Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Procrastination Kickstart


The Beauty of Nature Inspires Me
Have you ever had a big project that you keep putting off, day after day, week after week? 

No matter how much you mentally flog yourself, you can't get started. You find an endless number of other things that suddenly need to be done instead, and manage to put off starting the big project this morning, and this afternoon, and this week. The stress builds, and the lack of progress starts to feel like a crisis. You don't feel good about yourself.

Procrastination is something that I struggled with during my career. I was fortunate to have work that was very self-directed. I had a lot of choice in what projects I chose to take on, and the freedom to structure my work-time as I chose, as long as the work got done. For the most part, I thrived with this much independence. But the downside of all that freedom was that procrastination could strike, and there was no one to tell me what to do and make sure I did it. I remember some projects that "fell off the side of the desk," and I regret to this day that I procrastinated and never finished them (or sometimes, never even started them).

Of course, now that I'm retired, there's way less stress. But I still find there are certain things in life that I procrastinate on. One of the good things about my lifelong struggle with procrastination is that I've learned some strategies to address it. Here are some of them.

Am I procrastinating?

The first thing to do is to notice that I am procrastinating in the first place. 

I am a master of convincing myself that the reason I am not doing the project is because I am too busy, or because something else urgent has to be done first. I have to go out to get my daily exercise, or I have to clean the kitchen, or today is a perfect day to re-pot all the houseplants, or, etc., etc. If I keep myself in a whirl of busyness, I can justify to myself why I can't possibly start the project right now.

A variation on this is, I am so tired or overworked (because I've been so busy!) that I need to rest or do something fun and rejuvenating first. And the days go by. 

I Distract Myself by Going for Walks
And then something will pull me up short -- perhaps someone else has completed something similar to my project -- and I suddenly ask myself: "Wait! Why haven't I done MY project yet?" Or I start feeling really grumpy and annoyed with myself and I don't know why. 

If I stop and think about it, I realize I've been procrastinating.

What is the nature of the project?

Once I notice I've been procrastinating, it's time to figure out why. It turns out that I procrastinate on different things for different reasons.

There are things I have to do and things I want to do. There are things that are important, and things that are not very important.  

For example, I belong to a lot of different community groups. Often, in the excitement of the moment, I volunteer to do something, and then later find myself procrastinating and not wanting to do the thing I said I'd do. I feel as though I "have" to do it because I said I would. 

Strategies: Sometimes, the task is ill-defined or not super important, and just by having a conversation with someone, we decide to go a different route, and I'm off the hook. Sometimes it can be delegated. Sometimes, I simply buckle down and do it while making a promise to myself to not say "yes" so quickly next time when a volunteer is needed for that type of task. Externally imposed deadlines can be really helpful (e.g., it needs to be done by the next meeting). Often, once I make myself do it the first time, it becomes much easier subsequently. Little regular tasks are more likely to get done if I put them into a routine.

There are some things that are unpleasant but very important. These are things you HAVE to do, but really don't want to. An example is having a medical procedure that is necessary for quality of life. Helpful friends who have had a similar procedure can take some of the uncertainty away by talking you through it, making it easier to take action. Support groups or websites or fellow bloggers can be great resources, providing information and encouragement. 

When I discover myself procrastinating about things that I WANT to do, figuring out why I am procrastinating can be a lot more perplexing. 

Do I know how to do it?

Sometimes, I procrastinate because I don't know how to do something. The project can feel too big and overwhelming. The two most helpful strategies for me, in this case, are to research the topic area and to make a plan. Once I gather information about what needs to be done, and ways other people have done it, the project becomes less intimidating. With the information about what needs to be done, I can then sit down and make a plan. 

For a big project, I like to write my plan out. I break it down into specific goals and sub-goals, and list a number of very small, easy steps under each goal. Once I've broken it down into extremely small steps, it is much easier to begin. The whole project might be big, but I know I can figure out how to do each tiny step, one by one. 

What is the fear that keeps me from starting?

Very often, the root of procrastination is psychological. There is a deep-seated fear that your intended project, for some reason, triggers. Perhaps you're terrified of public speaking, and you know that once you've completed your project, you'll have to present it to others. So you don't even start, as a way of avoiding that scary future situation. 

In my case, very often my fears are related to perfectionism and fear of failure. Maybe my project won't be successful. Maybe what I produce won't be "good enough." It will fall short of perfect and reveal that I am a flawed human being.

When I finally zero in on the underlying fear, I can take some of the power out of that fear. Recognizing the nature of the fear helps to get me unstuck.

I can give myself a pep talk, reminding myself of other things I accomplished in spite of being afraid.

I can remind myself that no one really cares about my project but me, or how "perfect" it is. I can remind myself that it's not either/or: fail vs. perfect. There are a lot of gradations in-between. It is the journey that counts, not only the product at the end

Nature's Glory puts Fears in Perspective
The value of examining procrastination

Ultimately, personal projects and goals we set for ourselves (as opposed to those things we say we'll do to please others) are deeply important to who we are as people and what's important in our lives. If we wiggle out of doing things that are essential to our core values or stepping stones toward our life purpose(s), it is a sad personal loss, and sad for others, too, who'll never benefit from our gifts.  

Examining the causes of procrastination can get us unstuck and help us learn about ourselves. The things that seem hardest are often our best learning opportunities, and procrastination can be a signal that we are approaching one of those moments of transformation. 

So, what kind of project is it, you ask, that leads me to reflect on procrastination? I have needed a procrastination kickstart because I am seeking to publish my novel, and am starting to embark on that publication process.


  1. I hear you, Jude. Publishing a novel is big. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. One step at a time. One of my procrastination excuses is telling myself that I don't have time. I never cease to be amazed that the task often takes a fraction of the time I thought it would. I revel in the feeling of accomplishment when I complete a task that's been on the to-do list for awhile and that feeling becomes a motivator. Another deterrent for me is not being in control of the outcome. I'm learning to surrender that control. I've come to learn that not every project needs to be done "perfectly". There's a place for good enough. The challenge for me is in the discrimination. My mom often said that the hardest part of going for a walk is putting your shoes on and stepping outside the door. I've learned to just "do it" like the old Nike ad.

    1. Mona, you make so many great points. Yes, often the thing that seems so big and overwhelming turns out to be not as huge and time consuming as I projected. Sometimes it’s because I imagined that I had to do it all myself, whereas, in fact, there are others who are ready and willing to help, or someone can be hired to do some parts of it. The feeling of satisfaction and joy at completing a project seems to be in direct proportion to how intimidating it seemed at the beginning. It’s because people always love to learn and develop new competencies; avoiding something out of fear often means turning away from a learning opportunity. And yes, the feeling of needing to be in control, whether of the process or the outcome, often is directly linked to procrastination (and perfectionism) — there’s another whole topic! My daughter has a plaque on her wall that says “perfect is the enemy of the good.” Instead of insisting on perfection, more will get done if the aim is “good enough.” Perfect is a very high bar.

      Mona, do you have a blog? If you do, could you provide the link? I have looked for your blog but not found one.


  2. Definitely fear makes me procrastinate at times. At other times it is because I said yes to something I should have never taken on in the first place. But I’m learning...and saying yes much less often. Now, about that fear thing....😉


    1. Deb, I am prone to saying “yes” to a lot of things too. Each on its own is a little thing, but taken all together, they cut into the time I have left to do the big projects that I have identified as my personal priorities. Do I say “yes” so often because I am a helpful community member, or is perhaps another way of distracting myself from the goal at hand and avoiding it?

      Fear.... So many poor behavioural choices are driven by fear.


  3. Oh Jude, I'm excited for you while thinking about your novel publication. This post is an example of how well you write and how articulate you are with your thoughts. I know writing a book is labour intensive and time consuming but put one foot in front of the other and keep chipping away at it will get you there. I let go of perfectionism a long, long time ago. I value progress and strive for excellence.

    1. Natalie, you are very kind. For some reason, the prospect of submitting my novel seems absolutely terrifying. There are many possible routes to publication, and the steps are quite different depending which route you choose. They all involve a lot of work, and the likelihood of acceptance is very low, especially with a traditional publisher. Going the route of traditional publication means having to find an agent first, which itself is a huge hurdle. But, one thing for sure is that my novel will certainly never be published if I don’t submit it anywhere! And the traditional route is not the only option.

      I wish I could let go of perfectionism, but for me it is a work in progress.


  4. All right, Jude! Now is the time. You put your intended project out into the world. A good way to be and feel accountable. Of course, I totally know what you mean throughout your entire post and, even more, I have just gone through the entire publication process and am almost finished. November 28th is that day! :-)

    1) You are correct: publishing a book is an extremely big project that requires heaps of time, dedication, commitment, focus, work (and money depending how you approach it).

    2) One step at a time is the way to go, so your organizational skills and list making habit and broken down steps approach will be your way to success.

    3) However long you think it will take and however much time and research you think it requires... add some extra to that. :-)

    4) Being a perfectionist does NOT help! I’ve struggled with that the last two months. Your book will never be done if you can’t let go at some point and think “enough is enough.” As wise people have said before: “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

    You can do this! And, you have a great network of support. Go for it! :-)

    1. Liesbet, that is so awesome that the publication date for your memoir is in sight — November 28 is very soon! I can hardly wait for your book to be out so I can order a copy and read it.

      I have followed your entire process of getting your memoir published, and you have been an inspiration to me. You are so determined and have kept your goal in focus throughout the months and years that publication entails, despite many disappointments and barriers. You’ve also generously shared lots of details about your publication experience and strategies you have used to get the job done. Thank you.

      Similarly, my writers’ groups (2 of them) have been terrifically supportive. Not only have they given great feedback about the writing itself (responding to the segments I’ve read out at meetings, and also two of them served as beta readers) but now several of us in the group are in the process of trying to publish or have recently published, and we are cheering each other on and sharing resources.

      Although I have published before — one book of poetry, poems in various collections and magazines, lots of academic chapters and articles, and one co-authored academic book — writing and publishing a novel is whole different process, and I find it quite intimidating. Hence the procrastination.

      One way or another, I’m determined to publish it.


  5. Hi, Jude- I deeply admire you for taking on such a big (and brave) project and for having the talent to do so. You definitely have what it takes to take the next steps from here. Your readers are waiting! :)

    1. Aw, thanks Donna! I really appreciate your encouragement. Somehow, you always know how to say exactly the right thing. I’ll be thrilled when my book is out in the world and in the hands of readers.


  6. Thought-provoking questions about procrastination, Jude. Like most people, I am good with some parts of my life and put off, procrastinate on others. Your strategies are interesting. Such as the concept of “routine.” The overwhelming project is a big one for me. And yes, there are “gradations in-between.” I have a few strategies I work with such as “eat the frog first” and “the 15 minute rule.” You likely have heard about both of these. Good for you on embarking on the publication process, Jude.

    1. Erica, yes, those are both great strategies. Doing the most unpleasant part to get it out of the way (eating the frog first) clears the way to get on with the rest of the project. It can be like taking out a cork in the bottle that is blocking everything else. Or sometimes, the exact opposite works better for me. If I’m really afraid of the frog, I tell myself I must work on something, and it can be anything else but the frog. That way, I start making progress on the project, feel good about myself, gain some confidence and additional knowledge/contacts, and finally feel ready to tackle the frog.

      Your other suggestion about the 15 minute rule is also excellent. If I tell myself that I only have to work on the project for 15 minutes, it takes a lot of the pressure off, especially when I choose a really small, discrete task to focus on, such as making a phone call. I often use this approach when I have writer’s block — just sit down in front of the computer for 15 minutes. I start rereading and editing what I’ve already written, and before I know it, ideas are pouring forth and I’ve been writing for hours.

      One more approach that I didn’t mention above, is that sometimes procrastination is your inner self telling you to not do that project, ever. For some reason, it is not right for you. Maybe it is something that someone else is demanding from you and you are right to resist because it doesn’t align with your values. Or maybe it is time for you to pivot and take a different direction in life, like get a different job, or retire. Our inner self often knows important things long before our conscious self becomes aware of them, and it is worth paying attention to strong internal resistance.