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Three Questions to Confront and Overcome Procrastination
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ryan McRae.
Sometimes it’s a late-night phone call and sometimes it’s after the second beer, but this is what usually comes out: “I don’t know why I procrastinate so much.”
This is what my friends say time and time again (cause they know I love productivity). They just say it in different ways:
“I still haven’t worked on that book. You know, the book I’m always talking about?”
“I had a month, a month, to get that project done for work. I have two days now. Two days! I’ll never make it.”
“If they have a gallery of blank canvases, I think I’m ready. . ."
Maybe you have a friend like this — the one who always has this one thing she can’t seem to tackle, this one thing that eludes him. Your friend has everything else squared away, but this task has been put aside so many times that it has become Herculean and this person is clearly not Hercules.
To the rest of us, the task seems ordinary: Want to write a book? Just, you know, write some words down, 250 words a day. After three or four months, you have a book. There you go. Want to get that project done? Just schedule the time at work: block out an hour; hold your calls. After two weeks, you have a project done. There you go.
But to those of us who are mired in the task, it feels anything but ordinary and we can’t seem to get started. We’d rather have new dentists practice tooth drilling on us than face that task.
So how do we kill this hydra that keeps popping up? How do we finally get to that task? (Or what do we tell our friend? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)
I have a friend, one who just has heaps of talent and grace; he’s handsome, he’s an excellent communicator, and whatever he attempts, he can do with ease. He’s the guy who takes a week off work and learns Italian. You know the type.
“Ryan, I’ve had an idea for a collection of short stories for years and when I attempt to write a word of it, I seem to do other things, like clean the house or rake the yard.”
He told me about his story collection. It was articulate and clear, beautiful and moving. Its only flaw: it was unwritten. Not a page. Not a word.
“Adam — I have to ask you some hard questions."
He took a sip of coffee and gave me the “go right ahead” hand gesture.
I asked him three questions to get him to put pen to paper, or at least keys to keyboard.
1. Who doesn’t want you to do this?
We have had people in our lives, important people, and we’ve shared our dreams and goals with them. And instead of the encouragement we needed, the permission we might have hoped for, we received quite the opposite:
“You’ll never be good at that.”
“I could never see you do that.”
“No one earns a living doing that.”
That “that” is our dream or our passion.
When I told my father I wanted to be a writer, he balked. “Who earns a living being a writer? You don’t have a chance.”
I’ve written books and articles, blog posts, and some killer memes, but first I had to face that voice that told me I wasn’t destined to be a writer. To combat it, I simply wrote a letter to my dad, letting him know that I’m pursuing being a writer. I didn’t send it. I didn’t create a heart-gushing memoir. I just wrote a short and simple edict: I’m going to be a writer. I’m going to put the words to the page regardless of if you think I can or not.
Who doesn’t want you to accomplish what you want to do? Is there a person standing in the way, a phantom of your past that whispers about how you can’t get something done? Face that phantom. Fight that resistance. (Tweet this!)
2. In 10 years, how will you feel if you don’t get it done?
There is a cost to putting off what we want to accomplish. When it gets put aside, it accumulates this interest in the form of regret, this small deposit on a heartbreak that is coming. I can’t tell you how I felt when I was 28 and I hadn’t written anything in ten years. I hadn’t written a short story or poem, an article, or a chapter of a book. Ten. Years.
When I finally got the courage to put the words on the page, my habit (and fingers) were rusty, like a long-ago-forgotten Tin Man. I clunked around, and it took me months to get back in the habit, to find my voice, and to find the courage to get published.
Now when I feel my habit start to wane, my love of the page start to fade, I think: “Ryan, you have got to answer to your 53-year-old self. What are you going to hand him? Some great work? Some blank pages?”
Consider the cost of putting aside your work and see if it is going to be something you regret deeply in 10 years. If your violin gathers 10 years’ worth of dust or you never speak conversational French, how will you feel? If you never cross the finish line of a 5K, will you feel regret?
3. What would you have to give up?
Every new pursuit comes at the cost of something. You can’t simply wedge a new practice, a new habit, into your everyday life. You’re busy as it is.
For me to have a solid writing habit (500 words a day is my tiny, long-standing habit), I had to give up late-night gaming and cable television. My Xbox went to a 14-year-old cousin, and I watch television only through Netflix. No channel surfing for this guy — I watch only one show at a time.
I also had to rearrange my schedule. I get up at 7:00 AM and changed my “real job” hours so that I start work at 12:00 PM. This schedule gives me time to write and get stuff done.
Maybe you have a kid or seven and it’s impossible to find the time.
A friend of mine, a father of five daughters, wants to lose 50 pounds because his doctor said, “You can attend your daughters’ weddings before you die, but not after.” My friend bought a treadmill. And when his alarm goes off at 4 AM, he gets on that treadmill and he stays on it until his first kid gets up. On that treadmill, he walks and runs; he reads and listens to podcasts. Sometimes he gets an hour in. Most days, two hours. But he had to give up staying up late and eating Twinkies.
Maybe you’ll look at your potential trade-off and say, “It’s not worth the cost.” That’s fair, but if you’re using the worn-out excuse that there is no time, that’s a copout and it’s petty.
It’s up to you
These questions might be hard to face, but it’s worth taking some time to write about them in a journal to seek the answers or to talk them out with a close, supportive friend.
Don’t let fear choke the life out of the dreams and passions you have. Answering these questions can help get you where you want to go and help you overcome procrastination.