Procrastination Series – 1: Getting Started

  • Getting-Started-1

I think we can all relate to the difficulties we face when getting started on something. Whether it’s an essay, a DIY job around the house, a completely new venture or something else (like writing a blog post!).

Sometimes it’s the worries and doubts we have about what we can do and if what we do is good enough. Most of us are very accomplished procrastinators, putting off doing something because of these worries.

When looking for inspiring quotes to help me define the rebranding of Arda Cards to Arda Designs, encompassing “inspiration” as the main theme of the rebrand, I found the quote that titles this post. It made me think about the concept of getting started on things and what stops me from progressing with plans or ideas I have.

Procrastination? What is it?

Procrastination is defined as “the action of delaying or postponing something”[1], “delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring”[2], “to put off or defer an action until a later time”[3].

The word “procrastinate” comes from the Latin word “procrastinare” which means to put off until tomorrow and also from the Greek word “akrasia” which means doing something against our better judgement.[4]

For me, procrastination usually involves writing lots of lists (indulging my love of notebooks!) of things I need and want to do. I sometimes get as far as creating a timetable of when to do things. But then something else comes up or someone else wants my attention at that time, I don’t feel well, I decide that I’m not in the mood for that thing or I’m tired. Not achieving the goals I set out then demoralises me and makes it harder to try again. Another reason I think I put off doing things is the fear of being able to do it well enough. This is very apparent in my creative goals, which I keep adding to but make little progress starting.

I have been doing some research into procrastinating to help me write this blog post, which I started writing a few months ago but have kept putting off! I will attempt to share some of the things I have learnt in a series of posts on this blog and hopefully I can put this knowledge into action and reduce my own level of procrastination in the future.

Why do we procrastinate?

The subject of procrastination, the causes, psychological mechanisms involved, and possible solutions is extensive and varied and you could (and indeed people do) dedicate years to studying it. I have always had a great interest in psychology, and I have had to be strict with myself whilst researching for this post so the research doesn’t turn into procrastination itself.

I had intended to write a short post about procrastination, but I feel that the subject is so vast that to do it justice, I will instead split the post up into smaller posts about the different reasons that cause us to put things off until later, and ways to combat these.

We procrastinate when the balance of motivation and self-control is outweighed by demotivating factors and hinderances. Our self-control to perform and complete a task is assisted by motivational factors such as the expectation of a reward of some kind. Demotivating factors seem to mainly revolve around anxiety, such as the fear of failure or not being good enough but can also include resentment and dislike or aversion to the task at hand. In addition to demotivating factors, there are also hinderances which affect our abilities to “get the job done”. These tend to be things like tiredness, shortness of time and distant or intangible rewards.

How can we stop procrastinating?

Over the coming blog posts, I will look at different things we can do to stop us procrastinating. The first one, which ties in perfectly with the Mark Twain quote is simply getting started. It might seem obvious, but it is often easier said than done.

Getting Started

Our brains are hardwired to value immediate rewards over distant rewards. This is often explained by psychologists by imagining a “present self” and a “future self”. When we set goals, we are planning for our future selves who will benefit from the reward at the end of achieving that goal. Our present self tends to see our future self as a stranger, and it is this stranger that will reap the rewards of the present self’s efforts.

While we are at the planning, goal setting stage of the task, we are motivated by the long-term rewards. But once we are at the stage of starting the task, our brain wants immediate gratification. In my case, I decide to do a list of tasks the following day and am really motivated and determined to do them, but then I wake up and easily find reasons or excuses why I should do that task at a later time.

 A good example is deciding to eat healthily, which will benefit our future self. But then we say we will start on Monday or the beginning of the next month, using the idea of starting the week, month, or year as we mean to go on, because our present self really wants a slice of cake!

So, we need to find ways to bring the future rewards into the present. Similarly, we need to bring the consequences of not completing a task forward.

James Clear[5] describes this as crossing the “action line”. This is the point at which the discomfort or pain of procrastinating becomes greater than the discomfort or pain of doing the task. As soon as you start doing the task, the discomfort begins to lessen. The guilt and anxiety caused by not doing the task and the consequences incurred become greater than the effort you require to do the task. It is getting started, rather than doing the task which is the problem.

Temptation Bundling

Temptation bundling, is basically doing the task with long term benefits at the same time as an activity which provides an immediate reward or gratification. You set a rule to only do an activity you really enjoy when you are doing something less enjoyable or with distant rewards. For example, you listen to podcasts or music while washing up, something which is practiced in our house by all of us. Another could be that you only watch your favourite TV show while you are ironing.

Write a list of things you really like doing alongside things you need to do but don’t particularly enjoy. Try to pair up an activity from each side of your list. You can read some more about temptation bundling here.

In the next Procrastination post I will look at how anxiety and fear of failure or negative judgement cause us to procrastinate and another strategy to combat procrastination.

What strategies do you use to combat procrastination? If you are working from home or furloughed due to the corona virus pandemic restrictions, have you found that procrastination has become a problem for you, or do you find it easier to get things done? I’d love to hear your stories about procrastination, so feel free to comment below.

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