We’ve talked on a big scale about identifying where we want to be and how to get there. It’s important to have a grand vision and to have an inspiring destination to aim at, but of course we also have to consider how we cope with the day-to-day demands and mundanities of life. While on the big scale it’s all about our heart’s desire, we’ll never attain this if we don’t apply ourselves to ploughing through a pile of chores that have to be done, whether we like it or not.
How do we motivate ourselves to get the work done? Well, let’s start by looking at a method that is not only ineffectual but also destructive – and yet for so many of us it’s the default strategy. It’s what psychotherapists call intrapsychic struggle and it consists of an internal dialogue along the lines of the following:
– Get on and write this report/wash the car/do the ironing, you useless oaf.
– In a minute. I just want to check my email/look up the racing results/finish looking at this magazine.
– Do some work, you lazy git! What’s the matter with you?
– That’s not fair! I work very hard. I’m tired and I deserve some time off. If you ever let me have any fun, I might be more productive, but it’s always work, work, work.
– Well, if you ever did any work, you might be able to have some fun afterwards as a reward, but you never do. You just sit around making excuses.
And so on.
This type of exchange, between the Parent and the Child inside ourselves, is a terrible waste of time and energy. It does nothing but make us miserable. As a spur to action, it fails completely and it also does insidious, long-term damage by reinforcing the message that we are a useless, lazy git. The way we talk to ourselves is crucial to success and we’ll go into it in more detail another time, but for now we’re focusing specifically on overcoming procrastination.
Seeing the intrapsychic struggle for what it is is a huge step forward in itself; the next is to find effective strategies to replace it. Here are a few ideas that I find helpful.
The Child part of you that wants to have fun has got a point. It is absolutely essential to health and happiness to take regular time off for recreation. If you never allow yourself off the leash, your productivity will suffer.
Distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent. If something is urgent, do it now. You know you’ve got to do it and putting it off for a few hours will only add to the burden. What works for me in these circumstances is to tune in carefully to how I’m feeling and to weigh the guilt of procrastination against the virtuous uplift of having achieved. Accomplishing this task is going to bring me a rush of wellbeing and, when I really think about that, it’s enough to get me moving.
Items on the list that are important but not urgent are the ones that tend to slide. This is the reason for attaching deadlines to your goals, so they don’t just drift indefinitely. If you’re having trouble taking your self-imposed deadlines seriously, you can ask someone else to hold you accountable – online, if it suits you. The website stickK, for example, undertakes to coerce you into achieving your goals by various means, including facilitating your donation to a charity you loathe, should you fail to do what you’ve committed to. As I’ve said before, I personally prefer the carrot to the stick, but if having sanctions threatened gives you the impetus you need, put them in place. Whatever it takes – although I encourage you to think of this as a positive mission, to achieve X, rather than a punitive exercise.
Something writers about procrastination often mention is that procrastinators talk about leaving things till they’re ‘in the mood’ to do them. Well, I don’t know about you but I do have phases when I’m inspired to invest a great deal of energy in one or other of my interests and activities. When I’m feeling strong and confident, I tend to be more creative; when I’m feeling a bit scared of the world and wanting to hide, the urge is to study and learn, to take in quietly rather than to give out more extrovertly. Accepting this has actually been quite a liberation to me: I go with my energy flow and achieve on the front that’s calling me at that particular moment.
A vital factor in all of this is to be brutally honest with ourselves. We are the ones who decide how to spend our time and we need to be aware of what we’re choosing to do, minute by minute, hour by hour. In an article called Oops, Where Did the Day Go? in Psychology Today, Timothy Pychyl says “Self-deception is the handmaiden of procrastination”. Especially with all the technology we have today, it’s easier than ever to allow ourselves to be distracted, to pretend we’re doing something that has to be done, when actually we’re just frittering our lives away.
Procrastination is notorious as a stealer of dreams. Don’t let it steal yours.