Why is it that when faced with a writing deadline, it invariably feels important, nay, imperative to alphabetize my spice rack and re-organize my clothes by color? I have to stop myself just short of arranging paper clips by size.
Procrastination comes from our natural present bias; i.e. we overweight the pleasure of short-term rewards. We get cracking only when the consequences of not taking action become more painful than putting it off. The first step to battling procrastination, then, is to bring to the forefront of the mind the long-term consequences of NOT taking an action.
For our long-term goals, it can help to trick the brain by enforcing tiny daily habits that are easily achievable. As Stephen Guise explains, executing ‘stupidly small’ actions that take 30 seconds or less (like doing just one push-up or writing 50 words per day) sets you up for an easy win. Once you get started, most of the time you will want to keep going. But even on the days you only do the minimum, you still will have reinforced the habit, as consistency reinforces neural pathways. And consistent, small actions can add up to big results: if you write just a page a day, for example, after a year you’ll have 365 pages.
Ultimately, the biggest hurdle we face is our own self-doubt. In his brilliant manifesto The War of Art, writer Steven Pressfield says that internal resistance is inevitable in any endeavor that requires forgoing short-term pleasure, and that we should not underestimate its insidious power:
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.
Pressfield explains that procrastination is the most common manifestation of resistance because it is the easiest to rationalize:
We don’t tell ourselves, ‘I’m never going to write my symphony.’ Instead we say, ‘I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.’
So how do we slay the dragon of resistance? Only by facing our fears and taking action.
Self-development coach Brian Tracy recommends starting the day with your hardest task, which he refers to as ‘eating the frog‘, in reference to a quote by Mark Twain: “eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Tracy has observed that successful people are those who launch directly into major tasks and working on them single-mindedly until they are done. Developing the habit of eating the frog triggers an endorphin release and a “surge of energy, enthusiasm, and self-esteem”, creating a positive feedback loop to want take on more challenges. Hopefully this buzz eventually becomes more appealing than the less productive dopamine release of distractions…
Our days and, as such, our lives are made up of a series of decisions about how we spend our time. Crafting a fulfilling life comes from being in the driver’s seat of those decisions rather than reacting to incoming demands, even if those demands are the voice of internal resistance.
As Pablo Picasso, who produced over 50,000 works of art during his life, said,
Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.