Monday Motivation: Overcoming the Procrastination Demon

Cartoon image of Pacman demon
Demon Thy Name is Procrastination

I’ve always been terrific at making goals. Unfortunately I’ve also always been even better at procrastinating and as a result many of my goals were never realized. I’d write endless to-do lists but then never get around to the follow through. It happened again and again and I could never quite grasp what the problem was. Why was I so great at establishing goals but so terrible when it came to executing a plan to achieve those goals?

Any of this sound familiar? Are you given to procrastinating? If so, perhaps some of things I’ve discovered recently that have helped me in my own battle to overcome the procrastination demon might benefit you in your own personal struggles with it.

Recently I became aware of entrepreneur Natalie Sisson and her “15 Days to Freedom Blog Challenge.” While Natalie’s primary focus is on helping people with an entrepreneurial spirit build successful online businesses, I immediately had a sense that her challenge might be something very useful in helping me to become more successful as a writer and aspiring novelist. So I signed up for it.

To large extent, Natalie aims to help people become more productive because quite obviously being more productive can often translate into becoming more successful. One of the first things I learned from her about becoming more productive was the importance of identifying and eliminating those things that made me less productive.

It’s been my habit for a long while to check my email first thing in the morning after getting out of bed. Since I always want a timely reply from people I email, I of course have the tendency to feel an obligation to reply timely to emails I receive. Thus, a good bit of my early morning hours were spent reading and replying to email.

Also given that I’m a voracious blog and news reader, many of the emails I receive relate to breaking news stories and new blog posts from people I follow. So checking email predictably ended up with me spending a lot of time reading news articles and blog posts.

In principle, nothing wrong with that of course. I love keeping up on current events, learning new things, and reading the perspectives on a variety of topics from people I find interesting. Yet thanks to Natalie Sisson, I came to see my morning email reading habit was a problem in one sense. The exorbitant amounts of time I was spending each morning on what essentially was little more than some entertaining reading was just a creative form of procrastination. Instead I might have been spending that time on something much more productive, like writing for instance.

An hour here, two hours there, over the course of a week can really add up to a lot of lost time, more importantly a lot of lost productive time. I came to realize that reading my email first thing in the morning meant I was devoting at least the first hour of my day to the goals of someone else instead of my own. My own objectives were being hijacked by whoever decided to randomly show up in my inbox.

I decided to change my morning habit. I stopped reading email first thing in the morning. By doing so, I literally gave myself 7-8 extra hours of productive time each week. I also struck a blow in the fight against the procrastination demon. Just this past week I wrote several of the scenes in my current novel during the hour or so each morning I formerly devoted to reading email and following the links I found in many of them.

Do you know when we procrastinate the most? Researchers tell us that it is when we are in a bad mood. We are wired as human beings in such a way that we cannot ignore our emotions. Feelings are such a fundamental and unavoidable part of the human experience they do impact on our productivity. When I’m in a bad mood, productivity is the last thing I’m thinking about and I easily slide into the procrastination mode. That leads me to another thing I learned from the 15 day challenge.

I needed a strategy to overcome bad moods. In a very real sense procrastination-management techniques are mood-management techniques. Again Natalie Sisson provided some ideas. She encourages those who take her challenge to identify something they find promotes a sense of well-being, focus, and a positive outlook and to make that a daily morning habit―whether it is a Yoga routine, meditation, or physical exercise.

For me, I’ve always been a life-long recreational runner. For me there is nothing like a good run to lift my spirits and pull me out of those inevitable little ruts we all find ourselves in at some point or another. While there is some disagreement among scientists about whether it is the increased release of feel good endorphins like dopamine and serotonin or some other causative factors, researchers do agree on one thing.

Runners and other habitual exercisers have better moods and suffer less depression and less anxiety than people who don’t exercise regularly. They experience more general feelings of positive well-being. Some researchers believe that people who are physically active on a regular basis simply reap the benefits of active relaxation―that moving the body and focusing on the sensation of moving the body and getting into a rhythmic activity and motion produces a relaxation response. That they believe contributes significantly to the feelings of psychological well-being observed.

In spite of how much I’ve always loved running, I’ve never loved running first thing in the morning. Candidly, I’ve just never been a morning person. During the many years I served in the Army, running very early in the morning was always one of the things I most disliked. It wasn’t the running I objected to but the time of day we were made to do it. So previously it was never something I’d chosen to do when the decision was mine to make. But recently I’ve made the effort to do what the Army made me do, go for a run first thing each morning. It hasn’t been easy but I’ve been making progress and I’m already seeing the benefits.

First of all, consigning running to later in the day invited procrastination. Frequently it meant I skipped doing it because some other competing priority came along during the day that I felt I had to give my attention and efforts to. By running first thing, that problem has been solved. As a result not only have my moods generally improved, I feel like I have more energy and am more focused the rest of each day, more eager to attack those to-do lists I’ve made for myself. Speaking of to-do lists leads to my next point.

While I’ve always been terrific about setting goals and making to-do lists that would facilitate me accomplishing them, as mentioned I’ve often fallen short when it comes to the execution step. Ever made a detailed grocery list only to arrive at the supermarket and realize you left it on the dining room table? That sort of explains my experience with to-do lists. I never had a system. Sometimes I’d save them on my computer as a word processing document. Sometimes I’d scribble them on a handy scrap of paper. Sometimes I’d enter them in the reminder app on my iPhone. But invariably, when it occurred to me to actually check-off something on the list, the list was not accessible at the time. Procrastination was the natural result.

Besides advice, another thing I love about Natalie Sisson is that she also provides a wealth of tools you can use to become more productive and most of them are free. Asana is one of the tools she recommended that I am taking advantage of. In a nutshell, Asana is a web and mobile application designed for everything from creating simple to-do lists to enabling teamwork on complex projects without email. It was founded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and ex-engineer Justin Rosenstein, who both worked on improving the productivity of employees at Facebook.

I now use the application exclusively for not only creating my to-do lists in a place that is always readily accessible to me wherever I happen to be, but I also use it to schedule my daily running sessions, writing projects, and even use it to schedule “me time.” Information that helps me avoid procrastination is always as close as my computer or smart phone. There is a premium pay version of the application but for my purposes I find the free version is more than adequate for my own needs. Asana has provided me the personal system I’ve always needed to get things done.

Another useful technique I want to touch on that I’ve learned from the 15 day challenge and that has helped me become less prone to procrastination and more productive is eliminating distractions. Put succinctly, focus is nothing more than the elimination of distractions. As mentioned, reading email first thing in the morning is an example of one of the distractions I personally identified and eliminated. But there are lots of others. Social media is a huge distraction for many people. Text messages and time spent talking on the phone are other examples. Actually any list of potential distractions that contribute to procrastination can be virtually infinite. All of us I think at times can readily identify with what it means to be driven to distraction.

We are more connected today than at any time in history due to the proliferation of mobile communications. Some have termed this constant connection as “culturally generated ADD.” We’re also seemingly always busy with never enough hours in our day to get everything done. We have a daunting list of responsibilities, we spend hours in meetings, our boss needs us for something and something else after that, our friend or partner calls to chat. We just can’t hide.

Modern life provides the environment for the perfect storm of procrastination. The most effective way to remove distractions is to change your environment. Find a place where you can be alone. Disconnect from the Internet and turn off your cell phone. The degree to which you can do that and systematize it is the extent to which you will improve focus and gain productivity.

Some top executives who were never able to work uninterruptedly for more than twenty minutes at a time—at least not in the office, found that their productivity soared when they started spending just 90 minutes a day working at home every morning before going to the office. You don’t necessarily have to do it at home. Anywhere that you can shut off the electronics and where no one can bother you will work and will allow you to reap similar dividends.

Even if you can’t manage 90 minutes at first, try a half hour or even just 20 minutes. Chances are whatever amount of time you invest in removing distractions will pay off so dramatically in terms of increased productivity that you will become motivated to actively look for ways to expand that uninterrupted time.

The last technique for stopping procrastination I want to discuss is rewarding yourself. Rewards not only make us feel good, they actually motivate us. I’d used this technique in the past but made one mistake that mitigated to large degree its usefulness. I would never reward myself until a project was completed. That might mean I waited days, weeks, or even months before I enjoyed the reward which wasn’t very motivating at all. For example, in motivating myself to write a sufficient number of words daily to finish my novel in time for the scheduled October release date I might have told myself I’d indulge in a nice reward once I’d completed the first draft. No matter how large and enjoyable the planned reward might be, it would always seem so far in the future before I’d get to enjoy it. That just wouldn’t be very motivating at all. Instead, what I am actually doing is this.

I now reward myself more frequently. If my goal is to write x number of words per week until the novel is completed I break that down into smaller x number of words per day. Each time I achieve a daily goal, I indulge in a little reward. The rewards are smaller of course but they are more frequent and as a result I sustain my motivation more consistently. When the first draft is actually finished then I’ll indulge in a larger reward more in keeping with the significance of achieving a larger more difficult goal. The rewards are up to you. Choose things that you like and know have the power to motivate you. Just enjoy rewards frequently instead of viewing a large reward from a distance while waiting until a large goal is accomplished.

To sum up, five techniques to avoid procrastination and to increase productivity are:

  • Avoid reading your email in the morning.
  • Manage your mood.
  • Develop a personal system using something like the Asana app.
  • Eliminate the distractions.
  • Reward yourself and frequently.

Do you have your own techniques that help you increase your productivity by overcoming the procrastination demon? If so, please share them in a comment.