Deadlines, pending projects, emails, instant notifications…
Scientists (and movies) promised us that the 21st century would be better. Technology would make our lives easier. We would enjoy dinner with our families while robots handled daily tasks.
But judgement day didn’t come, as John Connor said. Technology, the element touted to make our lives easier, has ruined it.
Today, everyone overdoses on something. Most of us OD on unproductivity. We are always rushing, but rarely experience the feeling of productive accomplishment. At the end of a ‘good day’, we might tick seventeen items off our to-do-list. But what have we really achieved?
The overdose of pseudo-productivity has also led to an overdose in procrastination – delaying something important in favor for something fun and unproductive. Or, the feeling of wanting to do nothing at all – to waste time.
Do you feel it? A study revealed that over 80 percent college students are plagued with procrastination, and 20 percent adults are chronic procrastinators. I think I’m part of the 20 percent.
In these times of hyper-productivity, procrastination is looked at as the evil Mr. Hyde. We beat ourselves silly and feel guilty. “I can get nothing done… I hate myself… why do I have to be like this?” Speaking like this is not uncommon. This, despite research proving that procrastination fuels creativity. Steve Jobs procrastinated. Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Studios, said that he pursued what would later become “Toy Story” for nearly 20 years.
There are many causes of procrastination. Tim Urban explains it beautifully in the below video. Watch it for your dose of laughter today. Thank me (and him) later.
It’s okay to feel like not doing anything sometimes. Your brain is a living thing too, not a machine (unless you’re a certain someone named Elon Musk). Sometimes you feel lazy because the weather is amazing. The bedsheets and a hot cup of tea seem inviting. Armageddon won’t occur if you procrastinate once. The world will not stop spinning. Lord Shiva won’t open his third eye of destruction. But you don’t always have the luxury to do nothing.
So when you don’t feel like doing anything, here are six things you can do.
1. Break things down
You want to procrastinate, but life has other ideas. A tight deadline looms overhead. At such times, it helps to break your task into smaller ones. If you have to prepare a presentation, and think “this sucks”, it appears daunting. Instead, reframe the task. Start with writing the presentation title. That’s easy. You can complete it in two minutes. Then take the next step – designing the outline. This gets done in fifteen minutes. Then, look for content to populate your slides.
Before you know it, you have completed a lot of work. You might also find yourself getting in the flow, unable to leave your desk until the job is done. That’s awesome!
2. Make your own If This Then That formula
If This Then That (IFTTT) is an awesome free web-based service that allows us to create conditional statements, triggered upon changes to other web services. You can make your own offline, self gratifying version of IFTTT, for overcoming procrastination.
There exists, in the human mind, a close relationship between reward and effort. If you offer your mind a reward to complete a task, it’s easier to push forward. Once you break things down, create your ‘If Then’ formula for difficult or dull subtasks. Let’s stick with the presentation example here. Tell yourself, “if I complete the outline, I’ll reward myself with a chocolate”. Or coffee, if you’re dieting. Promise yourself a small, non-distracting reward once you collate the data for the slides.
But don’t reward yourself for every subtask. It will compromise the essence of the reward, and the yearning for it. And you will end up right where you started.
3. Change your task
I start working at 7:30 every morning. The first two hours are spent writing, because I am most productive in these hours. Each morning, I look forward to these two hours of solitude and focus. But at times, my brain refuses to comply. At such times, instead of pouring scorn over myself, I change the task. I finish mundane tasks that need the least (or no) brains. I clean my desk, and answer emails.
Next up, I change my location. I choose a different place to work (a café or coworking space). Or I work on a project on which is not on a tight deadline. If the feeling still persists, I read something useful related to my project. For instance, if I am working on a website, I’ll read tips from experts on optimizing it. Then I start itching to try those tips out. Problem solved.
When the mind is exhausted, exhausting the body is an invigorating experience. So stretch. Go for a swim. Lift weight. Do squats and push ups. Go for a run. Complete some chores when you are at home. Make love to your partner. Do anything. Exercise is proven to improve our emotional state. The endorphins released trigger a positive feeling in the body. This helps you get back into your state of flow.
5. Change your ‘feeling’
Many times, we tell ourselves, “I can’t find time” or “I can’t get myself to complete this task.” It’s okay. You’re human. What’s not okay is giving into this ‘feeling’ again and again. This kind of procrastination is bad for you. In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman asks a genuine question: “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?”
This is really important. Heidi Grant Halvorson writes:
“We have bought into the idea that to be motivated, we need to feel like taking action. I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100 percent nonsense. Yes, on some level you need to be committed to what you are doing……. but you don’t need to feel like doing it.”
So when you have to finish an important task or meet a deadline, remember – you don’t need to feel motivated to do it. Simply get off your butt and start working.
6. Just give up
Sometimes, none of these suggestions work. In such moments, if I can afford to, I give up. Not completely, but for the time being. “Giving up” is submitting to the idea that you have already prohibited yourself from achieving your goal(s) for the day. Once you accept that, it’s easier to move on. But what you do when you do nothing also matters.
“The mind is like a car battery — it recharges by running.” – Bill Watterson
On such days, I read the newspaper, have coffee without thinking of work, and meet good friends. It’s refreshing. It helps me focus on the task when I start working again. It’s okay to give up if time permits. Switch off. Spend some time chilling. Just don’t stay in that mood for long. Don’t spend time reading newspapers or in front of the TV. What matters is how quickly you can pull yourself back into a state of productive harmony.
Procrastination is not the same as laziness. Neither is it a bad thing. In his bestseller Originals, author Adam Grant creates a compelling case for procrastinating fueling creativity. According to him, it keeps the task fresh in your mind. When you return to it, your do so with new perspectives, having absorbed what you noticed around, and how you can apply them to your task.
This is not to say that procrastination is always good. I procrastinated while preparing for an orientation, and it bombed. 77 people were yawning for an hour while I stammered and floundered on stage. Not a good feeling. So keep an eye on your procrastinating tendencies. If your mind demands a break often, train it to focus. But take the occasional break when your mind begs you. Rest before your tired because there is a long road ahead of you. You won’t cross the finish line if you burn out before it. Be kind to yourself. And you will enjoy what you do. And that feeling of fulfillment – of enjoying what you do because you love it – is more important than anything that money can buy.