Everyone has a fatal flaw: procrastination. It’s basic human nature – our brains want us to take the path of least resistance. Procrastination seduces you in many forms. One of the most devious is the Excuse Demon, that voice which makes you bullshit a reason to not do something at that moment. You need to watch that show first. You need to go walk your cat. Your fish have a 3 AM hair appointment. You’d be surprised at how absurd the excuses you automatically think of to justify inaction can be.
Our tendency to procrastinate is unfortunately persuasive. Providing a reason, any reason, is persuasive. When you procrastinate, you persuade yourself with reasons for it. If you want to conquer procrastination, you need to be aware of this. That will make you less likely to fall prey to it, but it isn’t enough.
You don’t have all the time in the world. But even that memory isn’t enough.
There’s only one sure shot to conquer procrastination and that’s through action. The plan to conquer procrastination takes advantage of another quirk of the human brain – its desire for consistency and to finish what it starts. Incomplete tasks and inconsistencies occupy much more prominent space in the brain than completed or dormant tasks do. That’s the foundation of the plan and why action is the answer.
But wait a minute? Isn’t the very problem procrastination one of inaction? Yes. And that’s precisely where the cure can be found. We should return to one of Louis XIV’s maxims for kingly conduct:
There are often troublesome occasions which may cause you to hesitate in making a decision, but once you do, and think you have seen the best course, you must take it.
Louis XIV said this for a reason. Hesitation of any kind will lead to procrastination. Once you decide the best course of action, you need to start acting. Both steps in our plan to conquer procrastination involve action – a smaller action and then a bigger action.
Step 1: Open your material
No matter what it is you have to do, you’ll need to use some kind of material. If you’re going to the gym, for example, you probably have certain shoes and clothes that you wear. If you find yourself wavering, put those things on. Your mood will probably change if you do. Then open the door. Then walk out.
All of these things will successfully engage your brain and make it focus on the task at hand instead of the excuses it was making up to try and procrastinate. Suddenly, those excuses won’t seem as important, because they aren’t as prominent in your attention. Instead, what you need to do has come into view.
This step is applicable to almost anything. If you need to write something, just open up your word document. If you see a girl you like, step toward her. The simple act of preparing to take your major action will be enough to shake your brain out of its excuse-making and hesitation.
That will launch you into the second step.
Step 2: Take the first, small action in the main task
If you’re at the gym, lift that first weight. If you’re writing, type those first words. If you’ve taken some steps toward that girl, say something, anything.
This works on the same basic principle as the first step, but engages your brain into focusing on actually doing the main task at hand, not just viewing it. Once it’s in view, you want to minimize your chances of walking away from it at all. Believe me, your brain will be prone to think of excuses for procrastination if you give it the chance. So don’t give it one. Just because something is in view doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll move toward it.
You always need to keep in mind that the Excuse Demon is constantly whispering to you. To conquer it is all about constant action to engage your brain in other ways so that you won’t pay attention to it.
So the next thing to do after presenting the main task to yourself is to take the first small step towards completing it.
The first step in this process to conquer procrastination is about putting your task into view. This second step is about walking toward it, however slowly. It’s a systems, rather than a goals-based approach, which works better.
As with all systems, it isn’t foolproof. You might find your procrastination trying to fight back more than you’d like. The system never made me go from completely disengaged to the point where I’d get my big work done in an hour, but it’s definitely gotten me more focused and upped my production over the years, including with this very post.
As Scott Adams would say, with this system, you’re going from a strategy with bad odds (just telling yourself you need to stop procrastinating) to a strategy with good odds.
Procrastination is never something you conquer permanently. You have to fight it every day, so the headline was something like truthful hyperbole. If you’re a procrastinator by nature like I am, though, this will help you become more productive.
For more about how to conquer things including procrastination, read Stumped.