the best ways to cut through the clutter and gain 100% clarity is to keep a journal and to write down exactly what you want to do in a particular month, week, or day. Prioritise based on the impact doing the thing will have on your life and then relentlessly pursue it rather than trying to do too much.
I've been guilty of this too trying to do too much in business or chase too many ideas or opportunities and actually focusing down on one clear objective provides focus and also removes any anxiety relating to fomo as you're committing to that one thing.
The Pareto principle states that roughly 80% of output comes from 20% of input. So only 20% of the work we do may lead to significant results. I'll try and focus and prioritise what I'm doing on what I perceive to be that 20% so I'm not doing work for the sake of work and this keeps me 100% clear on what I'm doing.
As Richard Koch, the author of The 80/20 Principle, said, “There is no rush. If we think intelligently about what we can achieve with our time, we can be relaxed, even lazy. In fact, being lazy — having plenty of time to think — may actually be a precondition for achieving a great deal.”
So think about what you want to do, cut out unnecessary work and then relentlessly execute on that 20% that gives you the most benefits.
3. Create Clear Cut Deadlines For Yourself
The idea that we can always do a project or a task later allows us to be lazy and not do anything in the present moment. Instead of giving yourself unlimited time for a project or a task, give yourself deadlines. Even better give yourself false deadlines. Have you ever thought how long students would take to complete a class or a grade in school if they were not forced to sit exams after a year? Many students would simply procrastinate and take two, three, four and in some cases even several years to sit exams if it was up to them as they might not feel ready or confident when the time comes. However, just the pressure and the deadline of exams forces you to study and get through the grades. Most people are able to do things once they really need to do. So a great way of ending procrastination is to always have reasonable deadlines for yourself. Don’t be harsh on yourself or put overly optimistic deadlines. This can backfire. Just keep reasonable deadlines to keep yourself on your toes. And make sure that you meet every deadline that you set for yourself as this will build confidence and give you that dopamine hit when you succeed in hitting your false deadlines.
4. Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. It was outlined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part of the first sentence of an essay published in The Economist in 1955. And he was absolutely right. Even the world’s richest and probably the most productive man, Elon Musk has alluded to it when he tweeted that “if you give 30 days to clean your home, it will take 30 days, but if you give yourself 3 hours, it will take 3 hours. The same applies to your goals ambitions and plans.” So if you have a project from your work or your school or even a personal project and you think that there is more time allotted to the project than it logically needs to be completed in, set your own deadline and complete it faster.
5. Done is Better than Perfect
Done is better than perfect. Let me repeat this one. Done is better than perfect. I was super guilty of this as a medical student and many people take forever to do one task simply because they try their best to make it perfect in every way possible. Perfectionism can be huge demotivating factor as no one can ever be perfect. Your approach should be to simply do a task to the best of your ability in a specified amount of time and then move on to the next task. This will not only allow you to do things quickly, it will also keep you motivated and will allow you to improve and learn from every single task or project that you do.
Whatever you are doing whether learning an instrument, writing, doing surgery or uploading to social media quantity and consistency is way more important than quality in the early stages. Let me explain. You get better through practise and when you start out at anything you will suck. So embrace the suck and practise as much as possible. Your work in whatever you are doing will naturally improve with time as you do, reflect, improve and repeat. This will then naturally lead to higher quality of work and you'll move towards mastery and quality and consistency.
James Clear's Atomic Habits uses a study conducted by Professor Jerry Uelsmann from University of Florida to illustrate this point. Prof Uelsmann divided his photography students into two groups. He asked one group to take as many photos as they could and he asked the second group to take just one photo but it should be the best that they could take. At the end of the term, all the best photos were taken by the group that focused on quantity. This is simply because they had more practice and they had become better with every single photo that they took. So instead of procrastinating and thinking of ways to produce the best possible work, just produce the work. Improvement will come along the way.
6. Don’t Break the Momentum
If you look back at your life chances are that you will be able to identify certain periods where you were absolutely on a roll, you were able to do a lot of work and you were able to achieve a lot of things. You were doing well at multiple things and you seemed to have all the energy and grit to just keep doing what you needed to do.
Similarly chances are that you will be able to identify certain periods in your life where you slacked a lot, you were extremely unproductive and you just could not do anything at all. This is the case with most people. We are greatly affected by momentum, both positively and negatively. If you procrastinate on one thing, let’s say your work, chances are that you will procrastinate on exercise as well. And it just gets carried on to all other aspects of your life. So your focus should be firstly not to procrastinate on anything, and secondly once you have developed the momentum of doing things, don’t let it slide. Doing one thing will give you motivation and momentum to do another, and then that will give you motivation and momentum to do the next. Just don’t break the momentum.
7. Break Tasks into Smaller Steps
Breaking a long project into small actionable steps each with a specific timeline is a one of my favourite ways to beat procrastination. Many people have used it to achieve great things. You can use the Pomodoro technique to split your work into smaller chunks. For example you can break 10 hours of work into 60 blocks of 10 minutes each. This will allow you to work with hyper focus for 10 minutes at a time and then relax for a few of minutes before going at it again.
Chunking up projects that seem overwhelming helps us to get quick wins and build momentum to do even more. If I know I need to write a 2000 word essay I'll naturally break this down into an intro, several sub-headings and a conclusion. I'll break down the word count by section and then set myself time limits to get the work done.
8. Remove the Distractions from Your Environment
If I am being honest with you, procrastination has become kind of easier during the past 10 to 20 years. With social media feeds designed to keep your brain constantly occupied with instant gratification and distractions like cell phones, smart watches, and computers continuously bugging you with unnecessary notifications, it is very easy to lose focus. So how do you deal with this problem? Well, it sounds easy but you need to remove the distractions from your environment and go into full focus mode. Make your work or study room such that it allows for maximum productivity and hyper focus. During your scheduled block of time for working on a particular task, close your email, social media and turn off your phone or at least set it on silent mode. Research shows that even if your phone is in your pocket or in the same room as you the temptation is there to become distracted so hide it away in another room and lock yourself down to get that work done.
9. Don’t Neglect the Small Tasks
Small things such as cleaning your room, doing laundry, checking emails, and making a call or two should be taken care of immediately. If you allow small tasks to gather overtime, they will keep bugging you and you will soon find yourself under stress with plenty of tasks waiting to be taken care of. One of the best approaches to not allow procrastination to sneak into your routine is to take care of any task that takes 5 minutes or less immediately. So if you briefly need to reply to an email, just do it quickly. If you need to clean your room, clean it immediately. This will not only keep you stress free, it will also help you build momentum to take care of the more important tasks.
10. Know Your Why
Last but not the least, it is very important to know why you are doing something. Many people are focused on other people and they want to do what others are doing without knowing why others are doing it. You need to have your own reasons for doing things. Find your passion, find what’s important for you, and then do things that you are passionate about. Do things that will help you achieve your goals and ambitions in life. If you have a strong enough reason to do something, you will get it done. However, if you are just doing it because someone else is doing it, or because someone told you to do it and it does not align with your belief system or your goals and ambitions, chances are that you will just procrastinate on it.
Things that you are passionate about will hold leverage over you. For example I was passionate about starting business that helped medical students pass exams and my drive for this helped me to focus on work later night shifts when I was tired and around my day job when I was also studying for exams. Because I was passionate about the business it was also really fun. If something is aligned to your why and your passions it won't seem like work and it will be much easier to get into a flow state and avoid distractions as what you are working on is the most fun and exciting thing you could be doing with your time.
11. Bonus Tip: The Zeigarnik Effect
Have you ever put down an exciting book just as the big mystery was about to be solved?
The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychology term for the tendency for our brains to think about a goal that was started but left unfinished. The automatic mechanism alerts our conscious mind, which may be preoccupied with new tasks, that a previous activity was left unfinished. If you begin working toward a goal and fail to attain it, ideas about the objective will continue to come into your mind while you are doing other things, as if to urge you to get back on track to complete the task.
If I know I've got work to do the following day I'll often get ahead of myself and deliberately start that work the night before, leaving out my books and computer on my desk for the following morning. This means that when I get up my brain is obsessed with continuing on with the unfinished task and helps fight off any procrastination.