Question from a reader -
How can I truly combat procrastination and develop self discipline to get things done? Usually this is stuff taught or otherwise developed at a very young age and I have parents who have only ever been able to barely survive and are pessimistic people who tried to hammer their illogical beliefs into me by force. Not very good.
[...story about successful experience where it was effortless...]
Ive never been able to recapture that original magic where I just naturally got things done for the sake of it. I need it back. It would be very helpful now!
So I just read this great quote in The New Yorker about procrastination -
The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.
Hmm, okay, that's a little bit too word-dense out of context, but there's a couple points there worth getting at:
First, is what you're doing really worth doing? It's quite hard to do things that are basically absurd and stupid to you, that you're doing for whatever reason where you feel required to.
Second, have you broken things down into manageable, doable blocks? Have you gotten everything you need to get done down on paper, figured out how long it will roughly take, and prioritized them while willingly cutting things from the back of the list or putting them off intelligently?
If you're trying to "just do everything," you're in trouble. But if you wrote out everything you needed to do, crossed off the things that are fundamentally stupid that you never really found meaningful or important, and then picked the top 3 things - you'd be in pretty good shape.
A final thought - I heard a great breakdown in Dalio's Principles about "Comfort zone / Stretch zone / Panic zone" - there is such a thing as shooting for too much, too fast. If it leads to insanely high levels of neurosis where you can't function, then scale back some until you're just in your stretch zone.
The stretch zone still sucks to some extent and is scary, but you can function in it. So if you're in panic zone, scale down the objective a little bit to something that's a stretch instead of generating full-blown panic.
1. Cut things that are fundamentally stupid that you don't think are meaningful in any way, that somehow wound up on your plate for no good reason.
2. Figure out everything you've got to do, write it down, estimate times, prioritize it, and cut things off the back of the list that are low priority. The hour or two doing this will pay for itself.
3. If you're top tasks put you in panic mode, try scaling them back a little so it's just a stretch instead of full-blown panic. Then accomplish some more and your capabilities will grow.
A key to beating procrastination comes down to how the to-do list is broken down. While you want to break tasks into small manageable pieces, you don't want those tasks to be too small. Since procrastination arises from the combination of being overwhelmed by what has to be done AND the sense that no individual task is going to make a significant difference, it's important to carve off a couple of tasks that are manageable, but big enough to make a visible difference to the big picture. This should then provide the sense of progress needed to get some momentum back.
Nice post. So much comes down to goals, priorities, and to-do lists -- whether it's doing what's necessary to accomplish goals, or figuring out what the goals are (at every level all the way up to "grand strategy".
I would just comment that sometimes the easiest way to figure out whether something is worth doing (that is, whether it will serve your goals) is just to do it. Maybe it's different when you're already doing a lot (getting closer to full capacity) -- but too often I've found myself just doing nothing!
But I don't mean doing things and just blindly hoping they serve your goals. This has to fit in with tracking, and retrospectives to help learn what actually does serve your goals, for better future prioritizing.
This is spot on: "Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do." Any time I find myself "stuck" -- not getting things done for whatever reason -- it almost always comes back to the next item on my todo list being too large/vague.
When I find myself procrastinating I take my next todo and break it down into successively smaller parts. I keep breaking the todo down further until I get to something I could complete right away (even if it would only take 5 minutes).
The key is to get some kind of small success. And sometimes that success can come from simply outlining your task and figuring out your next actionable step.
I always promise myself that I only need one small success, and then if I want to go do something else I can. But much like eating a single potato chip, it's rare that I complete one task and walk away. Once I've done one thing, I'm encouraged to do another, and another. And pretty soon I've gotten quite a lot done even if I haven't completed the entire todo yet.
Be skeptical, please. This realization was somewhat shocking to me if it's true, or even partly true.
So. A large amount of my reading of the last month has focused on organization, execution, time management, planning, maxing out effectiveness, and so on. But I started to find something -- the threshold of gains from "theoretical planning" and "theoretical organizing" starts to fall off entirely after a few weeks of it. You 80/20 things and make plans to the best of your knowledge, giving it an hour or so per day, and a long session here and there.
And then after that, there's not much gain to be had from it, and execution takes over...
...or does it?
Well, it does. But just like "theoretical planning," you could also say there's "theoretical execution."
Like an empty teacup or a blank sheet of paper, emptiness is unlimited potential. In emptiness, literally anything can happen. An idea, a scribble, a masterpiece, a to-do list, a mind map. It's when clutter and noise and distraction fill us up that there is little room left for greatness. So if emptiness is so great, how come we don't all achieve more of it? Because emptiness is really scary.
Ask any writer staring at a blank screen "how do you feel?" Writer's block is total sweaty-palmed panic. An interesting analogy can be made between emptiness and the color white. White is not color. It is the absence of all color, ie "empty."
The Japanese character for white is this:
It turns out that this character, or pictogram, is based on the original image of a skull. Imagine for a moment the feeling you would get when stumbling across a lone skull on a barren landscape in ancient Japan. Bleached by the sun, wind, snow and rain, this lone skull, stark white, gaping up at you, is a blatant reminder of death. White, or emptiness, is death. It makes sense now why emptiness is so scary.
However, white is also opportunity and life. The color of sustenance-giving milk the world over? White. The color of every single kind of egg, whether a bluejay or a snake? White. White is life. Potential. Opportunity. Pulsating energy.