Procrastination: how I punched it in the face

Procrastination: I usually bake cakes when I have something big and important looming that I know I need to knuckle down and get done. Procrasti-cakes I call them. Sometimes I even write Procrasti-blogs. When I am in the office I dive down the rabbit hole of the email inbox rather than do something I've been avoiding.

While I am distracted by these short term pleasure creators and simple tasks, I recalculate the time I have left for the looming deadline and manufacture reassurance for myself that I’ll be right, these cakes and emails are fun. Won’t take long! But my guts always betray me. I procrastinate when I feel a bit sick about a big important task. It’s a monkey on my back that’s huge, boring or difficult. But the reward that comes with conquering the job seems too far off to entice me to get started. Cake delivers an instant reward, you see.

My procrastinating ways started to create problems for me. I’d be smashing out a strategy document for a client at 2am when I knew perfectly well that such a late night would make me feel like a smacked ass the next day. I’d deliver a speech that could have been even better if I’d allowed the time to practice my new content out loud several times over several days, not just to the dude next to me on the plane.

Something had to give. The stress of leaving things too late wasn’t fun at all so I decided to punch procrastination in the face. Here’s how I did it.

First I wondered WHY I procrastinate.

It seems such self-sabotaging behaviour for someone who likes to get things done. “Kill and bill,” is my favourite saying. Finish the job and pump out the invoice. But delivering on the entirety of the project is sometimes so huge I can’t face it and then I can’t invoice it and then I go poor. It makes no sense.

Read this article for the full list of behavioural drivers. I’m not indecisive, depressed or lazy. But I know I am easily distracted and I always have a preference for appealing tasks that I can nail fast so that I can sizzle in my own dopamine bath of instant reward.

The next step was to chat with a neuroscientist to help me understand why I behave this way.

I asked Dr Kaushik Ram, at the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney what the neuroscientific explanation was for procrastination.

“It can’t be pinpointed to a single chemical but certainly this behaviour is evoked by the fear circuitry – adrenalin and norepinephrine. Rather than facing fear – in this case, overwhelm – we consume ourselves with what is safe and of course these are meaningless self-imposed duties.”

According to Dr Ram, if you are afraid of broaching the big job, your natural fear response will divert you to the small, safe and often unimportant. In a nutshell, we either have to be brave and face the fear of a whopping task or break down the fear into small, safe chunks.

Once I knew why I was procrastinating, I could set about working out how to conquer it. Here were the three steps which worked for me.

Chop the big project into small tasks

Now I take a major procrastination-worthy project and then chop that mother up until it’s in small pieces I can achieve in under 40 minutes. Then I choose four of those tasks to complete in a day and I do the hardest one first thing in the morning when I am fresh and optimistic. Much of my work is management consulting: big projects which run for a few months. This chop-up technique has changed my life.

I use a super simple, free to-do list app called To-Do which is synced between my lappy and my phone. It makes the most rewarding KAH-PRRRING noise when I tick off a completed subtask of my huge project. Only after that first step in the huge scary project is nailed for the day, and I can KAH-PRRRING it off my list, do I go for a run and feed my body with the buzz of endorphins and some vitamin D.

Marry time with tasks

Once I have chopped the beast into little sub-40 minute chunks. I look at the time I have left to get it done to work out just how many pieces of work I need to get done in the days I have available and see if there is any wriggle room. This helps me work out if I need to haul ass and work nights to meet my deadline or if I have the time to take a day off here and there.

Disconnect for deep work

I quit my email program while I am working through my project tasks to reduce distraction and procrastiation. My phone is switched to silent and out of sight. No phone call or message will distract me from the doing of the do. If my tongue gets bored and I go browsing the fridge I just fill my water glass and put myself back at my desk. If I’m in a co-working space, I put in my headphones. Co-workers know that I am occupied and don’t disturb me. I have a few Spotify playlists that I like for deep work because I find silence quite distracting.

Deep Work • The Nutcracker • Mellow beats • Opera Classics

Reward for good work

Rewarding yourself for tasks met is half the fun. My personal rewards are simple pleasures. My second coffee for the day comes after the second task is smashed off my project list. I love a dirty scroll through Facebook once I have completed another one of my project tasks. Procrastination doesn’t feel good but the best reward is the buzz of getting shit done.


Here are the take homes from this article:

  1. Work out WHY procrastination is your style by checking this list. Mine were
    1. Fear of enormity of the task
    2. I can be distracted
  2. Create tools to address these. Mine were
    1. Chop large daunting projects into small max 40-minute tasks
    2. Disconnect from all distractions for deep work
    3. Reward for good work
  3. Go on, get moving.

Lucy Bloom is a management consultant, keynote speaker and author.

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