Procrastination – A better understanding and practical solutions

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The more people I meet in life, the more I realise that Procrastination affects a huge amount of people.

You may be able to relate with some (or all) of the following due to procrastinating - Missed opportunities, feelings of guilt as you’re watching life passing you by, wasting your time doing meaningless tasks as more important duties are staring you in the face. The guilt list goes on, but you get the gist - It’s not ideal, and you’re certainly not alone. 

I aim to give you some better understanding and advice for moving forward to help you to be more in control of procrastination.

Let’s start by getting 2 hard truths out the way

1.    I’m a procrastinator, but I’m working on it. 
It’s only through experience I can give my 2 cents on this subject.

2. There’s no magic pill that can help.
Although, by changing the way you think about procrastination can allow you to override it when you need to. You might always be a procrastinator, but that’s ok, as awareness is the first step in finding ways work around it.

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The process of procrastination - In short 

The common trait with procrastinators is to put off important tasks - waiting, avoiding, put off, check Instagram, then Facebook, then emails, and then it’s lunchtime… the list goes on avoiding what we should really be doing.
We basically don't mentally commit to the process until we REALLY have to. Even though we know that’s a really bad idea to do so, it creeps up so slowly that we accept it in real time as being ok. We go against every piece of advice ever written on the subject of productivity, because Googling ideas for your Halloween costume when it’s only February is way more important that doing that pile of work that’s waiting for you...

….Then, comes the deadline for something you should have already been doing.
You know, The ‘Oh shit’ moment you know so well that forces you to panic into action - this is the stage where sleepless nights and long hours are the only way out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself. Time is running out, fast.
But no matter how many times we do this to ourselves, we still do this to ourselves, every damn time. Tim Urban refers to this as The Panic Monster – I’ve linked to his amazing Ted Talk on the subject at the bottom of this page.

Why we need to chat about this? – We need to create

More often than not, as artists we are relying on ourselves to create and deliver something new to the world – And that’s scary. It takes a whole lot of guts, and a whole lot of effort.

This is why discussing solutions to procrastination matters even more for creative people - There isn’t always an impending deadline to push us to create.
We are often on our own to drive our own ideas toward the finish line. This is especially the case for personal work for photographers, which in turn can often lead to the paid commissions that we need to survive. A big part of being a creative is actually creating something.

The Causes of procrastination

Let’s now dig down and get into the reasons why we procrastinate in the first place, and understanding this will lead to understanding the solutions.


Stress & Fear
Stress and fear are two main underlying causes for procrastination – and having awareness of this is essential.

The facts are; we’re not naturally built to run towards things that give us negative feelings – We’re ultimately designed to stay safe and keep ourselves alive… Duh.

We have in-built natural responses to fear and stress, which are induced by danger and threat and are there to protect us from harm. Unfortunately this means whether you are being chased by a lion, or making a difficult phone call you keep putting off, the reactions can be similar and unpractical in modern life.

So how does this look in a real world scenario as an artist, and what would cause stress and fear? 
Let’s say you need to get a large batch of images retouched with a deadline in 7 days - the initial perception of this task is that it’s huge undertaking, lots of difficult edits, and perhaps also difficult decision-making along the way. You’re going to run into problems and it’s probably not going to be much fun.
You may also ask yourself - where do I even start work on this big project?
Due to this, underlying stress kicks in as we feel overwhelmed, and we shut ourselves off from the potential threat – So now refreshing Facebook and heading out for an extended lunch seems the most sensible thing to do – It’s a safe option and feels the opposite from how the retouching project makes us feel.

Endorphins & Dopamine – We do what makes us ‘feel good’

Endorphins & Dopamine are also important to take into consideration here. These are chemicals your body releases, which in turn make you feel good.

Social media has been proven to have to have this effect on us and has the power to release ‘feel good’ chemicals; this is why it’s so addictive. Comfort eating is also common. We unconsciously know what makes us feel good and what gives us instant gratification so we gravitate towards this when under stress.

Practical Solutions for procrastination

Ok now we know more about procrastination and why we do it, let’s look at 6 practical solutions to being productive in the face of fear and stress.

1. Eat That Frog.
Brian Tracy’s book ‘Eat That Frog’, suggests we should do the most pressing tasks first. The tasks that are bugging us most are the ones we should be tackling right away.
These might be an awkward phone call, email or task that isn’t going away and will follow you around in your head all day – We all have those, and we need to get them out the way at the start of our day or as soon as they crop up as they can sustain a feeling of stress within us affecting our overall productivity.

Clearing all urgent and important tasks that are causing you unwanted stress and fear allows you to spend time on focused work that might require your undivided attention for an extended period of time.


2. Use the “2 Minute Rule”
This one is a game-changer, I can tell you that from experience.
I use this technique everyday of my life, which is described in David Allen’s Bestseller “Getting Things Done”.

Simply put – If a task takes 2 minutes or less, do it right away - no excuses. Just do it, and get it out the way. 

The magical thing about this is all those little 2-minute tasks have the potential build up into hours of work that you will dread and begin to procrastinate with, and you’ll be looking for ways to escape from the stress of such an overwhelming set of tasks if you allow then to build up. 

3. Find out more about your underlying stress
By digging deeper within yourself you may be able to find the real reason or root cause for your stress and fear surrounding the work. This takes more soul searching but can really be an eye opener as it can reveal to you aspects where you are lacking skills, knowledge and confidence in your work and process. 

By asking yourself, “what part of this process am I avoiding the most”, can give you in indication of what is really going on the background of your own mind.
Once you know the core reasons for your avoidance, you can take steps to building confidence in these places.

4. Breakdown the task into bite sized pieces
The best way to eat and elephant, is one piece at a time. By chopping up a large task into small manageable chunks, and doing the easy ones first will start a momentum that leads to a chain of productivity. You always end up getting more done than you plan. 

When I was younger I once saw on TV a guy who was in the Guinness Book Of Records for eating a whole bicycle by cutting it up into tiny parts. (in fact, I just Googled it and turns out he then went on to eat a whole Airplane! WTF?!)

So it turns out you can achieve just about anything if you break it down into small parts.

 “An object in motion stays in motion” - Newtons First Law

5. Doing a bad first draft is easy.
I picked up this gem from one of Jordan Peterson’s YouTube lectures, and it’s golden. The lesson is simple - Anyone can do a bad first draft, and from there you then have something to work with.
When I put this into action I find that my bad first draft is almost always good enough quality to be a final draft – if that turns out not to be the case then that’s fine too as at least I’ve then built momentum to do more.

The key is showing up, and just doing a something.

6. Force yourself into a deadline
This is a weird one, but I use it from time to time. It’s all about acceptance and knowing what to expect from yourself. 

If you know you’re going to procrastinate, but you know you always meet your deadlines no matter what - a solution is to force yourself into a state of productivity by intentionally triggering the levels of action a deadline would cause, but do it within a controlled time scale you have put in place.
For example, by setting a shorter deadline for yourself - By contacting client and giving them a day and time the work will be completed by which is sooner than they first anticipated, this will give you control of your time, and you can forward plan a bulk of work to be done sooner than allowing to drag on any longer.

Sounds nuts, but it works for me, so might work for you too.


To wrap up

Procrastination isn’t fun, and avoidance of important tasks only leads to late nights, guilt, and additional stress put upon yourself. I suggest you try and work your way through the solutions in this post and see what works best for you. It certainly doesn't cure procrastination but sure helps in managing it.

Good luck and let me know how you get on.

Suggested Reading

Here are some suggested books to check out that will help understand stress, fear and procrastination better, and hold further promise of better productivity - Click to take you to Amazon for reviews and purchase.

Getting Things Done by David Allen
Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters

Tim Urban – TED TALK & Blog Post – Wait But Why?