Procrastinating is really all about being afraid to begin. Follow these quick exercises to work out why you are scared and how to move through it.
Procrastination isn’t a sign of laziness, it is a sign of fear. It isn’t about not wanting to do the work, it is about being too overwhelmed to start.
There is a lot of pressure around the start of a project. It feels like a commitment, we are deciding to work on one thing and not another, and so there are doubts around that decision and the stress of taking a decision at all. We also often overestimate the importance of the work done at the beginning, as though it will determine the outcome of the project. That isn’t true. You can do basically anything at the beginning of a project, it should be the most fun part, the part which involves throwing ideas around, the part where you are the least hemmed in. And yet instead it is the part which we fill with the most apprehension. The work you do at the beginning isn’t like the foundations of a house, it doesn't have to be perfect or else the entire edifice will collapse. The work you do at the beginning is the warm-up. It is a training session. It can be totally invisible in the final product.
The important thing at the beginning is not to get off to the perfect start, it is just to take action, any form of action, and chase away the fears that are making you procrastinate.
In just ten minutes, you can conquer those fears.
Spend two minutes identifying what is driving your fear.
There are four main reasons you might be afraid to get started:
- You have too many ideas and are afraid to commit to one
- Your mind is suddenly blank and you have no inspiration at all
- You feel like you’re going to make a mess of things and are putting a lot of pressure on yourself
- You have no idea where to start
Examine your emotions, write down on a piece of paper the things that worry you about the project you are about to get started on and see which category they fit into the best.
Spend eight minutes doing the corresponding exercise
- Too many ideas?
This can mean having too many ideas of projects and not being able to get started on any single one, or it can mean having too many ideas about how to tackle your particular project and not being sure which to pick.
Begin by making a list of all the angles or projects that are trotting around your brain. Reread it. See which stand out, which your instinct tells you is right. That is your shortlist.
In the case of choosing a project, ask yourself if any of them are time-sensitive — for instance, an article linked to a certain upcoming event. If so, start with that project. If not, sometimes it is best just to let the universe decide. Draw one idea out of a hat. Schedule the others for the coming days or weeks.
If you are choosing an angle on a piece of work you are already sure of, begin by seeing if any of them can be joined together. Maybe one angle could really just be a paragraph in a piece with a different focus. If not, open a word document, type out all the different ideas. Those will be the things you follow up on, do more research until your instinct tells you which to follow. And if that never happens, pick one angle out of a hat.
The next step: conduct research into each of the ideas left on your shortlist.
- Lack of inspiration?
Put a timer on for eight minutes, and write down every thought that comes into your mind. Even if they have nothing to do with the project. Just let the words flow. Analyse every element of the topic — what exactly is the brief? What does that mean? This “brain drop” will give your imagination free space to roam. Ideally, you should do this in a place without any distractions, a place where your imagination generally feels stimulated. For me, it works best in a park or anywhere outdoors, but you might prefer home, in a warm bath or in a café.
Next step: do something boring, like washing up or ironing or walking around the block. Don’t take a phone, don’t listen to music. Ideas will continue to pop into your mind.
- Fear of failure?
This fear can be harder to identify, because it often just makes you feel nervous or blank. The problem is usually a lack of self-confidence, or the fact that you are putting too much pressure on yourself, thinking of this project as the make-or-break event of your career. The problem here isn’t in the work at all, but in your mind.
Take a sheet of paper and answer three questions:
- What is the worst thing that could happen?
- How could I bounce back from that?
- What past projects have made me proud, what have they taught me about my own abilities?
If you are into rituals and hippiedom, like me, you can make a ritual out of this. Light a candle or some incense. Put on some relaxing music and put yourself in an environment which makes you relax. Breath deeply.
Once you have finished, keep this list visible on your desk or working space and reread it whenever you feel scared or lost.
Next step: write a to-do list broken down into small, non-threatening steps (see below).
- No idea where to start?
Take a sheet of paper and separate it into categories according to the different kinds of activities go into doing a project. For writing, I usually make the categories Contact, Research and Write. In Contact I write the names or professions of anyone I would like to talk to, Research can be books to read or facts and figures to pull up, and in Write I jot down any sections I know I will write, or any ideas concerning the final piece. Do a six-minute brain drop where you write down any task that comes to mind in the corresponding section. Then reread what you have done, highlight priorities and order your tasks into a to-do list. For big tasks, break them down into sections. You should end up with a list of small, clearly defined steps.
Next step: just do number one on the list!
Whatever category you are in, it is important to stick to the ten minutes. Your mind needs to know, going in, that it will just be working for ten minutes, and then it can stop. Then take a break. If you are on a short deadline, make it a short break and then start work again for half an hour to an hour.
I do these short exercises whenever I catch myself procrastinating. I hope they can be useful for you, too, and if you have your own tricks and tips I would love to hear about them in the comments section!