This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.
This is one of the most frustrating and puzzling obstacles we encounter whenever we set out to create something remarkable. After all, creative people love creating things. Writers love to write, painters love to paint, musicians love to play. So why do we spend so long avoiding and putting off doing the thing we love?
I’ll offer my own explanation shortly, but I’d like to start by pointing out that procrastination is virtually epidemic among high-level creators. I used to think I was the only one who did it, and beat myself up over it. But having spent 14 years coaching creative pros of all descriptions, and heard a virtually identical story from hundreds of them, I’m convinced it’s just an occupational hazard. Procrastination is normal behaviour for creatives. So it was no surprise that it reared its ugly head when I invited you to tell us about your creative blocks:
[My block is about] Taking action. I have ideas, but seem to spend more time studying all of the new materials I have about how to implement those ideas, trying to be sure I have it just right. I need to get content written for two sites I have set up, and seem to be stuck in studying how to get started.
If you’ve been reading the creative blocks series carefully, you’ll have noticed that this isn’t the first time procrastination has popped up – it’s been a component of several of the blocks we’ve covered already:
My problem is all about execution, I get too excited at first, involved in to many projects and then I get overloaded with things to do. This makes me procrastinate, do other less important things and many things doesn’t get completed. This in turn makes me more overloaded, feel bad about myself and the threshold to to do what needs to be done gets huger and huger like an evil circle.
While my 9-5 job is quite creative (arts manager) I struggle to find time to write outside of work hours, writing being what I consider my first and favourite creative pursuit.
When I get home there is always something else to do – housework, seeing friends, spending time with my partner, catching up the news etc. Or else I’m “too tired”.
Suggestions and strategies would be great! Aside from “STOP PROCRASTINATING” )
At every decision making moment along the way I question incessantly whether I’m doing the right thing. I fear that making the wrong decision will result in my work not meeting the very high standard I expect of it. Hence self-doubt, procrastination, and ultimately creative stagnation creep in. I have a ton of unfinished work. My unwillingness to commit affects not only my music but my ability to make career decisions, to find collaborators – even making everyday decisions on all kinds of things is a struggle!
So what exactly is procrastination, and what causes it?
I think of it as “Doing anything and everything but the work I really want/need to do”. We all know the tell tale signs – instead of knuckling down to work, we spend hours surfing the web, answering e-mails, tidying the house, rearranging the filing cabinet, talking to friends walking the dog or watching TV.
As for the cause, I think Steven Pressfield nails it when he says that whenever we set ourselves a difficult challenge, then an invisible force called Resistance arises, which does everything in its power to distract and dissuade us from tackling the work head-on.
Why do we experience Resistance? Because every time we set out to do something amazing, our ego (a.k.a. conscious mind) feels threatened. Threatened from the outside, because we might fail, or attract criticism or ridicule. And threatened from the inside because once you open yourself up to your imagination, you never know what might come bubbling up from your unconscious mind when you let go of control.
Pushing past the Resistance means going through a wall of fear. This is true whatever medium you’re working in, although the effect varies depending on your situation.
If you’re a performer, you have an audience waiting, so when it’s showtime you need to stand there and deliver. You may even have someone barking “lights, camera, action!” to help you push through the fear. It’s very intense – and explains why actors and musicians are more likely to complain of stage fright than procrastination.
But if you’re working alone in your office or studio, it’s easier to shy away from Resistance and start procrastinating. After all, who would ever know if you spent another 30 minutes in Google Reader or pottering about in the kitchen?
So for all of you reading this when you should really be doing something else, here are seven tried and tested ways to blast through that wall of Resistance and STOP PROCRASTINATING.
1. Decide in Advance
This is critical. If you leave it until Monday morning to decide whether you’re going to start work on that Big Scary New Project or rearrange your CDs into alphabetical order, then you don’t need me to tell you which is most likely to win.
If you wait until work time before deciding what to do, you can always persuade yourself that it would be better to start the difficult work ‘later’. But if you plan ahead, then when it comes to the crunch you know you’re either (a) working on what you promised yourself you’d do, or (b) procrastinating. It’s a lot harder to admit to yourself “I’m going to procrastinate” than it is to fool yourself by saying “I’m going to start work later”.
Decide beforehand when you’re going to start work. Then when the time comes, you’ve got one less excuse for not doing it.
2. Make a Habit of It
This follows on from 1. and makes it even more powerful. If you know you’re supposed to be painting/writing/rehearsing every day at 8am or 3pm, then even harder to pretend you’re going to do it ‘later’.
I’ve written quite a lot about the value of routines and rituals in getting creative work done, so I won’t labour the point here. I’ll just highlight a couple more ways they help you to beat procrastination:
- Momentum – doing the same thing day after day can build up momentum that crushes procrastination.
- Association – you come to associate certain times, places, people and objects with focused creative work. In Pavlovian fashion, each time you encounter the same circumstances, you experience emotions and behaviours associated with creative work.
3. Pretend You’re Not Going to Do It
I’m not really going to start work, I’m just going to get the equipment out.
I’m not really going to start learning my lines, I’m just going to get the script out.
I’m not really going to the gym, I’m just going to pack my kit in the bag.
I’m not really going to start writing, I’m just going to open the Word document.
I’m not really going to make that difficult phone call, I’m just going to get the phone out and look up the number.
Mark’s theory is that telling yourself this kind of white lie somehow short-circuits the part of the brain that resists getting started. Once you start taking action and get out the kit you need, you’ll find yourself starting the task almost automatically, with much less Resistance.
I’ve tried it, and it works! In fact, I’m so intrigued by this that it’s actually fun to do. I tell myself I’m just opening up Dragon NaturallySpeaking so that it will be ready ‘for later’. And just writing the title of the article so I don’t forget it. And just jotting down a few quick notes …
Half an hour later I’m happily absorbed in the writing process, striding up and down the room and dictating to the computer with music pulsating from the stereo. Having so much fun I wonder why I didn’t start earlier.
4. Accept that it Will Never Be Perfect
This is the antidote to “trying to be sure I have it just right”. Tell your self that you will never get it “just right” – i.e perfect. There will always be something you miss, something that could be improved.
And that’s OK. Because it’s better to finish something imperfect than never to let it see the light of day. Depending on the nature of the project, you may get the chance to revise or tweak it, and send your customers an updated version.
But even if you don’t, even if this is your one and only shot, you still have a choice between shipping something that’s 90-99% good enough and learning from the feedback – or never finishing, never shipping, never delighting anyone with it, and never reaping any of the rewards.
I know which I’d choose.
5. Break It down
There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a man who ate a tractor by grinding each piece down into a fine powder and sprinkling it on his porridge every morning. I don’t recommend you try this at home, but you can apply the same principle to your work.
- Think of a big, complex, challenging project that you’re working on at the moment. Imagine all the tasks involved and all the time and effort they’ll take. How do you feel? A little overwhelmed?
- Now isolate out the very first task you’ll have to do. Imagine doing that. How does that feel? A bit more manageable?
- Now think of the very first step of that very first task. E.g. if it involves creating or modifying a computer document, the first step is simply opening it. How does that feel? A piece of cake, huh?
Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, run through this process – grinding the task down to the smallest possible next action.
6. Sprint against the Clock
Use a timer to create an artificial deadline. This is how the Pomodoro Technique works – you set the timer for 25 minutes and work flat out until the bell rings, then reward yourself with a 5 minute break.
Studies have shown that we can’t concentrate on a task for longer than about 20-25 minutes, so dividing your worktime up into Pomodoros helps you make the most of your concentration span. The 5 minute break also acts as an incentive to get things done during the Pomodoro, and reduces the temptation to look for distractions.
7. Put Yourself on the Line
This one is the antidote to the “No-one would ever know if I spent the whole morning reading the paper” excuse. Make a public commitment to one or more people who you will report back to once you’ve done the work (or not).
Some writers have ‘writing buddies’ who are responsible for egging each other on and holding each other accountable for completing their daily and weekly quota of words. National Novel Writing Month uses the same principle – every year, hundreds of writers commit to writing a novel in 30 days, and updating each other of their progress.
Coaching clients often tell me that one reason for coming to see me is because they know they are more likely to take action towards their goals when they have to report back to me.
I used the same principle a couple of years ago, when I told my blog readers at Wishful Thinking that I was going to meditate every day for a year – and report back to them at the end of the year. Can you imagine how I would have felt if I – the coach, the agent of change! – had had to report back that I didn’t see it through? There were a few days when I was really tempted to skip my practice, and one of the biggest thing stopping me was the thought “what will you tell your readers?”. (Here’s how I got on.)
Over to You
When and where are you most likely to procrastinate?
How do you beat procrastination?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.