Okay, let’s get this out of the way: I stopped procrastinating by turning tasks into habits.
There, that’s the entire article summed up in one sentence. Now you can close the window if you’re the TLDR type, because you won’t be finding that one magic tip here.
But while I don’t have the magic solution, I think I’ve experimented enough to safely say that we’re all quite capable of rewiring ourselves.
I say this as someone who’s self-learned Chinese for more than a year now, and I’ve done so every day without fail. It wasn’t even something I was particularly motivated to do, yet I kept at it through the mornings I was hungover, during the busiest of days, and even during my hospital visits when I tore my abdominal wall.
So, you interested?
If you know me, you’ll know that I’d pissed my twenties away doing nothing but being a waste of space. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I started questioning the way I was spending my days.
I’d always wanted to write a novel, but that was put on the back burner for eight years. The only pieces of fiction I’d written up to that time consisted of just a couple of short stories. I had my blog, but my posting schedule was spotty at best.
I was writing for a living, and had written hundreds of thousands of words by that point, but those of you who write at your day job can attest to how those words never count as ‘real writing’.
So one day I made the decision: I was going to finish that damn novel. I had procrastinated long enough. It was time to pursue my dreams. So I quit my job to make it a reality.
Not the best start
You know the saying “don’t quit your day job”? I used to think that didn’t apply to me. Turns out, it’s pretty solid advice, especially when your dream involves writing a novel for a living.
I thought I’d be spending my days staring out the window, pen in hand, occasionally waving an index finger in the air before proceeding to churn out chapter after chapter. Yeah it didn’t turn out that way. Turns out, the more free time you have, the less inclined you are to write.
I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve thought the same thing too. You just don’t know how to appreciate all the free time you have. If I had all that free time, I’d be writing more than Mr. King himself.
Well I wouldn’t rule out that possibility, because we’re all different, but there’s a huge chance your writing process will end up going something like this:
I can write it later in the afternoon. Ah, shit, it’s the afternoon already. All right, after lunch then. Damn it! Okay, if I squeeze in a few words after dinner, I’ll at least — fuck I’ve just wasted another day.
Finding a method
After a week or so of pussyfooting around, I finally declared war on procrastination. After all, if I couldn’t handle it when I had all the time in the world, how was I going to stand up to it when life decides to shoulder tackle me right in the gut?
So I approached the problem like any well-informed person would. I Googled my way out. One particular method stood out most, and that was doing the least possible amount you can stomach.
“Your brain is not you,” the article read (this is me paraphrasing, by the way). “So unlike you, it needs some convincing that you’re worthy of whatever it is you want to do. You can do that by doing just a small amount of said activity every day. Do that long enough and you convince your brain that you mean business. And when your brain starts agreeing with you, good things happen.”
Working off that idea, I set my word count to 250 words a day. After all, I had an entire day to come up with what should take me minutes, and almost instantly, I felt like my goal began to solidify a little. It was no longer an ephemeral idea floating off in space. It was something I could grasp, feel, and mould into a shape of my liking.
First you build the habit
A very peculiar thing started to happen once I set the bar low enough. I actually started doing more. In fact, my goal of 250 words a day resulted in me writing the most fiction I’ve ever had in my entire life. It worked so well that I decided to pick up a few more skills and apply said ‘low bar method’ just to see if it really worked.
I ended up journalling, learning Chinese, and exercising every day without fail, all because I started looking the other way.
We tend to get a tad ambitious whenever we set out to do something. That inspirational video pumps us up enough to want to wake up early every day. Our reflection in the mirror gives us that brief motivation to substitute all our snacks for salads. A podcast with David Goggins in it makes us want to blow the dust off our running shoes.
Then what do we do? We tell ourselves that we’re going plant-based. We plan a five-kilometre run even though our last one was three years ago. We set the alarm to three hours before the time we usually wake up.
Then we feel like shit, abort the mission, and start all over again from square one.
The problem isn’t that you’re lazy. It’s that you’re trying to scale Mount Everest without first learning to hike.
The magic ingredient
There are two things you can learn from procrastinating. The first is that the task probably means something to you, because you actually want to do it, and the second is that it’s hard for you, or else you’d have already done it.
Well fear not, because I’m going to give you the secret sauce to what’s helped me memorise some 1,000 Chinese characters, do 150 burpees every morning, and wake up at seven o’clock even on nights when I’d wrestle with bouts of insomnia.
And that secret is dropping your ego.
Sure, you may think that ten push-ups is nothing, or it’s not worth writing one sentence a day, because what’s the point of doing something if it’s going to be so insubstantial?
But that’s where you’re wrong. In fact, I challenge you to try it. Pick one goal now, something you’re indifferent towards. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn French, but you never really had a reason to. Perhaps you think coding’s a pretty neat skill, but you’d much rather play video games.
Whatever it is, just pick something you’d like to be better at in a year.
Found it? Now, I want you to determine one unit of effort for it. For example, in my quest to learn Chinese, one unit of effort meant memorising one character a day. My exercising unit was to sweat or to move for fifteen minutes. I’ve just picked up drawing, and my unit for that is drawing at least one line a day.
The unit will be subjective, so find yours. Make sure it’s relatively easy. Offensively easy, even. Any activity above zero is fine.
Done? Now do one unit every day. If you think you can’t stick to it every day, then it’s not easy enough. Set the bar even lower.
Do that for a year, then report back to me. You’ll quickly find that your ten-pushups-a-day habit can easily turn into hundreds.
Just do it
Now, some of the perceptive ones among you might already realise this, but it’s not the one unit itself that’s going to propel you to greatness. It’s the other units you choose to do after that.
What happens when you find ten push-ups to be too easy? You do more, that’s what. Your mind will agree too, because if you’re already there and have wind to spare, why not?
This doesn’t mean that it’s going to be smooth sailing all the way. Sometimes you’ll feel like quitting. God knows I still feel that way every time I wake up without hitting the snooze button.
That’s the reason for choosing a small unit of effort, because the goal isn’t to knock it out of the park every time, but to go to bed knowing you’ve done your part for the day.
A quick disclaimer though: procrastination isn’t a blanket disease. Addressing your tendency to slack in writing doesn’t mean you’ll get better at sticking to your exercise routine. But as long as you keep making forward progress every day, you’ll be fine. Just take things step by step.
Small steps, that is.