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Why can’t you just do it? The truth about procrastination

When I tell people I’m a freelance writer working from home, a lot of people ask: “how do you ever motivate yourself to start work?”

The answer is simple: if I don’t start, I won’t finish, and, if I don’t finish, I won’t be paid. Fear of poverty is a great motivator!

Besides which, I LOVE my work. I’m happiest when I’m busy and engaged, and the truth (judge me if you will) is that nothing engages me more than writing. Radio 4 is nearly always on in the background – but when I’m absorbed in a project, I don’t hear a word of what is being said. My mind is engrossed elsewhere.

Dealing with a lack of urgency

And yet even I, despite loving my work so much, can fall foul of the freelancer’s worst enemy: procrastination.

I’m never distracted from my default route from kitchen to office – although I know people who will happily engage in any domestic task to avoid their desk. But, once there — computer on, screen at the ready, cursor poised — I may throw my arms in the air, desperate for something – coffee? comfort break? anything?  — to step in and rescue me.

This rarely, if ever, happens when I have a lot of work on; or if a deadline is imminent.

But knowing that my next project is not due in for another two weeks gives me the same feeling I get if I clear airport security two hours before my flight is due. Time seems to stop in the departure lounge, and I’m at a similarly loose end if I know my next project is waiting on the runway, but there’s a very long time before I am required to get on board.

I am in fact procrastinating about starting something that doesn’t need to be started!

The psychology of procrastination

I’m not quite sure what this says about me, but procrastination is a natural part of being a human, according to Behaviour Change Psychologist Dr Aria, who created the F.I.T (Focused Insight Training) Method.  ‘Your brain is biologically hardwired to procrastinate,’ he says. ‘We naturally retreat from activities that we consider psychologically or physically uncomfortable… Our ancestors would have postponed leaving the cave when weather conditions were dangerous, or if predators were nearby. But we’re more likely to shy away from preparing for a 10k run or filing our invoices.’

I’m with him on the running – there are many reasons to let it slip down my priority list. But invoices? Why delay?! (The answer could be that you feel uncomfortable asking for money…)

And what could possibly be uncomfortable or scary about having a deadline that’s still on the horizon?

Possibly – I am making this up as I go along – I am uncomfortable about the lack of stress I’m experiencing. Stress isn’t all bad, after all – it can be very creative.

I put this to Dr Aria, who confirms that there are positive aspects to stress that are miss-worthy.

‘When we talk about feeling stressed, we’re normally describing a situation in which the perceived demands on us outweigh our perceived ability to cope. But the truth is that a certain level of stress is motivating, gearing us up to tackle the task ahead,’ he says.

Force yourself to get started

What I am missing is the surge of adrenaline that normally comes with embarking on a project. Having a distant deadline takes the wind out of my sails. I am procrastinating because I have nothing to motivate me…

My remedy?

I make the job more urgent!

I don’t like having too little to do. The truth is that lack of work makes me question my value. So, I create a new deadline for myself. The job may not need to be done for two weeks, but I will complete it within a few days. My reasoning is that once it has cleared my desk, I will be ready to take on something else. Just as uncomfortable as the feeling of having too little to do is the feeling of being overwhelmed, with everyone wanting my work in with them ASAP.

Away from work, I feel more justified in procrastinating. Taking bags of old clothes to charity, cutting up cardboard from Amazon deliveries and driving it to the recycling depot, tidying my office… These are all jobs that I will happily put off – for weeks! If I look at why such chores make me uncomfortable, it can only be because they are time consuming and stopping me from doing what makes me feel happy: writing!

As Dr Aria says: ‘We all have an internal to-do list – our brain’s way of consciously and subconsciously prioritising things. Those items lower down in importance can be constantly superseded by new, more urgent or significant matters. The downside is that they can remain untouched for weeks, months or even years.’

“If your procrastination is different from mine, if you are choosing the recycling and charity runs in order to avoid getting on with your work, the good news is that you can break the habit, and start to prioritise more effectively”, says Dr Aria.

‘With your brain’s ability to create new circuits, even in adulthood, you can change your mindset and create new habits at any age. The key is to start small. Most people are daunted by the prospect of massive change. Research shows that the simpler the action, the more easily it becomes second nature. So, break down your goal into simple, subtle, steps. Then begin with the smallest step. Choose such a tiny step that it’d be difficult to say no to it! If it’s invoicing, simply decide who you’ll invoice first. If you haven’t exercised in a while, begin with a five-minute walk! Once you’ve accomplished one step, the glow of achievement will make you hungry for more!’

Applied to writing, a friend once told me that she always did the easiest part of the job first – writing the fact box that would go on the end of her feature, for example.

I prefer to start with my opening line. Get that right, and I am off… adrenaline surging, radio ignored, and recycling and charity shop runs forgotten again.

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