How I Overcame Procrastination

Woman doing sit ups

Photo: Jonathan Borba

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?

Pro procrastinator

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.

Top

I should put on some clothes… but I’ll get to that later. Photo: Maddi Bazzocco

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.

Person eating a salad

Then the habits build you. Photo: Louis Hansel

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.

54 thoughts on “How I Overcame Procrastination

  1. Thank you! I took your advice earlier to get myself in the shower. I went in the bathroom and thought, “I’ll just turn on the shower water and take it from there,” and it worked! Great advice!! (I hate taking showers. No particular reason, but it always feels like an endless task.)

  2. Wow. What a great post! First off, I can’t believe you can do 150 burpees in a sitting. That’s unbelievable… I can do 10, slowly.
    I would love to write a novel. Being disciplined enough to continue is something I’m lacking but the idea of setting a small goal daily seems very achievable. Good luck with novel writing. If it’s romance, count me in when you’re done!

    • The burpees are done with ample rest between sets though, so it’s really not as impressive as it sounds.

      Yes, you definitely should! Aiming for one sentence a day might not seem like much, but one day you’ll realise you have a novel in your hands.

      My genre of choice can’t be further from romance though. It’s sci-fi (cyberpunk), but there is some romance in it, lol.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Kathy! I really appreciate it.

  3. I’m looking forward to when procrastination is a thing of the past for me. I do so well sometimes then I just lose it!

    Such a helpful post! As for the burpees, count me out 😂

    • Yeah, I get into the peaks and valleys thing too, which is why I’ve begun seeing doing the work as success, instead of the amount of work.

      The latter would just drive me crazy, because there’s ALWAYS something more I could do.

      Haha, burpees ain’t that bad if you take your time though.

      Thanks for stopping by, Wonani!

  4. A fellow TL;DR type and professional procrastinator? Man after my own heart!

    That said, I read the full article too! I’ll definitely be trying some of these techniques as I work on my writing.

    • I guess it’s as simple as not letting a day pass that you’re not doing anything to reach your goals.

      But different folks, different strokes, you know? Maybe things that work great for one person would not for another.

      Either way, thanks for stopping by!

  5. Yes. 250 words a day. I can do that! Thanks for the tip. And even if I don’t actually go beyond 250, I need to tell myself it’s ok. We can all be kinder to ourselves right? God knows we’re so capable of being our own worst critics!!

  6. Pingback: How I Overcame My Procrastination | Roadrunner Musings

  7. I have solved my problem of procrastinating in a very similar manner as you mentioned. I used to make a schedule to study for more than 12/hours a day.
    And due to procrastination was not able to secure even 2-3 hours a day. Many a time I had not read anything in entire day. This resulted in my failure in Exams. I started preparing for next attempt consciously without getting much exited. I just made sure that I secure at leat few hours to study in a day. After 4 months i wa able to study 6-7 hours a day.

    Now I am able to make 10-12 hours a day.
    This was achived by making small efforts but every day without breaking chain.

    • It’s so weird that our brain starts doing things when we set an outrageously low bar for it. But when we try to challenge it, suddenly everything is impossible.

      I’m starting to believe that the path to greatness is doing the smallest things as consistently as you can, instead of going for one big thing.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. Great advice as per usual. I myself am a procrasti-cleaner (I wish I invented that word) which means I suddenly get the urge to mop and vacuum everything in my house when it’s time to make an effort on something. Isn’t it weird how we put off doing stuff we really want to do? I like the one unit of effort idea. One of my things is that I set my timer for 10 minutes and do what I can during that.

    • Omg! I do that too! Especially when it comes to writing.

      As in, the chores are pretty dreadful, but when it comes to choosing between that and writing, then I end up cleaning the house, lol.

      And it’s super weird for that exact reason—it’s the things we WANT to do. I wish I had a manual for my brain.

      Thanks for your tip! I always do ‘low output’ things to trick myself into doing things, but have never tried a time-based method. Might try that soon.

      Always great to have you around, Hetty.

      • I’m inspired by your learning the Chinese characters bit by bit. I studied Latin in high school and wanted to look at it again so I can read stuff in church, just for the fun of it (yeah I’m boring). I think I’ll try to learn a few words every day.

  9. 😂😂😂I am laughing because I love your writing style, its humorous and somehow sarcastic

    I have been trying to convince my brain that it is OK to sleep 6hours: it is not an easy task😖 infact as am reading this I am holding a bottle of water and sprinkling some on my face😓

    I guess I should scale down to 6 and a half hours of sleep and see how that goes.

    • Oh yeah, I average around six hours too, and it definitely can be too little. I actually love sleep, but for some weird reason, I can’t get to sleep before 1, but I have to be up at 7.

      Wishing that you find your sleeping groove soon. And thanks so much for your kind words!

  10. Great advice! I started doing something similar at the start of the lockdown period. Did 15 mins of light exercise and 15 mins of gardening. Now I can go up to 2 hours of walking and 1 hour of gardening. It’s amazing how we can rewire our brains just by implementing these small steps consistently.

    • Yes! People always try to go for one or two hours from the get-go, and while it may work for some, it’s really not the best way to cultivate a new habit.

      I’ve been finding so much success with this method that I’m starting to experiment with growing habits I’m not particularly fond of, just to see if I can really rewire myself to do them if I start small enough.

      Thanks for stopping by, Hajar, and hope that everything’s going well down there in Johor!

  11. Haha, your too-much-time writing process description sounds like how things went for me many a day. 😂😅

    I love this: “It’s that you’re trying to scale Mount Everest without first learning to hike.” Honestly, I think impatience is procrastination’s best buddy. We get fired up, we try something, but if it doesn’t yield amazing results right away, how easy it is to decide we can’t possibly succeed and it’s not worth the effort. Every building starts with small steps, not with dumping a load of already finished pieces into place.

    • Lol, I’m all about that ‘small actions’ life. I’ve always believed that if things are too easy for you, yet you don’t do those easy 20 squats a day, then you have no business trying to complete an entire CrossFit WOD. Baby steps.

      And I love the thoughts you shared. Thanks for stopping by again!

  12. solid advice. I used to be that person who set goals that were way to unrealistic and when I couldn’t reach them, I’d give up. Then I learned about setting SMART goals and it changed my world. thanks for sharing this blog post!

    • I really have to look into SMART goal setting. Right now, my main tactic is to do the bare minimum that I can stomach, and hoping it snowballs into something better, lol. Thanks for stopping by, Meagan!

  13. I couldn’t have read this at a better time. I have really been struggling with procrastination. It has been a lifelong struggle that has gotten noticeably worse in recent times.
    I think your point about ego is spot on. I’ve heard that perfectionists often struggle with procrastination. It makes a lot of sense to me.

    • Lol, I too have been battling the procrastination monster these days. It’s a constant fight, one that renews each day, but I actually don’t mind it, because every ‘tough moment’ is a chance for me to improve that much more.

      Thanks for stopping by! Great seeing you here again.

  14. Great advice!

    What you said about telling your brain you mean business reminds me of the reticular activating system in the brain, which I’ve learned about only recently.

    The RAS is the gatekeeper of info and decides what you focus on out of all the billions of stimuli coming at you. In short, when you focus on something, you’re telling your brain it’s important to you so it’ll focus on that ‘thing’ more. So, like you said, if you tell your brain that a particular habit is important, it’ll know you’re serious about it and focus in on it. (That is, if I’ve understood it correctly…!)

    • Ooh! I’ve heard of the RAS before, in that when you decide to buy a car, suddenly there are so many similar cars on the road. This is a great addition, and I love that you took the time to drop this knowledge. Yeah, perhaps that’s what’s going on in the mind when you tell your brain something’s important. Love it!

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