Recently, I have been afflicted with a terrible disease.
The primary symptom is a strong desire to remain on the couch.
I am talking about Netflix addiction.
Sure I want to get some writing done or start learning Spanish, but after just….one….more…episode…
Know what I’m talking about?
For me, it was the desire to find out how Frank Underwood was going to pull off his ambitions in House of Cards, but for you it could be something different.
Maybe you spend too much time sleeping. Maybe you aimlessly surf the internet. Maybe you play video games. Maybe you just find yourself being “too busy” all the time.
Or maybe you spend all day every day on Feel Happiness…in which case you are forgiven
We’ve all procrastinated before. It’s so easy!
But it also keeps you stuck in the same place, never advancing towards your goals, and piling on more stress in the process.
This post is my own exercise in getting things done and ending procrastination. It’s been a long time in coming.
My inspiration for this post came in an email from a reader, Sharon, who pointed me to the To Do Institute, where some of the ideas you are about to read (particularly Morita Therapy) came from. Thanks Sharon!
First, I will cover the various “internal barriers” that prevent you from taking action.
Next, you will learn about Morita therapy. That’s where I deliver the motivational ass-kicking you need to get moving right now.
Third, I will describe a simple, 3-step process that you can use to overcome procrastination in the moment it pops up.
Finally, you will learn a few other tips and tricks to get you to do what you need to do.
Causes Of Procrastination
Procrastination is the result of an emotional state that you are experiencing.
In other words, procrastination is a coping mechanism that helps you feel better by alleviating unpleasant emotions.
Fear And Anxiety
Fear and anxiety can be crippling for many reasons, not the least of which is that they cause you to avoid doing what you need to do.
Let’s state the obvious: fear is not fun. It is not comfortable. You certainly don’t enjoy the experience of fear.
When you are afraid to do something or to take the next step, procrastinating can provide some temporary relief.
It’s very tempting to “take the easy way out”, but there are serious consequences.
Besides the obvious fact that you don’t get stuff done, you condition yourself to become even more afraid and become more likely to respond to fear with inaction in the future.
Not only that, but it ultimately just makes you feel worse. You know you should be doin whatchu gotta do, so when you avoid it, your self-confidence decreases.
Fears and anxieties can be very challenging to deal with.
The unpleasant feeling that they elicit is very acute and therefore challenging to overcome, but it can be done.
In the end, you are going to need to act in spite of your fears rather than actually removing them. More on that later.
Paralysis By Analysis And Indecision
Do you ever spend so much time studying or learning about a particular problem that you never seem to get around to dealing with the problem itself?
I know this used to be a big issue for me.
Before I could make any decisions I had to study all of my options closely to make sure I knew I was choosing the best one.
Unfortunately, after spending so much time analyzing, my window of opportunity would close and I would be stuck in a less than optimal situation.
In the best case scenario, I wasted a considerable amount of time!
Oftentimes I’ll be stuck in paralysis by analysis when I try to decide what work I should be doing. Should I be writing for my blog or should I be studying Hebrew?
I’ll spend 45 minutes debating the pros and cons with myself before I make a decision, when I should have just dove into one or the other. A random number generator is a far more effective decision maker than I am sometimes.
Many people get stuck in paralysis by analysis because of their fears and anxieties.
Even though you know quitting your job and becoming an entrepreneur is congruent with your values, you get stuck trying to figure out every single detail about how you should do it and never get around to taking action.
Another cause of procrastination that is a little bit different is perfectionism.
Perfectionists refuse to act until it’s the “perfect” time, or until they know that everything will be wrapped up in a neat little package.
Perfectionism is actually a form of low self-esteem. It stems from a belief that you aren’t good enough.
Perhaps you feel that if your work isn’t absolutely perfect, everyone will get a glimpse of your flaws. Or maybe you just don’t think you are capable of doing good work at all.
Whatever the underlying limiting belief is, it makes you feel uncomfortable.
The process of changing a limiting belief takes time. But you need to act now!
Deadlines don’t make themselves fit neatly into your schedule. You can’t change them.
So, despite the unpleasantness that is caused by pulling the trigger before you have a “perfect” answer, you need to do it.
A Motivational Ass-Kicking With Morita Therapy
You know you need to take action, but you just can’t quite bring yourself to do it.
If you read articles on “how to stop procrastinating”, you will learn all sorts of little tricks that help you try to overcome the negative feelings that prevent you from acting.
These tricks can be useful (and I’ll go over the best ones in a later section), but they can also make your procrastination even worse.
By directing your attention to your negative feelings and the problem itself rather than towards taking the right action and living well.
Obviously, we have a dilemma here. You need to stop procrastinating, but trying to stop procrastinating makes you even less likely to take action!
So, how do you get around this?
If you paid attention in the previous section, you probably already have an idea.
Let’s be honest here: you don’t really have much control over your emotions, at least not in the short term.
You can’t just “will” your anxieties away. No matter what you are feeling, your “internal experience” is outside of your control right now.
That’s fact #1, and here is fact #2: you have a limited amount of attention or energy.
If you are paying attention to something, that means you are not paying attention to something else.
Where is your attention right now? What are you thinking about? What are you doing?
Perhaps you are “reading” this post, but you are thinking about how terrible your day at work was, or how much you don’t want to shovel snow.
In this case, your attention is being directed towards your emotional state.
And what do we know about your emotional state?
That’s right; it’s out of your control.
It doesn’t help when you direct your energy towards your emotions.
Trying to change them isn’t helping you either. In fact, it could be making it worse!
Let’s say you are afraid to start a conversation with a stranger. You know that fear is holding you back, so you go online and look up ways to be less afraid of meeting strangers.
Where is your attention? How has it changed?
At first, some sizeable percentage of your attention was directed at your internal experience of fear. But now that you’ve started looking for ways to be less fearful, an even larger portion of your attention is directed internally!
You can’t change the way you feel.
Try as you might to stop being afraid, it’s not going to happen.
And as more and more of your attention is flowing towards the unpleasant feelings you have, less and less of it can be directed to the task at hand.
If you can’t change your emotional state, what can you do? What is within your control?
Your ability to act!
Regardless of your feelings, you are free to act however you want.
No matter how crippling of a fear or how intense of a perfectionist you are, you can still act.
Sure, your emotions will sway how you feel about acting, but they don’t affect your ability to act at all!
Accept your negative emotional states as they are.
Yes, you are experiencing uncomfortable feelings. But don’t try to change them.
Accept them. Live with them. Stop worrying about them.
Negative emotions are a perfectly natural part of life, and they will happen.
If your dog dies, you should feel sad. You accept this sadness and live with it inside of you. Nobody judges you for it.
Everyone will experience negative emotions, and at multiple points in their life. What makes you special is your ability to act in spite of those negative emotions.
You experience the unpleasant feelings, accept them, and direct your attention to doing what you know you need to do anyways.
Your attention is directed towards living well. Towards a purpose. Towards action.
Your attention is directed towards reality, towards the moment, and NOT towards intellectualizing.
This is Morita therapy.
Accept, then act.
And if you can practice this repeatedly, the causes of your negative feelings will disintegrate over time.
The next time you need to get something done but struggle to begin, accept your negative feelings and allow yourself to feel them fully.
Strap these feelings in and take them along for the ride with you as you act in spite of them.
Whew, that was intense.
But before concluding this section, I need to make a couple of additional points.
First of all, it helps a lot if you have goals.
Without goals, or without purpose, there is no reason to act. You might as well just take the temporary relief of the coward’s way out, because….why not?
Of course, everyone has some degree of goals or intentions. You want to survive a little bit longer, so you eat a meal, right?
But you should go beyond this. Think bigger.
My second note is that Morita therapy isn’t the only way to stop procrastinating.
It’s a great method for sure, and is definitely the right mindset to have.
In any given moment, accepting your feelings and then acting is the most surefire way to get yourself to put one foot in front of the other start moving.
But over the long term, you can use other techniques to supplement Morita therapy.
Most notably, cognitive behavioral therapy has given us the technique of reframing your negative thoughts into something more positive.
If you understand the nature of your negative feelings, you can use reframing in order to gradually change the way you perceive them.
Oftentimes, you will find that your fears have little basis in reality, and you can change the way you think about them.
But in the end, you still need to act, no matter how you feel.
3-Steps To Stop Procrastinating Now
The last section gave you the tough love that you need, but it’s still not so easy to apply it.
This section provides a very simple process you can use to start doing what you need to do, even when it hurts.
Step 1 is always necessary, but keep in mind that if you can skip over steps 2 and 3 and just act without any thought at all, you should.
Step 1: Take An Honest Look At Your Situation
We all start somewhere.
Some of us start better off than others.
Wherever you are right now, and whatever it is you are doing, you need to be honest with yourself about it.
You could be 150 pounds overweight and have never exercised in your life.
Take a look in the mirror, see reality for exactly what it is, and accept it.
The reason you haven’t been exercising and you let yourself get this way is because you refused to admit to yourself that you were slacking.
If you had started a diet and exercise plan, you would have been admitting to yourself that you didn’t like your body, and that doesn’t feel good.
But it shouldn’t feel good! Negative feelings in this situation are warranted.
Be honest, allow yourself to feel those negative emotions, and accept them.
Step 2: Remember The Purpose Of Your Action
Once you have accepted your internal state, you need to remind yourself why you must act in the first place.
In other words, what is the goal, or purpose, of your action?
You must sit down and write because you want to publish a novel.
You must practice for your presentation because you want to get a raise.
Your intention is to achieve something or to grow in some way, and the only way to do so is through taking this particular action.
Step 3: How Does Inaction Harm Others?
Finally, ask yourself the question: “how is my failure to act right now harming other people?”
I don’t know about you, but I usually spend most of my time thinking about myself.
If someone cuts me off, I curse them for the minor nuisance they caused me.
But if I cut someone else off, I’ll usually just shrug it off and make an excuse. Whatever, I’m in a rush.
I’d be willing to bet most people are the same way.
This final step gets you thinking about other people, which can be a powerful motivator for action.
By not exercising, you become less attractive to your partner. You increase your risk of dying early or having health problems, which can put both a financial and emotional strain on your family.
By not writing your novel, you don’t allow other people to read your story. It could have spread joy to countless other people, but instead it dies with you.
By not practicing your presentation, you risk not getting a raise as well as disappointing your boss. Perhaps the presentation was important for a client and you cost your company business. And if you don’t get a raise, you can’t take your family on a vacation this year.
Become acutely aware of how you affect other people through your failure to act.
Once you have done that, it’s a no-brainer to take action even when it feels uncomfortable.
Extra Tips To Help You Take Action
The strategies contained in this section can be useful, but the some are not necessarily in line with Morita therapy.
If you can act without doing any of these things, you absolutely should. It’s best not to over-complicate things.
You should have a strong foundation in the mindset that Morita teaches, and then use these techniques as a supplement.
These techniques are not going to be applicable in all situations. Common sense should tell you when you can and can’t use them.
That being said, they can provide the boost you need to get started, so I would be doing you a disservice not to include them.
Change Your Environment
The environment that you are in can predispose you towards inaction.
For example, if your desk is cluttered, you might be less inclined to do your work there.
You also might associate certain places with inaction. If you happen to be in one of those places, you won’t get anything done because of your conditioning.
Many aspects of your environment can affect you. The lighting, the noise, the number of people around, and numerous other factors all come into play.
By manipulating these factors, you can improve your ability to act.
Tackle The Hardest Part First
If the project that you are taking on has multiple parts, many experts suggest you tackle the hardest part first.
Since the amount of willpower you have is finite, finishing the most challenging part while you have the most willpower can be a good idea.
Once you’ve accomplished that task, the rest of the project will seem easier by comparison. You’re already almost done!
On the other hand, starting with the hardest part can make it even more difficult to get started in the first place. Therefore, you might want to…
Start With The Easiest Part
Whatever it is you need to do or accomplish, you can most likely break it down into smaller steps.
Take the smallest possible step and start there.
It should be easier to motivate yourself to take action if you are only doing something small. On top of that, you can quickly build momentum by accomplishing a few smaller steps in a row.
Sometimes breaking down a necessary task into smaller parts can be an exercise in itself, so you might need to get creative.
For example, if your goal is to feel comfortable starting conversations with strangers, your first step might be to make eye contact with them. The second step might be to make eye contact and flash a smile. The third step would be eye contact, a smile, and saying hello. Continue this way until you are having full blown conversations.
Set A Timer
It can be hard to get started because you know that the task will take a long time.
If this is the problem, get a timer and set it for ten or fifteen minutes.
For that period of time, you will commit yourself to working as hard as you can. When it’s over, give yourself permission to stop.
It’s only a small commitment, but oftentimes once you’ve started you’ll get into the groove of it and want to keep going.
I find this is helpful for my writing. If I commit myself to spending ten minutes writing, I will often find myself working for an hour or more.
And even if you don’t continue (which is fine), you will have gotten some amount of the work done.
Set A Deadline
Pick a time that you are committing yourself to accomplishing your task by.
Give yourself as little time as possible such that you can reasonably complete your work. This puts pressure on you.
Some people find this pressure helpful and swear by this technique.
Personally, I haven’t been successful with it. If it’s an arbitrary deadline, I never feel any “real” pressure to stick to it.
But hey, you could be different, so give it a shot.
Come up with a schedule of rewards for yourself.
If you successfully complete one hour of work, you can watch an episode of Futurama on Netflix.
If you approach a stranger, you can eat a piece of dark chocolate.
If you stick to your diet and exercise plan for six days, you can have a cheat day.
Be careful with this technique. You MUST be specific from the beginning, and you MUST be consistent in applying your reward schedule.
If you give yourself the reward without having accomplished the task, you are doing more harm than good.
Despite that warning, this can be a powerfully helpful technique. It can be much easier to stick to your diet/exercise plan if you know that at the end of the week you can eat whatever you want.
Make An Appointment
Schedule a specific time to accomplish the task you need to do.
Consider this task an appointment, just like any other.
If you have lunch plans with a business partner, you don’t just cancel on a whim. You can only cancel in extreme circumstances.
At the beginning of your week, find specific times that you are committing yourself to working on the tasks you need to accomplish.
And then stick to those times.
Make Yourself Accountable
Tell somebody else about what you are trying to accomplish.
Have them egg you on.
Start a blog that you share with all your friends detailing what you set out to accomplish.
By getting other people in on your intentions, you become more accountable for your actions. Social pressure can be a powerful force.
Maybe you can even put some money where your mouth is. If you want to start approaching strangers, give your friend $100, and tell him to give you $20 back every time you approach one.
Whatever they have left at the end of the day, they get to keep.
Talk about serious motivation right there!
Procrastination or the failure to take action is a universal problem; everyone experiences it at some point.
And most people experience it fairly often.
Unfortunately, not taking action when you know you should has serious ramifications.
Progress on your goals will stagnate, your fears and insecurities will increase, and you will feel more stress.
Luckily, this doesn’t have to be your fate.
No matter how unpleasant it feels to push through your internal barriers and take action, you have the ability to do it.
And by following through and doing what you need to do, the world opens up to you.
Is there anything you are putting off that you know you should be doing? Use the techniques in this post and then let me know how it goes.