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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Creative Blocks

Can’t Start, Won’t Start: Tricks for Overcoming Procrastination

Are you known to clean the bathroom or reorganize your record collection when you really should be working on a big assignment? Tips on combating procrastination.


When it comes to glamorous procrastinators, Scarlett O’Hara is one of our most enduring icons. A quick sampling of her lines in Gone With the Wind yields: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy.” And, “I’ll think about it tomorrow, when I can stand it.” And, of course, her famous closing line: “After all… tomorrow is another day!”

It turns out that O’Hara was a bit of a trailblazer in the “I’ll-do-it-tomorrow” category. In a landmark study of procrastination completed just a few years ago the news was not good. Our collective habit of putting things off is getting worse. While in the 1970s, only about 5 percent of Americans admitted to regularly procrastinating, today it’s a whopping 26 percent.

Few of us are strangers to the malingering to-do list item – typically a difficult or complex activity – that we just can’t seem to get motivated for today. “I’ll take care of that tomorrow,” we say, O’Hara-style. Yet when tomorrow comes around, we often come to the same conclusion again, and again.As James Surowiecki explains in an excellent New Yorker article on procrastination: “Our memory for the intensity of visceral rewards is deficient: when we put off preparing for that meeting by telling ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow, we fail to take into account that tomorrow the temptation to put off work will be just as strong.” When tomorrow becomes today, our perspective changes.

Only about 5 percent of Americans admitted to regularly procrastinating in the 1970s, today it’s a whopping 26 percent.

The question, then, is: How can we recalibrate – or just plain trick – our psyches and our selves into mustering up the right mixture of self-discipline and external motivators to take action sooner rather than later?

Here are a few suggestions for overcoming procrastination:

1. View deadlines as a way to create a window of opportunity.

The default take on deadlines is typically to consider them to be cumbersome and stressful. Yet, from another perspective, a deadline can be viewed as a huge benefit to any project. Without the urgency of a hard deadline pushing a project to completion, it’s easy for you, your team, or your client to lose focus. We’ve all worked on agonizing projects where the timeline just bleeds on and on, merely because the flexibility is there.

As illustrator Christoph Niemann pointed out in a 99U interview, deadlines can actually help us by creating a fixed window of opportunity that requires us to be focused, pragmatic, and decisive:

In advertising, and also editorial, when people have 2 days, the briefing is much better, and the discussion is much better. It’s not that people just sign off on anything because they’re in a hurry. They’re just really looking at what they have, and trying to make the best product, and get it done.

The problem is when people have too much time on their hands. Because then at some point everybody’s going to question, “Why did you make it red, not green?” and “Could we try it upside-down, or left to right?” and then at some point it becomes arbitrary.

If the anxiety is about the deadline, then the energy really focuses on the result. If there is not anxiety about a deadline, all of the anxiety goes right to the creative part.

2. Create accountability (and fear!).

In the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, we see the late night talk show host struggling with idleness and unemployment after he’s booted from NBC. To get his groove back, O’Brien decides to put together a tour across America. When tickets go on sale, the team is stressed: No one knows what will happen. When it sells out in a matter of hours, they’re thrilled. But after the flush of success wears off, O’Brien has his “Oh, shit!” realization: Now he has to actually figure out what he’s going to do.

“Nothing motivates you to figure out what your show is like selling a bunch of tickets,” O’Brien explains.

While most of us may not have the adoring audience that Conan O’Brien does, but we can all muster up someone to hold us accountable: Whether it’s declaring your intentions publicly to your team of colleagues, taking on a paid assignment you have to deliver, or just telling a family member or friend who’s willing to nag you.

No one wants to disappoint an expectant audience. By creating one, you light a fire under your ass.

3. Break the project down into smaller concrete tasks.

It turns out that the manner in which a task is presented to someone – or the way in which you present it to your brain – has a significant impact on how motivated you will be to take action. A study led by researcher Sean McCrea at the University of Konstanz in Germany recently found that people are much more likely to tackle a concrete task than an abstract task. Here’s a recap from The Economist:

Dr McCrea and his colleagues conducted three separate studies. First they recruited 34 students who were offered €2.50 ($3.30) for completing a questionnaire within the subsequent three weeks. Half of the students were then sent an email asking them to write a couple of sentences on how they might go about various activities, such as opening a bank account or keeping a diary. The others were asked to write about why someone might want to open a bank account or keep a diary.For their second study, Dr McCrea and his colleagues recruited 50 students, who were offered the same sums and timespans as the first lot. Half of these students were asked to provide examples of members of a group, for example, naming any type of bird. The task was inverted for the other students, who were asked to name a category to which birds belong.

Those who were presented with concrete tasks and information responded more promptly than did those who were asked to think in an abstract way. Moreover, almost all the students who had been prompted to think in concrete terms completed their tasks by the deadline while up to 56 percent of students asked to think in abstract terms failed to respond at all.

 

It seems to me like the difference between being handed a map versus following the step-by-step instructions of a GPS device. Not everyone can read a map, but everyone can follow the directions. By breaking your project down into smaller, well-described tasks, the way forward becomes clear and it’s easy to take action.

4. Work on the project a little bit each day.

A few weeks ago on Father’s Day, Fred Wilson did a nice post about why working on a problem over time is superior to churning something out just before a deadline. Here’s the advice his father shared with Fred when he got caught procrastinating:

He explained that I should start working on a project as soon as it was assigned. An hour or so would do fine, he told me. He told me to come back to the project every day for at least a little bit and make progress on it slowly over time. I asked him why that was better than cramming at the very end (as I was doing during the conversation).
He explained that once your brain starts working on a problem, it doesn’t stop. If you get your mind wrapped around a problem with a fair bit of time left to solve it, the brain will solve the problem subconsciously over time and one day you’ll sit down to do some more work on it and the answer will be right in front of you.

Most of our greatest insights – those fabled “A-ha!” moments – arrive when we least expect them. To use computer terms, they come when our brains are processing problems “in the background” of our consciousness – while we’re running, or showering, or sleeping. If we start projects at the 11th hour and cram, cram, cram till deadline, there’s no allowance for the vital “downtime” that fuels our best creative insights.

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

  • Skyler LaF

    Breaking the project into smaller tasks seems like great advice. Thanks!

  • Mark McGuinness

    “Only about 5% of Americans admitted to regularly procrastinating in the 1970s, today it’s a whopping 26%.”

    So are people procrastinating more or telling the truth more?😉

  • jkglei

    Ha. Good point, Mark. I probably earned that with my use of the leading “admitted.” Don’t think that was the researchers term! 

    My (unproven) theory, though, is that there’s just more to fend off (and thus more to procrastinate on) than before. Email makes it so easy for people to pile up to-dos (that you didn’t ask for) on top of you! At least in the ’70s, they might physically see your overflowing inbox, and feel guilty about adding something….

  • Mark McGuinness

    I think your theory may well be right, just couldn’t resist it, sorry.😉

  • Andreina Garban

    Love this article… and I thought about another icon, Maria Von Trapp who belted out: Let’s start at the very beginning! 

  • David Sebald

    They should find a way to make email harder to handle as more of it piles up. I would sign on to that. Theoretically =).

  • Alfee

    26% now? I think that’s a result of modernization. We grow up obsessed with instant gratification, so we do things that give us pleasure that very minute. I’m sure that the things we procrastinate about are those that only gives benefit in the longer term.

  • Pedro

    Great article!!. So simple the way you explain something that looks “difficult”. Very-very usefull.

  • Sue Mitchell

    If more people are procrastinating now, it might be because of overwhelm. It’s easy, when you have too much to do, to do nothing. That’s where the small steps come in. I like to trick myself by saying, “I’m not really going to write that blog post. I’m just going to open my word processor,” or “I’m not really going to do my taxes. I’m just going to take out the file with my receipts.” It’s amazing how productive you can be if you lower your expectations about how much you’re going to accomplish in one go.

  • anna@citilab

    it’s the internet, really- we all use computers to work and we all have internet access. I just moved into my first office, no wifi there yet- it really does miracles to my productivity. If I really need to procrastinate, I look at the street, take photos, go for a walk. Awesome.

  • David Sebald

    You are a rarity. =)

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    Great post, I enjoyed ready reading it, Keep
    posting good stuff like this.

  • Staaaaas

    great insights. I`m a true procrastinator , cause when I`ve started to read this,  I have started to do my work to procrastinate this text! lol

  • venece

    “… the brain will solve the problem subconsciously
    over time and one day you’ll sit down to do some more work on it and
    the answer will be right in front of you.”

    So true… when I do that, lol. Seriously, working on it:)

  • Geoff Talbot

    Great article,

    I found it interesting that procrastination is getting worse. Why is that?

    I think to some degree, to much inward thinking, to much analysis, to much therapy could be involved in this trend. We get stuck in our heads and it stops us living on the outside and actually doing.

    Does anyone else struggle with this problem? I do.

    Anyway I wrote a very short seven sentence blog on How to stop Procrastinating; which your readers are welcome to read before they get on with … life.

    Thanks again
    Geoff Talbot

  • Gunisigi Balaban

    my favourite part “No one wants to disappoint an expectant audience. By creating one, you light a fire under your ass.”

  • Lisa Zaslow

    I don’t remember where I heard this analogy – Work is like gas, it expands to fill the space available. This is why deadlines and timeframes are so crucial – otherwise you tend to think you have all the time in the world to “do it tomorrow”.

  • resume writers

    wonderfull!

  • Tony

    Is there also a case that there is so much in the world now which can swallow up our time and hence become place to procrastinate … twitter, Facebook, self help books, blogs etc?

  • Geoff Talbot

    I think if there was none of those things we would probably go to the beach lol

  • Michael Roller

    One other piece of advice I learned from the book Switch and Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball: do the easiest task first. Our brain can get overwhelmed by the daunting number of things we have to do, but if you knock out a few easy things first, you’ll gain momentum towards the bigger, tougher things. When it comes to paying off debt, it can feel especially counter intuitive, but (apparently) it works.

  • Brandon Leedy

    I think the only real “trick” to fighting procrastination is to care about what your doing. Care immensely. It’s a critical point that often gets overlooked. You are most likely procrastinating because a subconscious part of your brain has already sussed out that the task that’s been on your list isn’t important to you any more. “Lighting a fire under your ass” or “creating fear” is just furthering the pattern of procrastination. It makes you reactive to the fear, not proactive towards doing the things you love. Fear is the weak motivator, and eventually even it will falter… Then what do you do? Keep raising the stakes? On the contrary, just look inside yourself as to why you’re not getting supposedly “important” things done. It more likely that you’ve honestly moved on and would rather devote energy somewhere else.

    I’m not knocking this article, whatever works for people helps them in their own way… and advice like breaking a task into smaller goals is good and pretty much applicable to anything. I just personally think that the fear approach is only a band-aid that might get you through a few rough tasks in the beginning… but if you find yourself having to “rally the troops” on every task for weeks on end, maybe you should reevaluate what you’re doing as a whole. This site’s about accomplishing your best ideas right? Maybe your “best idea” isn’t the “best” anymore and it’s really time for you to purse something else, something even more amazing, where your driver is passion and caring, not fear.

  • Mostow

    But after the beach we would want to go back and work as we feel inspired. Twitter just make us need to go to the beach but when we come back we would go back to twitter and it is a vicious cycle.

  • Dan Peck

    My trick would be DigitalSilence – lite. http://digitalsilence.wordpres

    By ‘deteching’ you have a chance to focus!

  • Taylor T

    AMAZING response. There should be a whole book written on this alone. Especially when it comes to client work and/or those who suffer from restless minds.

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
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