Start doing what?
Oh, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Talking yourself out of it won’t work — not this time. You can’t bullshit a master bullshitter.
Yep, you read that right. I’m just as guilty of this as you are. Hell, if I would be a comic book villain I would have a huge hat with bright red letters saying Lord Procrastinator.
Underneath that giant hat lies a brain so advanced and sophisticated that it found a way to procrastinate without feeling guilt. It’s called planning and researching.
Every time I want to start working on a daunting task, the villain superpower kicks in and starts whispering:
Are you sure this is the best way to do it? What if there’s a tool that will help you do it faster? Let’s do some more research before we start.
And before I know it, 3 hours have passed without me writing a single word.
I’m willing to bet my villain hat that you’re no small-time procrastinator either. After all, you are reading this article instead of doing that thing you’ve been putting off.
No worries, I’m not here to judge. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve struggled with the fear of getting started. I’ve suffered through the guilt and anger of not going after my dreams. And I came out the other side.
That’s why I decided to write this article. I’m tired of people telling me to get my priorities straight, stop overthinking everything, and start waking up at 5 AM.
I want a simple 5-step program that looks like this:
- it gets my ass off the couch and into the drawing-room
- it’s fool-proof, effective, and easy to implement
- it doesn’t involve meditating while facing the rising sun for 3 hours
I couldn’t find one, so I made one. And my villain superpowers tell me you need to read it. Worst case, you’ve spent 5 more minutes delaying that task on your to-do list. Best case, this will be the last productivity article you will ever need to read.
Sounds like a fair deal? Then let’s get to it.
1. Find the Smallest First Step
Whatever project you want to work on, start by breaking it down into small steps. I mean really small steps.
Procrastination is nothing more than a protection mechanism. Whether you’re overwhelmed by the complexity of the task, stumped by its difficulty, or afraid of the outcome — the brain detects that. It’s an unpleasant feeling. So the villain superpower kicks in and somehow finds a way to protect you from the unwanted sensation.
By finding the smallest first step you bypass this protection mechanism.
How to apply it: let’s say you want to start writing a new article. The smallest first step would be writing one sentence. If you want to do the dishes, that would be washing one glass. Or if you want to work out, do one pushup.
Make it ridiculously easy. The first step should involve no effort at all. This will not trigger the procrastination sensor and will get your foot in the door.
2. Write Down an Action Algorithm
Remember when I told you about planning and researching? That’s what the villain wants you to do instead of actually putting in the work.
Here’s the sad part: your brain will fool you every single time. If you let it.
You can avoid this by taking your brain out of the equation. Don’t even give it a chance to start overthinking and making up excuses.
How to apply it: take a pen and paper. Yes, we’re going old-school on this one. Now write down the following recipe
When I do [this], then I will do [that].
Replace [this] with something you do regularly, like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or doing the laundry. Write it down and memorize it. Next time you catch yourself doing [this], automatically start doing [that].
Here’s an example: When I open the fridge in the evening, then I will reach for vegetables.
3. Design Your Environment
Another favorite move of the procrastination villain is finding excuses.
Remember when you said you wanted to go for a jog? Yeah, but that involves finding your running outfit, getting dressed, putting on your running shoes, finding those wireless headphones and the proper playlist. Oh, what if the headphones are out of battery? I guess you have to stay in bed then.
This used to happen to me all the time. After obsessing over the right gear and finding the perfect workout routine, I would constantly find some lame excuse to not go to the gym. Not any more.
How to apply it: prepare everything beforehand. If you want to go for a run in the morning, put all your gear next to the bed. If you want to write, place a notebook, a pen, and a glass of water on your desk. Design the perfect working environment, so your brain won’t have a chance to find an excuse.
4. Set a Timer
You know what’s the perfect assassin of motivation? A task that will take hours upon hours to finish.
I’ve experienced this first hand while writing my Ph.D. thesis. And again while writing my ebook. And just about every time I want to write a longer article.
Before even starting, my brain goes into alarm mode. This task will take dozens of hours to finish. Whatever I manage to do today will just chip off a tiny bit from this colossal mountain. In the grand scheme of things, it will hardly matter. So why bother?
Because all great journeys start small. And when sculpting David, Michelangelo started by chipping off a tiny bit too.
How to apply it: tell yourself you will only work on the task for a limited amount of time. This can be as short as 10 minutes, but no longer than an hour. That’s about how long your brain can stay fully focussed and work at high capacity.
Working for 20 minutes on a task is doable. It doesn’t require much effort. And if I happen to get in the flow, I keep working. If not, I know that it will all be over in 20 minutes max. No need to panic.
5. Give Yourself Permission to Fail
This is somewhat counterintuitive. If you tell yourself it’s OK to fail, won’t the procrastination villain do anything to stop you from doing the work?
That’s what I thought. In fact, it turns out this is a neat way of tricking the villain.
Giving yourself permission to fail doesn’t mean you want to fail. On the contrary. It means acknowledging that you might fail, even though you don’t want to.
Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. You might feel sick, the daycare center might be closed for a day, or your neighborhood could have no electricity for a few hours. Shit happens.
Permission to fail means planning for the unforeseen. It takes the pressure off. Things might go sideways and there’s nothing you can do about that. But maybe they won’t, and you can have a killer productive afternoon. Let’s start working and see how this goes.
How to apply it: each time I go to the gym, I tell myself that I can turn around and go home any time I want to. If I have muscle cramps, I’m sick to my stomach, or I’m otherwise impaired to work out, I turn around and head back home. No guilt involved. In over 3 years of working out regularly, I’ve done this twice.
There you have it. A simple system for kicking procrastination to the curve.
After reading this your inner villain will likely rebel. You might be tempted to read some more, find out if there’s actual science behind these claims, and look for a new app that might help.
I’ve done all those things, more than once, so you don’t have to. The system works. And if a comic book villain with a huge hat managed to improve his productivity using it, so can you.
Go out there and start doing.
The beginning is the most important part of the workPlato