Every single day, my to-do list is a reminder of all the other projects I haven’t started. The passion projects that I ‘just don’t have time’ to do. And when I do have time? That familiar friend—fear—comes knocking at my door.
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.”
When Bonnie Ware, a nurse who cared for patients in their final weeks,published the most common regrets she heard, not chasing dreams was number one.
“When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made,” she wrote.
Every single day we choose how we spend what few hours we have. Yet, despite the constant warnings to chase after what we believe, we often fall victim to procrastination and a fear of even just starting.
For myself, and the 95% of the American population who admit to falling prey to procrastination or even total avoidance of the things we want to do in our lives, ‘time management’ only goes so far. And when it comes to looking at why we fail to start, there are larger emotional and psychological reasons at play.
Seeing and Helping the Future You
Procrastination isn’t just simply us putting off things until a later date. It’s purposefully putting aside important work knowing there will be negative consequences in the future.
We aren’t just being forgetful, or complacent. We’re purposefully hurting ourselves by focusing on short-term pleasure at the cost of the long-term. Almost all studies agree that procrastination leads to to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and poorer well-being. In our professional lives, it can have dire consequences. In our new way of working, with increased autonomy to work when and how we want, your word is your reputation. And missing deadlines for no good reason, is really no good reason.
Dr. Piers Steel, an organizational behavior professor at the University of Calgary, has proposed a simple formula to determine why we make certain choices.
Breaking this down, motivation is the drive or preference for a course of action, or what economists call utility. At the top of the equation,expectancy is the odds of an outcome coming from your choice, while value refers to how rewarding that outcome might be.
Underneath, impulsiveness is your sensitivity to delays (how easily you get distracted) and delay is how long you have to wait to receive the reward.
So, all of our choices come down to the expectation of a good result vs. how long a task is likely to take us. Seems basic, right? We weigh the potential value against the effort involved. But what happens when our view of the potential value of what we’re doing gets skewed?
Recent studies into chronic procrastinators have uncovered what Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, England, has called “temporal myopia,” or the inability to see into your future.
We all have a way of transporting our mind into the future, whether it’s through planning and setting goals, or positive affirmations. But for procrastinators, that vision is blurry. It’s more abstract and impersonal, and procrastinators often feel an emotional disconnect between who they are, and who they will become.
Another obstacle is what behavioral economists call time inconsistency—the human brain’s tendency to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. Add this all up and we’re in a poor place to make decisions from the get go. Our motivation to start any task depends on us seeing value in it, yet we place more value on what is happening currently over what the future holds and justify this decision by emotionally disconnecting ourselves from our future self.
It’s why you might go to bed promising to change things for the better and wake up just to fall into the same old habits.
Present you: 1. Future you: 0.
Learning to Diet in a Candy Store
Yet it’s not only an internal struggle the causes our lack of motivation. The world we live in is motivationally toxic.
In Dr. Steel’s research he equates our day-to-day lives as trying to diet in a candy store and then being blamed for getting fat. We’re being herded towards a place of consumption over and over. And consumption trumps creation.
Everyday, products are made to compel you to use them. Nir Eyal’s Hooked—a basic how-to guide for making products that pander to our impulsiveness and push us to return time and time again to things that we maybe ‘shouldn’t’ be using—has become a staple in the business world. The survival of your business depends on people returning, time and time again. So it’s no wonder that companies are scrapping it out to become ‘sticky’. They need your attention and they know how to get it. This is nothing new.
Ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia. Simply put, Akrasia is being weak-willed—unable to see long-term value and giving in to instant gratification. Like binge watching TV instead of reading a book or working on a project you’ve meant to. Or ordering takeout instead of cooking yourself a healthy meal.
It’s why the ability to delay gratification is such a huge predictor of future success. Success takes hard work. Long hours of concentration with no promise of reward. Yet the world around us and what it’s done to our brains makes it all too easy to just give in and take the low-hanging fruit.
Building the Habit of Just Starting
Ironically, the guilt and frustration we feel from not starting is often worse than the pain of actually doing work.
In the words of writer and theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky:
“On a moment to moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.”
It’s that hump of ‘just start’ that is so hard to get over. Yet once we do, momentum takes over. We see immediate results from the work we’re doing and instead of looking for ways to avoid it, we look at ways to finish.
While there are some common ‘cures’ to procrastinating on work you’ve already started, such as breaking bigger goals into short, actionable items (“I will work on my paper for 1 hour at 11am on Tuesday” rather than “I’ll work on my paper on Tuesday”), taking scheduled breaks, and rewarding yourself for completing sub goals as well as the full project, what about getting over the fear of just starting?
Are there ways to combat procrastination, or even see it coming and adjust course?
Sweat the Small Stuff (Because They Add Up)
When we think about starting a new project, it’s usually the huge milestones—the big ideas—that slow us down. We often forget about the smaller aspects—the little parts that go missed when we ‘re thinking about starting.
When you allow the small losses to build up, such as sleeping in when you want to start work early, or letting yourself be easily distracted, you work towards embedding a process of small losses. But they won’t stop there.
In Procrastination and Obedience, Professor George Akerlof wrote that procrastination is the perfect example of where there are repeated errors of judgement due to us mistakenly ignoring their costs and benefits:
“In this case, each error of judgment causes a small loss, but these errors cumulatively result in large losses over time and ultimately cause considerable regret on the part of the decision maker.”
There’s a mental process called the Zeigarnik Effect, which kicks in when you are close to finishing a task, propelling you towards the finish line like you’re running from a hoard of zombies. You feel as though you just cannot stop until you’re done.
We’ve all felt the feeling at some point, whether it’s reaching the last chapter of a book or the last page of an essay, once we cross that threshold, it’s easier to continue going. So why not switch your own process from small losses to small gains?
Hemingway would always stop writing mid-sentence so that when he returned to the work the next day he could pick up where he left off, effectively forcing himself into ‘must finish’ mode.
Use a Commitment Device
Just starting is a mental battle, one that we sometimes have to turn into something physical before we can be victorious. One way to do this is by implementing a commitment device—some strategy that will make it damn near impossible for you to continue with negative behaviors.
For Victor Hugo, the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that meant locking all his clothes in a closet so he wouldn’t be able to go out socializing or entertain and would be forced to write.
For Douglas adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it was being locked in a hotel room for weeks on end (something his publisher and editors apparently did regularly without much complaint from him (also, why is it always writers who need strange strategies to force them to work?)).
Create the Right Environment to Get Started
Looking back at Dr. Steel’s motivation equation, one of the main factors killing our motivation is impulsiveness. Look around you right now. How many things are within reaching distance that could potentially distract you? Our urges get the best of us, and creating an insulated workspace is often the easiest way to battle them. As my father used to say ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
For example, writer and artist Austin Kleon sets up two distinct work areas surrounded by things that help him just start: an analog desk with paper and pencils and art supplies, and a digital desk with his computer, MIDI controller, and tablet. Set up systems and processes in place where the goal isn’t to ‘create perfection’, but just to create.
This could include decluttering your workspace or setting small, easily achievable daily goals (such as committing to writing for 10 minutes each morning). Whatever your method (and there are plenty to choose from), the goal is always to get your mind in ‘just start’ mode, rather than ‘must finish’ mode.
Don’t Worry About Being Perfect
In high school, I almost failed art class because I wouldn’t hand in projects. They were technically done. In my mind, they just weren’t perfect yet.
Eventually, the anger and fear of handing in subpar work went so far as to make me not even start on them. It’s a common impediment to work. We fear the unknown and instead of going in blindly, spend more time planning.
In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards discusses how we all draw and create freely as children, but around adolescence, most of us stop:
“The beginning of adolescence seems to mark the abrupt end of artistic development in terms of drawing skills for many adults. As children, they confronted an artistic crisis, a conflict between their increasingly complex perceptions of the world around them and their current level of art skill.”
This crisis isn’t limited to just the artistic endeavors of children. As adults, when faced with a new task or goal, our current skill level usually doesn’t relate to our vision of how we want the end goal to look.
Think about if you ever wanted to build a website, or create a book. The daunting task ahead surely cast a cloud across your idea. Instead of the excitement of experimentation, we feel self-doubt and fear. The end goal, that perfect image of what we want to create is suffocating.
As author and marketing guru Seth Godin describes it:
“We tell people that the route to Carnegie Hall is paved with practice, practice, practice. But practice is another word for preparation. I’m not talking about being prepared. Preparation isn’t the same as ready. Ready is an emotional choice, the decision to put something into the world… The paradox is obvious: the more important the idea, the less we can be ready. And so we fret that the world, or our market, isn’t ready for the leap… Everywhere we turn, the doors appear to be closed, not open.”
Getting over the paralyzation of perfect gives you the chance to try. To explore without the limitations of how you defined something in your own mind.
The fear of starting is often so much less than the pain of actually working. Yet, our brains can fool us into thinking the opposite is true. And once we’ve engrained those beliefs it’s hard to break out of them. But the greatest achievements don’t happen without starting.
If we want to create more than we consume, we need to build those habits every single day. When you look back, do you want to remember the things you wanted to do and never started, or the times you tried and made something you could call your own?
Start. Every single day. Start and then restart. Let go of your fear and reconnect with the future vision you want so badly.