On Tuesday, I shared a lot of feelings in my first post on beating procrastination. With the curse metaphor firmly in hand, I’m proud of myself for not titling this post Procrastination II: The Reckoning.
Thanks to everyone who has reached out and shared their own struggles with me – I had no idea that so many people I admire, who I see as successful and prolific, were also silently struggling with this.
I promised to share some techniques for dealing with procrastination that have helped me. They may seem basic, but practising these habits consistently has really improved my life. Here they are:
#1: Tune into your feelings
When you’re slamming your head against a project you can’t seem to start, this helps. Be present in your body and name the way you feel. Mentally name your emotions and physical sensations instead of pushing them away. Gently question each sensation without judgement. This is almost meditative (without the humming), because it takes you out of your head and into the moment you need to be in.
My tuning-in usually becomes a conversation with myself. Something like this: How do I feel? Annoyed. Why? Because I left this blog post to the last minute. Why? Because I don’t know how to start. Who says you have to start at the beginning? I guess I could write out my main thoughts and then leave the introduction to the end. But I still hate this post. Why? Because I’m talking about personal stuff and people won’t care. Why do you say that? Because nobody cares what I have to say. Is that objectively true? Well, in the past people have cared what I have to say. And the more personal posts actually end up affecting people the most. Huh.
By the end of this little internal conversation, my resistance melts away in the background, without any internal drill sergeant shouting at me to man up and get writing.
#2: Make your work into a ritual
This is a tip as old as time, but it really does work. Find a ritual that plays to your pleasures instead of feeling like a chore. Don’t use a ritual or a schedule to punish yourself into doing your work. I always tried to time myself and push myself to do as much work as I could in a specific time – Dr Wicked’s Write or Die was my app of choice. The timing worked, but the negativity surrounding the ritual kept me from consistently using it. What if I didn’t want to write or die, huh? What then, Dr Wicked?
My current work ritual is much less aggressive and, conversely, more effective. It’s based on the Pomodoro Technique, which gives you a five minute break after every 25 minutes of work, with a longer break every two hours. I combine this with an ambient noise app I started using to help me sleep. I’m a very aural person, and hearing birds chirping in a forest physically relaxes me pretty quickly.
It’s perfect because anxiety fucks with my concentration, so if I’m relaxed, I can focus way more. I also use the same soundtrack when I work because I now associate that forest sound with being in the zone. The app has a timer, I set it to 25 minutes and start working. I don’t have to watch the clock for my break time, because the sounds fade away by itself when the timer’s up.
Your work ritual might be very different to mine, but the important thing is that you’re realistic with your expectations and design your ritual to fit how you work best. A ritual helps you take care of yourself because it removes the stress of deciding in the moment how you will approach your work. The stress of that decision alone can be an excuse to procrastinate, so make it a non-issue by deciding on a ritual ahead of time.
#3: Take breaks
This is so crucial for me. I used to completely drain myself when I finally got around to working because if I stopped, I didn’t know if I could motivate myself to start again. So being in the zone usually meant skipping meals, letting my legs fall asleep, and staring at a screen until my eyes burned.
Now I take quick breaks every half an hour or so, and I always get out of my chair and walk around. Clicking over to Facebook may be a break for your mind, but not for your body. If I’m working at home, I can go into the garden and take some deep breaths and stretch. It also gives me a few minutes to reply to messages, get water or a snack, and generally feel like I’m not being tortured by deadlines. When my timer goes off, I stop working, no matter what. Since I stop mid-flow and not when I’m completely spent, getting back to work is easier because I pick up where I left off.
#4: Diarise your distractions
I’m really starting to sound like a stereotypical creative, aren’t I? But yes, distractions are also a big part of my everyday experience. Procrastination eats up your time by making the most mundane distractions seem urgent and fascinating. The most dangerous distractions for me are the ones that would only take a few minutes to attend to: replying to a message or looking something up are my two main vices. If either of those pop onto my mental radar during my working time, I have a spot in my journal where I list them. My current ones are “Check in with bf” and “Google why fern is so pale.” I lead a thrilling life okay?
The point is that writing these deeply compelling distractions down banishes them from your brain, because you’re not afraid of forgetting them – but they also don’t interrupt your workflow to a destructive degree. When I take breaks, I glance at my list and attend to one or two things, feeling smugly satisfied that I can get my work done and be a great fern mom.
Not indulging distractions is self care because you deserve to focus and produce the best work you can. Devoting time and focused energy to a project means you can be proud of the end result, and that is a way better high than the instant gratification of hopping from tangent to tangent.
#5: Put your health first
This is crucial to dealing with anxiety in general, and procrastination in particular. This may sound a bit like How To Human 101, but staying hydrated has always been a big challenge for me. Now, keeping a glass of fresh water (maybe even with a cheeky squeeze of lime juice) on my desk is one small way I take care of myself. I decided this year that my health was my top priority, because without good health you can’t enjoy so much of the good stuff in life, like art and family and pizza and doughnuts.
I used to tell myself that I didn’t have time to exercise, because there was always so much work to do. How could I leave work at 5pm when I hadn’t done the month’s work yet? Sitting at my computer and staring at my emails for 90 minutes was obviously a much better way to spend my time, right?
Once I started prioritising my health, I had so much more energy to tackle the work that would normally overwhelm me. Doing things for myself like going to gym was also a much-needed mental break from the stress of creative work. I realised that it was simply a better use of my time at the end of a long day to do something for myself instead of trying to squeeze out one more idea from my wrung sponge of a brain. When you spend all day solving new problems, it’s nice to just hop on a treadmill and know that it’s all figured out. You only have to put one foot in front of the other, and don’t drop your phone – learned that one the hard way.
So those are a few of the self care techniques that have helped me. Do I still have moments when procrastination gets the best of me? Absolutely. But I don’t feel cursed anymore. When I notice myself resisting work, I instantly know that it’s my anxiety manifesting in a different way, and I can deal with it. I hope my little two-post rant helps you see procrastination in a new way, and maybe makes your life a little easier, too.