A procrastinator’s guide to getting started

How to stop procrastinating

Are you procrastinating, or letting your subconscious mind chew on a difficult problem? Getting started can be the hardest part of any creative pursuit. We take a look at the reasons behind our tendency to put things off, and how to make that first move.

True procrastination is the tendency to put things off essential tasks at the expense of your work. Hara Estroff Marano of Psychology Today says that procrastinators put obstacles in their own path and limit their performance. If you are truly procrastinating, you might be actively seeking distractions like clicking on links and watching too many videos, or even spending too much time on non-essential tasks to avoid starting ‘the big one’.

What motivates procrastination? Sometimes it’s a fear of failure, or a lack of self-worth. In his book The Now Habit, Neil Fiore outlines some psychological causes of procrastination. Procrastination, he says, is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic. It is a neurotic self-defense behaviour that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth. If you don’t get started, you can’t fail.

But procrastination isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you’re still working on a problem, and giving your subconscious mind some space can work wonders. In fact, engineering professor Barbara Oakley recommends taking frequent walks and breaks to allow your brain to function at a high level and solve problems.

So how does this help you get started? Here are the Top 5 techniques we’ve found for breaking out of procrastination and into work.

1. Identify the problem

To get started on that piece of work you are avoiding, first it’s important to trust yourself to do the work. Examine your reasons for avoiding the task. Do you feel insecure in your abilities, frustrated with your client, or uncertain about the outcome? Acknowledge those reasons, then put them aside. Think about similar problems you have worked through. Trust yourself to do the work.

You never know what will happen when you get started. It’s all part of the mental preparation.

Here’s Jocelyn Glei’s advice from 99U:

First, you’ll want to identify if an inner argument is impeding your creative output. After you’ve done that, the work is to get that Inner Critic back on your side. Once you’ve conquered the internal voices, it’s easier to manage your (external) critics, and learn to distinguish between valuable critiques and silly cynicism.

Whether or not insecurity is the root of your problem, it always helps to focus on your goal and trust yourself to handle it.

2. Remove all distractions

Yes, all of them! Recent research has shown that distractions as short as 3 seconds can derail your focus.

Remove interruptions like unnecessary notifications, and tell anyone who might interrupt you that you’re setting aside an hour to get started. (If you can’t trust them not to get in the way, follow Marie Forleo’s rules – like her genius ‘NUNYA Clause’.)

Turn off your mobile, don’t engage in conversation, and if you’re easily caught up in items around you, try clearing your desk. If you’re working on a computer, go full screen. Internet-blocking tools like Freedom can be useful too, if and when you really need them.

Finally, try heading somewhere new to work. Get distractions out of your sight, or get yourself out! Wesley Verhoe of Fast Company says the fresh space improves creativity and helps to remove distraction. He even says that you should work from a coffee shop even when you have an office.

3. Break it down

Is your task so big that it seems insurmountable? In that case, break it down into smaller parts.

As outlined on LifeHacker, Dextronet recommend “tricking” yourself into getting things done by writing down the necessary steps first:

I tell myself that I will merely write down the steps needed to complete the task. Just a rough draft, at first, and that’s it. Maybe just 3 steps. I then add more steps, breaking the 3 steps into smaller sub-tasks. I then add some details, and thoughts, notes of things that I shouldn’t forget when doing this task. I just think the task through and write everything down.

Another great way to do this is to start with a big task, then divide it into its constituent parts, or comfortable stages. As you write your list, giving yourself some good verbs to get started. For example, rather than “plan pitch”, try writing, “gather pitch ideas, select initial list, begin workshop draft”. It makes all the difference!

4. Get disciplined

A good way to ensure that you started is to make a rule for yourself. Cordon off a couple of hours and try to get through a few of your smaller sub-tasks. This will both help you to get started with a small step, and give you a structure to focus within.

Unclutterer’s Erin Doland recommends using timers to improve productivity. Lots of timer-based strategies like the Pomodoro technique promote a burst of productivity followed by a short, scheduled break.

Timers help you (and me) stay focused and complete tasks — specifically the not-so-fun ones and the ones that have to get done — in reasonable amounts of time.

Set yourself a timer for 20 minutes – you’ll be surprised what happens next.

5. Treat yourself

Let’s face it, we’re driven by simple goals and simple pleasures… when we want to be. Dangle a carrot and set yourself a deadline.

Sidin Vadukut at qz.com swears upon his father’s counter-intuitive rule: “If you want to get five tasks done, my father always said, first find five additional but enjoyable tasks to do.”

If you’re having trouble getting your list started, why not start with the five fun tasks you’d like to do, then follow them up with the challenge that you have to achieve first?

What are your productivity tips and tricks for getting started? Tell us below or tweet us @ShareflowHQ.