8 Strategies to Stop Procrastinating

This is the first blog post I’ve written in about 2 months.  I have found hundreds of distractions and reasons to push off writing.  I think I have a headache, I need to do the laundry, I want to hike a new trail today, there’s a notification on my Facebook page, there’s a new email, I don’t know what I’m having for dinner, maybe my son is coming to visit this weekend, it looks like rain, I don’t have any ideas to write about, maybe I’ve written about everything I can write about, etc. In reality, the main reason I didn’t write is because my computer has been SSSLLLLOOOWWWWIIIINNNGGG down. I spent three weekends trying to figure out what the problem was with my desktop pc and I have finally resorted to writing on my laptop.  I’m amazed at how one hang-up like a computer can derail me for weeks.  I say to myself “Whelp, it’s taking too long; might as well go watch Netflix.” 

So how did I finally stop procrastinating and get to work?  Here are some strategies I put into place that might work for you too:

  1. Break it down into the tiniest of pieces. I mean really tiny.  Like instead of saying “I’m going to read Gone with the Wind”, say “I’m going to put the book next to my reading chair”, or “Open the book and read one chapter, or one page or one paragraph”.  This is advice from BJ Fogg and his excellent book, Tiny Habits.  The tiny habit should take less than 30 seconds to complete, according to Fogg, so that time is not a deterrent and the new habit grows naturally. So, to get started on this post, I set up the actual blank document so it was ready to go.
  1. Change your environment.  I had no idea that this was holding me back but I usually have my desktop computer and laptop on the same desk.  I kept getting sucked into the abyss of the “My desktop slowing down” and not responding to even the smallest of actions.  Pretty soon, I had my phone open and I was scrolling Facebook while “I waited” for a page to load on my computer. I had my fully functioning laptop on the same desk but I still never started to write.  I was completely hung up on using my desktop.  So, I got the bright idea to move my laptop yesterday to my “writing” chair.  And suddenly, perhaps because the laptop was in plain sight and in a different environment, I started writing. Changing my environment got me at the keyboard once again.
  1. Music.  This may not be for everyone but I play classical music when I write.  It has to be an instrumental for it to be the right vibe for me to write.  I don’t want to get caught up in the lyrics of a song.  Turning on a classical playlist sets the right tone for me to work.  It also sets the tone that I will be working and writing if there is classical music playing in the background.  I find my muse in classical music.
  1. Shut down distractions.  I take coaching calls most of the day on my laptop.  If I hear a beep or ding or a notification shows up on my screen, I will research the source of the distraction and eliminate it.  Outside of my calendar reminding me of my next appointment, I don’t want to have anything disrupting my coaching calls.  By eliminating these distractions, I am able to be fully present for my calls.  This has the added benefit of eliminating distractions when I’m writing as well.  I generally try to write on the weekends so there aren’t usually any upcoming appointments but I’m also not receiving email or social media notifications which could potentially derail me from focusing on my writing.  Shut down distractions.
  1. Serializing. This is a terrific suggestion from Oliver Burke in his book, 4000 weeks. Burke wrote, “Focus only on one big project at a time. Though it’s alluring to try to alleviate the anxiety of having too many responsibilities or ambitions by getting started on them all at once, you’ll make little progress that way. Multitasking rarely works well — and you’ll soon find that serializing helps you to complete more projects anyway, thereby helping relieve your anxiety.” So set up on your schedule that you’ll work 30 minutes each day on the Gnarly Project or the budget or the annual review process.  Once the 30 minutes is done, move on and come back to it the next day.  Serialize big projects.
  1. Eat that frog.  Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Start your day with the worst thing you don’t want to do and then it’s clear coasting the rest of the day.  It might be that a five-mile run, cleaning out the garage, or finishing the annual review for your worst performing direct report is the best way to start your day.   Eat that frog.
  1. Choose what you do.  Change up your self-talk around that which you are procrastinating.  As written on MindTools, the phrases “need to” and “have to,” for example, imply that you have no choice in what you do. This can make you feel disempowered and might even result in self-sabotage. However, saying, “I choose to,” implies that you own a project, and can make you feel more in control of your workload. Elect to work on a blog post instead of “needing” to. 
  1. Celebrate or reward.  This made a big difference in my flossing habit in the morning. Dr. Fogg advocates either a high five or fist pump when you finish a new behavior like flossing your teeth.  It wires positivity into your brain.  You could also set up a reward when you are done like a latte from your favorite coffee shop or phoning a friend or watching an episode of your favorite show.  Wiring positivity helps set up the expectation that something good will come after eating the frog.

I used several of these tools to get back to writing again.  It feels good to get back to writing and the sense of accomplishment is a reward enough for me at this point.  What are some of your tricks to overcome procrastination? 

4 Make or Break Components of a Habit

I recently read BJ Fogg’s book, Tiny Habits.  It was eye opening to understand why some of my habit changes have failed and why some of them have succeeded.  He really tears apart a habit into its components and all the forces at work to make it fail or not.  He shines the light on how to succeed.  I was of the mindset that it was all up to my willpower to make a habit succeed.  This is probably why my best and most enduring habits are in the morning when I have the most willpower.  Before, I’m hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT) and I’m at my highest energy level. I have made several attempts at creating an afternoon habit like practicing my guitar or writing a blog post, without success.  I try once or twice and next thing I know; I’ve got the remote in my hand and I’m bingeing some show. 

Fogg does a great job of dissecting a habit and he does it without judgement.  As Fogg wrote, “In order to design successful habits and change your behaviors, you should do three things.  Stop judging yourself. Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors.  Embrace mistakes as discoveries and use them to move forward.” Understanding that it’s not a failure or opportunity to be self-critical when an attempt fails but to be able to hold it up to the light and see what’s available is empowering.

4 make or break components of a habit:

Make it small.  I mean really small.  Fogg’s example is to floss one tooth instead of the whole mouth.  Instead of “reading a book”, try “put the book on my nightstand” or “Read one chapter, or one page, or one paragraph, or one sentence.”  This makes it so much more accessible.  I actually started flossing my teeth after reading the book.  I have yet to floss just one tooth but I have, on a daily basis, been able to keep the habit because all I’m focused on is flossing one tooth.  I read part a book each night.  Sometimes it’s one page, sometimes it’s a chapter, it depends on how tired I am (and how interesting the book is).  I water my plants each Saturday.  My tiny habit that facilitates this is putting the watering can on the kitchen table.  I know it’s not done until the can is put away.  Keeping it small makes it all less daunting.

Make it easy. Fogg writes that B = MAP, or Behavior happens when three things come together at the same moment: Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt.  As Fogg points out, motivation cannot be depended upon.  Sure, there are times when I’m really motivated to go for a run or do a strength workout, but there are many times when I either had a poor night’s sleep or it’s raining outside or I’m just not feeling it. This was an insight for me.  So, I can’t just depend on willpower (motivation) alone.  In fact, I try to make whatever the habit is, as easy as possible.  So, I leave my dental floss out on my bathroom counter, I keep my shoes by the front door to go for a walk, I leave the book on my nightstand with the expectation that I will only read at least one page, I start my walk with only aiming for the corner of the street, and I leave a glass of water on the counter so that I drink it first thing in the morning. It’s like the engineers who look at how many clicks a customer has to make to purchase an item.  Eliminate the amount of clicks of the mouse, reduce the friction and noise for you to have the ability to actually do the habit. I have found that the easier a habit is to do, the more likely I am to form a habit.

Find a prompt. Fogg delineates three types of prompts.  

A Facilitator prompt is when you have high motivation but low ability.  So, it is a prompt like clicking a green button when you are tired (your ability is low) but you are motivated to be entertained (think of the next video loading up on Netflix).  

The Signal prompt is when you have high motivation and high ability to do the target behavior, so a simple reminder is enough like a calendar notification, sometimes, in my case, I don’t need the reminder because of my high motivation. 

The Spark prompt is when you lack motivation but have the ability. One of the best spark prompts for me is a Fresh Start Prompt.  So, it’s a Monday and I’m going to walk first thing in the morning for 10 minutes every day or it’s the first of the month or it’s the new year or it’s my birthday or it’s the vernal equinox.  

One of Fogg’s quintessential habits is what he calls “The Maui Habit” which is basically saying out loud, “It’s going to be an amazing day,” when your feet hit the floor in the morning.  I have to say I would get wrapped up in the fact that I forgot to say it until I got to the bathroom or when I was meditating later in the morning.  Then I realized, just because I missed the prompt of my feet hitting the floor, doesn’t mean I didn’t do the habit.  Whatever the prompt, if you remember to do the behavior for whatever reason, that’s terrific!

Celebrate. I have to say the Fogg had to prove this one to me.  I initially was skeptical of celebrating a new behavior. And by celebrating, it’s not throwing a party or getting a manicure.  It has to be immediate.  So, think of giving yourself a high-five or a fist pump or “Oh yeah.”  What would you say if your team just scored to win in the final seconds of a game? That?  That’s your celebration. It makes sense because of our brains.  When your brain realizes that you have a positive reaction (celebrating) to completing a new behavior, it wires it into your brain. It’s a positive neuropathway that your brain will seek to recreate again, and again, and again.  So, when I started flossing my teeth in the morning, I gave myself a fist pump.  I did that for about a week.  I do it periodically now, but now I see flossing as a positive experience.   As Fogg says, this is a critical piece that most folks dismiss.  Don’t forget to celebrate.

Since I finished this book several weeks ago, I’ve been successful in flossing my teeth every morning, drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning and I’ve taken an early morning 10-minute walk outside as recommended by Dr. Huberman to help with my circadian rhythm and general wellbeing for the rest of the day.  Now that I have a much better understanding of habit forming, I am much more adept at creating and keeping habits.  How do you create a habit?