I was talking to a friend awhile back, and she asked me how things were going. I expressed some anxiety about my workload.
She said, “So, you have a goal to work less?”
As I answered, I began thinking about something that I had lost focus on.
I said, “No, I don’t actually need to work less, I just want to worry less!”
Procrastinating = worry time
When I stepped back and thought about where the anxiety was coming from, I realized that I had recently fallen into a habit of procrastinating.
I don’t mean that I put things off until the deadline, that doesn’t work for me.
The cycle I slipped into was not one of long term procrastination, but during-the-day procrastination.
And I realized after I thought about it, that those periods of procrastination had created the opportunity for all the negative, stressful thoughts to play…whether it was…
I don’t want to do this, this will be no fun, this will be hard, it’s too big, it’s going to take forever, I’m not smart enough to do this, I won’t be able to finish this, this will be boring …
Those thoughts would discourage me from starting. And those thoughts were the source of the anxiety…
But then it occurred to me that the task itself would require the same amount of energy or unpleasantness no matter when I did it.
So I realized that the longer I procrastinated, the longer was the period of time that I felt miserable, unhappy and stressed about it.
So if I could instead do the thing right away, before thinking about doing it, I could cut out a lot an anxiety and dread.
When I procrastinate
There are 3 things that tempt me to procrastinate, because they fill me either with dread or doubt or boredom.
1. Doing a workout
2. Important creative work
3. Unpleasant tasks
If you can just start without thinking about (or dreading) what the task will be like, your inner saboteur does not have an opportunity to talk you out of starting.
Of course this is easier said than done. But I have found some ways to make it easier that I want to share with you.
Do I have a perfect record? No. Have I materially reduced the dread and anxiety I feel througout the day? YES!
Here’s an example. I determined a few years ago that I was chewing up loads of time negotiating with myself about exercise… will I do it or not? And I could procrastinate myself out of doing it at all.
Within any given day, I could procrastinate until I simply ran out of time and then I could say, “Oh well, there’s no time left today…It’s not my fault, I ran out of time…” (even though there were countless moments during the day when I could have started, and my procrastination was really just to sabotage myself).
So my solution for that was to make exercise non-optional. I found making it not optional actually required far less discipline.
Here’s my article about exercising every day. I’m about 3 years in on this, and it’s still working.
But I’ve found that even with exercising every day, that still left an opportunity to procrastinate within the day.
If I didn’t do it first thing in the morning, it would hang over my head all day and make me miserable.
So that is the specific problem I focused on: Thinking about exercising before I do it causes misery. So the trick? Don’t think about it!
Tip #1 – Schedule stuff you are not thrilled about doing
So what I am doing now, is scheduling an exercise appointment with myself every day in the morning.
So I don’t need to think about it all until my appointment time, and I don’t need to feel bad about it all day anymore while I’m procrastinating.
And if I doubt myself, I remind myself that it will be equally unpleasant if I do it later or now.
The only difference is:
Do I want to cut out the extra misery of dreading it for hours before I do it?
Administrative Work Example
With regard to annoying administrative work, it’s easy for procrastination to set in, because the tasks are not fun or rewarding.
I could easily avoid doing these boring tasks for extended periods of time. But while I was procrastinating, it was always nagging at me.
So to delete that extra, pre-dread time, I now keep running list titled, “Administratve/Annoying”, and then during the week I pick a time slot for it and schedule an “Administrative/Annoying” appointment on my calendar.
Having the list keeps me from worrying about forgetting what needs to get done, and the scheduled appointment keeps me from dreading it, or procrastinating.
Once it’s on the list I don’t think about it at all until the scheduled time, and then I just start working my way through the list.
This is not a new idea, but it remains a powerful one. Just start. Starting is the hardest part for me, for all three categories: exercise, creative, unpleasant.
But if you can do the first 90 seconds, you can usually keep going.
Tip #2 – Warm up
With regard to exercise, I developed a new trick that makes it much easier to start.
I lowered the bar for what it means “to start” A LOT!
Instead of trying to jump into an Insanity workout from a cold start, which is sometimes overwhelming, especially during the winter, I do 20 minutes or so of a really easy workout as a warmup to the real workout.
It has 2 benefits. I don’t dread starting nearly as much, and then I’m actually warmed up and more mentally and physically ready for a better workout.
With regard to creative projects the “warm-up” looks a little different for me, but the concept of warming up is still a good one…
which leads me to my next tip…
Tip #3 – Do the shallow, administrative part first
When I find myself procrastinating on creative work, my trick, “my warmup” is to start with the part that requires NO creativity.
For example, in part of my business I create 3 months of content ahead of time.
When I need to start, those first moments always feel insurmountable. If I think about it, I start procrastinating and dreading it and my inner critic kicks off, “You won’t come up with anything interesting, it’s too much work, this will take the rest of the day, it won’t be any fun, you’ll fail, you’ll put a lot of work in and then hate it and need to throw it away, you won’t get it right…”
So what I mean by doing the shallow administrative part (the warm-up) is, I first create a folder for each month and give it the title of the content for that month. Then I find all the templates that will comprise the package of monthly content and I copy and paste all the templates for the end products in the 3 folders. Then I go though each template and update the titles, links, images, etc. All the things that need to be done, but do not require any brilliance or creative work.
But as I get that un-creative structure in place, I am moving.
I can feel the momentum. And starting the work becomes so much easier because I chose to start right away instead of giving myself time to dread it, and instead of giving my inner saboteur an opportunity to derail me.
Tip #4 – Do it badly first
The next step after I get moving is to allow myself to do it badly.
For creative work, whether it’s to write an article, or a book, or a blog post, or develop a proposal, or create a plan, I start with the warm-up step of creating the parts that require no creativity, but then …
for the creative part, I start with the outright intention of doing it badly.
When I let myself off the hook of being brilliant and doing quality work and just start, I end up with a version of the ultimate deliverable that’s really bad.
But the good news is that it now exists. The scary part is over. Now it’s just a matter of re-working it.
Any creative person will tell you that you can’t set out to create a masterpiece. You just need to create. Inspiration and brilliance will come when it comes.
For me inspiration only comes once I am already moving. Inspiration NEVER comes when I am procrastinating or dreading or worrying.
Pablo Picasso said it very well, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you already working.”
Patty is available to speak at your company, annual meeting, or customer event. She can also deliver a custom workshop on Leadership or Strategy Execution for your leadership team. Contact Patty.
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)