Procrastination is when you know what you want to do, but can’t seem to do it. The most common advice you hear when you ask about how to deal with it is “Stop procrastinating, just get started.” But this advice is for robots who never really had the problem to begin with. How can we mere humans get over it?
In her classic book “Bird by Bird” about writing (a famously procrastinated activity), Anne Lammott relays a story about a school project her older brother put off until the last day when he was ten. He had been given three months to work on it, but hadn’t so much as started. The gravity of the situation brought him to tears. His father sat next to him and tried to comfort him by saying, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
If you are in any way human, you see yourself in that 10-year-old. Maybe you are procrastinating on an important work project, pawning off passions to your future self, or just living in a home you can’t bring yourself to clean. Maybe you are putting off a difficult conversation with your spouse, or letting your guitar gather dust in the corner. Perhaps your taxes are “just not filed yet”. All of us struggle with these problems, and in many ways your success as a person is your ability to just get started on them. Bird by bird.
Any foray onto the internet will yield an endless stream of advice on this topic. I find most of it to be circular: “The key to not procrastinating is to just get started!” While true, it is also merely the definition of procrastination and doesn’t yield actionable advice.
Indeed, when the internet offers tasks to help you avoid procrastinating they don’t quite add up to doing anything important with our time. I can’t remember how many times I have sat down and meticulously planned out the things I want to do in my life (or with my day), studiously following lifestyle advice like “set a specific time to get started,” or “narrow your to-dos down to the three most important tasks.” I have set up an endless stream of focusing apps in my browser, and on my phone. I have set up consequences for failure using services like Stickk or Beeminder. But all of these are just methods, and by themselves don’t magically add up to starting an important project without understanding the principles at the heart of procrastination.
All of us are masters of starting things. I have personally started many hundreds of books, snippets of coding projects, diets, exercise regimens, budgets, side businesses, habits, relationships, bags of chips, etc. But what is the difference between the things we find easy to start and the things we don’t?
Well, human beings always find it difficult to start poorly-defined projects. An idea like “learn to code” is easy to put off until never because there is no specific action that you can take that is embedded into that goal. A goal like “Finish the code academy VBA course this month” makes crystal clear what you are or are not going to do.
Be clear about what success would look like and what failure would look like. Make it something that you could track, or be held accountable for.
As business management expert Peter Drucker says “What gets measured gets managed.” If you decide to measure your progress, you are much more likely to decide to start. Being specific also forces you to think about the difference between the important things in your life and the things that are merely urgent. It easy to think about clearing the sink, but no matter how many sinks I clear it won’t help me save up for my retirement. Once I got clear on the actions that lead to “retiring” I started putting much more money into my investments.
Being clear also helps avoid endlessly deliberating about which methods to use, wasting valuable willpower on things that in the end don’t lead to accomplishments. There are a million textbooks one could read to learn chemistry for example, but only picking one and reading gets you the knowledge to go work in a lab.
Another key difference between getting on to code academy and just saying “learn to code” is the idea that there is clear end to the project. Everyone on earth is terrified of endless tasks. I personally find thinking about doing dishes every week for the rest of my life to be the worst thing on earth. It is worse to me than thinking about any political or social turmoil that can be brought up because those things will pass. But the dishes won’t. They will be there, in the sink, until the moment I die.
So in order to get myself to do them, I don’t think about that. I think about bird by bird, and realize that the sink is just dish by dish. After I have cleared the sink, that is it. That is all I have to do right now. Instead of feeling terrified by the prospect of an eternity of dishwasher’s hands and grime, I feel the accomplishment of having done all that can be done.
Make your goals temporary; don’t aim for lifestyle changes. This is easy to tie into the idea of making your goals measurable, because limiting your goals implies making them quantifiable. Instead of saying “I’m going to lose weight,” say “I’m going to eat a healthy dinner every night this week.”
Psychologist Dan Ariely in a landmark study with Klaus Wertenbroch titled “Procrastination, Deadlines, and Perfomance” found that people who are assigned deadlines complete tasks at a much higher rate, especially if those deadlines are set by someone else. Whether you have someone set it for you or not, have a deadline. Be sure you have a time when you “draw a circle around it, and call it done,” as my band director used to say.
Be sure to start small. To think of finishing a 3-month report on birds in one night is a disastrous way of looking at your goals, but anyone can write a paragraph about one bird. In fact, that is how I started this article. If I had said to myself “I am going to write 1000 words about procrastination” I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I focused down on my process, asked myself what my literal next step was, and instead set the goal “find and peruse my sources,” a half hour activity.
Anne Lammott keeps a tiny one-inch by one-inch empty frame on her desk to remind herself she doesn’t have to finish her novel in one sitting. She only has to write enough to fill that empty frame—she only has to write this sentence, and then once she has done that she just has to write the next one.
BJ Fogg, a behavioral change researcher at Stanford, asks people who want to start flossing to just do one tooth. What people who try this approach find is that they can’t do it, they have to floss them all. Any hard or impossible task is just a stream of smaller tasks that most people can do. Find those smaller tasks and make them the goal instead.
Build your confidence
In line with picking goals that seems easy comes the final principle about getting started: success breeds success and failure breeds failure. This aspect of behavioral change ties everything together. You are more likely to succeed at small measurable tasks with a defined ending, so that builds to the confidence you need to do it again.
Seeing and focusing on all the things in your life that you have not done all the time makes it feel like you are powerless and don’t have any control over what you can accomplish, so you don’t even try. If you start to see yourself this way you can even start to do what procrastination researcher Piers Steel calls “self-handicapping” which is a form of learned helplessness where you unconsciously put obstacles in the way of your success in order to conform to your self-image as a someone who fails on projects that they start.
Confidence doesn’t come from talking yourself up or puffery. It comes from doing what you set out to do, time and time again. On the walls at my high school was a truly cheesy saying from Aristotle that I always hated as a young man: “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.” But now I realize maybe he is the most famous philosopher in history for a reason.
Start small, do what you set out to do, and recognize that you were successful by measuring it. Over time you start to see yourself as the kind of person that accomplishes the important things in their life even if they aren’t urgent. You stop seeing yourself as a procrastinator, stop being a slave to your mere whims, and that by itself may be a bigger win than all the awesome things you accomplish.
It is comforting to know that you don’t have to do it all at once. You can just go bird by bird.