My name is Kevin, and I’m a procrastinator.
Now, when you hear those words, you may think to yourself, “Hello! A kindred spirit! For I, too, have been known to put off work in favor of more immediate pleasures!” You may be thinking, “O-ho, my friend, but you are not a true procrastinator. I have been known to avoid responsibility for up to a week’s time!” You may be thinking, “Wow, for a guy who bitches so much about the quality of writing on the Internet, this guy sure chose a hackneyed way to begin this post.”
In truth, only the final observation is truly accurate, because if I am not the world’s worst procrastinator, I am almost certainly included on the list of the world’s top hundred offenders.
But enough about my life, marked as it is less by achievement and more by marathon sessions of eating French-onion-flavored Sun Chips in front of four to six episodes of Battlestar Galactica. I was forced to consider procrastination this week after reading a post at the estimable Copyblogger web concern, titled “How to Stop Thinking About It And Write.” The guest poster, Jane Northcote, offers several very useful suggestions on how to stop procrastinating and start writing, including a stimulating message from Raymond Chandler about blocking out time in your day for The Trade. It’s a great post full of great insights, and I recommend bookmarking it for those times you feel unmotivated.
There’s something more, though, to procrastination, and here it is: Procrastination isn’t really about avoiding work. It’s about avoiding what you think of yourself.
When you’re doing work — whether it’s writing, or graphic design, or just about any other creative endeavor — you’re really laying yourself bare. You’re putting yourself on display. You’re giving yourself the opportunity to fail. That may seem like a grim assessment, but it’s what your brain is focusing on when it chooses to procrastinate. That’s why we even put off things we love doing, like writing — because wasting an hour of our lives clicking on random links on Digg and Reddit is a more attractive prospect than spending an hour of our lives risking failure at something we love.
The problem is exacerbated when you’re working for yourself, or working on a personal project, because the outside forces motivating you aren’t as prevalent, and you’ve only got your own brain to encourage you — and if your brain works like mine does, encouraging you isn’t what it’s best at.
“Why work, when you could screw it up?” Your brain might say to you. “Hey, let’s run through that fantasy again where you’re the Green Lantern and you’re rescuing Reese Witherspoon from Dick Cheney’s island fortress. That’s fun, and there’s less risk of screwing up.”
In his book The Now Habit (probably the best text on procrastination I’ve ever read), author Neil Fiore argues that procrastination is a symptom of a more deeply-seated problem, which is why it’s so hard sometime to just sit down and force yourself to do work (something many motivational speakers and personal development writers have told me to do). The key to truly overcoming procrastination, Fiore argues, is overcoming all of the negative self-talk (for want of a less “I’m-OK-you’re-OK” kind of term) that’s floating around in our heads. It also means overcoming perfectionism.
There are a few pieces of that kind of negative self-talk that are common to many of us, and that should be ignored at all costs:
“It’s not going to be any good.” This is the Big Kahuna of procrastination thinking, the reason most of us choose to spend Five More Minutes doing something pointless and distracting rather than focus on doing the work we love. And the best response to give when your brain tells you that the project you’re working on won’t yield great results is: “Yeah? So what?”
The best way to thwart perfectionism is to embrace the imperfect. Yes, you’re going to screw up. Yes, there are going to be people out there who don’t like what you’ve done. Yes, you’re going to find at least five ways to revise that blog post, and you’re not going to find them until after you’ve posted it. But so what? These things happen, you know. There are people out there who hate Shakespeare, and not just because they can’t penetrate his 16th Century iambs. There are people who think The Beatles are overrated. There are those (myself among them), who think revered filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman are just sort of good, as opposed to virtuosic. People respond negatively to stuff. It’s a fact of life. The real truism, though, is this: The only really bad works of art are the works of art that were never completed. The best way to become a bad writer is not to write.
“Once X happens, I can finally start doing Y.” Once you’ve mastered good writing, you can finally start blogging. Once you’ve learned to play an instrument, you can start recording a demo tape. Once you’ve perfected a framing technique, you can start being a photographer.
This kind of thinking isn’t just inefficient and counterproductive, it’s recursively inefficient and counterproductive. How are you going to blog if you don’t just start writing? It’s the ultimate in self-defeating thought, because it tells you that you can’t slaughter the cow until after you’ve eaten the steak. I suspect it’s a result of the miserable conundrum many of us find ourselves in when we enter the job market: No employer will have you without extensive experience, but you can’t get that experience without being gainfully employed.
Here’s the thing to remember: About 90 percent of everything that’s out there is either average or lousy. This is not a bad thing. Much of it is the result of people who have only just started out in their chosen field, and still have a lot to learn. You have to get good somehow, and there is absolutely no other way to do this than by playing in the sandbox until you get it right.
“Everyone else out there seems to be so much better at this than me.” That’s not really true, and it’s a result of our tendency to do two things: Migrate toward that which we like, and compare ourselves to others. A wise friend once told me that it’s stupid to compare yourself to others, because given enough time, you’ll invariably come out looking worse for the comparison.
Again: It doesn’t matter, because comparisons are ultimately meaningless. For instance: I’m a fan of Radiohead. I think they’re just about the best band performing today — possibly the best band to ever come out of the UK. I’m also a fan of Belle and Sebastian, another great band from the UK. If forced to compare the two, I’d say that Radiohead makes Belle and Sebastian look like a high school literary magazine staff with guitars. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love Belle and Sebastian. The perfect need not be the enemy of the good.
“I’m paralyzed by my options.” I’ve always been a big fan of this one. I’ve got so many interests — how do I focus? What if I zero in on one thing (like, for instance, blogging) to the detriment of all the others (like, for instance, acting or music or photography), and then find I don’t like it? I’m risking wasting my time!
The solution here is easy: If you can’t choose between multiple things, choose all of them. It may take a bit longer, but applying your passion will be worth it. And chances are, some of the projects that you start will eventually lose their appeal, and you’ll naturally start to sharpen your focus on one or two things. The key is to not be afraid to leave projects unfinished, particularly if you’re spending your time finishing what you love.
So, there you have it. Follow these simple steps and you’ll never procrastinate again! Right? Right?
No, probably not. Overcoming procrastination is a long and rough road. You’ll have good days and bad. You’ll have unprecedented stretches of productivity that amaze you, and you’ll have times when you can’t convince yourself to do anything but the least of your obligations. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless you truly stop trying.
Now: Get to work.
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