Everyone has that friend with a million ideas who never executes on any of them. This person talks a big game–about their latest invention, their fashion label, their bespoke furniture company–but that’s all they are, talk. In the moment, their vision is clear and their confidence and bravado make the goal seem within reach, something you’re going to be reading about next month. Yet the next time you meet up with them, their focus has completely shifted. Your friend loves imagining the thrill of the finished project, but something holds them back from figuring out all the steps needed to make that dream a reality.
From the outside, it may feel easy to write your friend off as lazy. Why can’t they get it together? But if you’ve ever had to pull an all-nighter or left an email reply until the last minute, you’ve suffered from the same affliction. Perhaps you feel it in your gut, a slow and churning feeling. Or maybe your muscles tense up and you get a headache thinking about completing the task.
Regardless of how your individual symptoms manifest, your subconscious knows something is up and it’s not going to let you off the hook so easily.
Procrastination isn’t necessarily about being lazy
Sloth is often blamed as the roadblock between thought and action, yet more often the force driving us to procrastinate is fear. When the pressure is on and the stakes appear high, it can feel too terrifying to start. What if you fail? You might produce trash. Or perhaps your work won’t live up to your perfect expectations.
Comparing yourself to other people doesn’t help either. By witnessing the accomplishments of others, especially your peers in the same space, you may feel like they possess different qualities that make it easier for them to do the work. You could incorrectly assume that they don’t feel the same fear as you.
In a 2012 study, Gordon L. Flett and his York University colleagues found a strong correlation between procrastination and perfectionism. A desire to complete a task perfectly sparks anxiety, and these negative thought patterns cue avoidant behavior, which leads to even more tension as the clock ticks. Flett’s data indicated that “the experience of frequent procrastination-related thoughts contributes uniquely to increased levels of psychological distress and stress.” Before you know it, you’re paralyzed in an anxiety spiral.
Yet everyone who is successful feels that same pressure, that similar fear, that consistent dread of the gap between what you want to achieve and where you are. The differentiating factor is that the successful folks figured out how to unblock themselves when the going inevitably gets tough.
At the Grace Hopper Program, a coding bootcamp for women, imposter syndrome is rampant, where students typically quit their jobs to make huge career pivots and learning software development in under five months.
Director Michele Cantos observed, “Successful students adopt several winning strategies to get through the biggest hurdles. Adopting a growth mentality that helps them reframe their ‘gaps’ as “opportunities” to learn, grow, and challenge themselves—and not as failures, because they will fail a few times before they master this difficult subject. Setting strong boundaries with friends, family, and network while they’re learning this new skill makes all the difference. And, of course, managing the balancing act of hard work and self care through strong life/study habits.”
In order to get out of your own way, you need to develop your system.
Break the problem down into smaller parts
A common trigger of procrastination fear is not knowing where to begin. When we’re already in a high stakes, perfectionist headspace, identifying a starting place can feel overwhelming. We end up spinning our wheels or ticking off small, low-hanging tasks that make us feel busy but don’t move the needle. To move forward, we need to disentangle each issue into discrete segments.
This practice of reducing a massive project into a series of smaller, more manageable sections is common in the software development world. There are so many intricate components in a piece of software that thinking about the whole problem all at once can be paralyzing. Instead, it’s important to have both a higher-level perspective of how all the elements talk to each other and a zoomed-in view of all the smaller pieces—to be able to see both the forest and the trees.
During the build process, programmers split an application into “stories,” small descriptions of the feature they’re trying to create. If the feature is a button, the developer may separate it into two parts: construct a basic button with the intended functionality and then style it so it looks aesthetically pleasing.
If you’re tackling a job search, writing a book, or running a marathon, you can use this same technique to get a handle on the task. Take 30 minutes with a piece of paper to brainstorm all the things you need to get done. So, using “tackling a job search” as an illustration, your to-do list might include: refresh your LinkedIn, update your résumé, assemble a portfolio, make a list of companies, set up coffee chats, etc.
For each of these items, see if you can subdivide them further. Are any of the tasks reliant on other people? Do you have to answer any questions before you move forward? Note these dependencies as distinct assignments so your progress isn’t curtailed by them.
Set up habits to get your brain in the groove
Research shows that our brains get overwhelmed when they have to make too many decisions. While we may not feel tired, over the course of the day it becomes more difficult to parse information and make important choices.
For example, scientists Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso analyzed thousands of judicial rulings and discovered that as the day wore on, judges were less likely to rule in favor of a prisoner’s parole request. Imagine one of your coworkers corners you with a request as you’re on your way to lunch; how engaged do you feel when you’re hangry?
You may not be making choices that impact others’ lives directly, but decision fatigue can make it difficult to get down to business when we’re thinking about where to work and what to tackle. To get out of your own way, set up a routine that eliminates extraneous choices. Take ten minutes at the end of each day to plan your to-do list. When you choose your tasks, don’t overload yourself with big, meaty ones. Mix it up with one big task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks.
Creating the right conditions for work is like training your brain. If you’re struggling to get to the gym, put your clothes out by the door the night before, make yourself a to-go breakfast, and set your alarm so you just have time to get up and go. Leave too much time before departure and you may talk yourself out of the gym altogether.
Take the decisions out of your workspace by controlling for variables ahead of time. If you can’t work with a messy desk, clean it off the night before. Need quiet in an open space? Get noise-canceling headphones or relocate to a private space.
Once you’ve secured your physical location, take control of your digital space. Close extraneous tabs so you’re not tempted to fall into a Twitter hole. You may even choose to turn off your Wi-Fi as a means of eliminating distractions and getting down to business. Using tools like the Pomodoro timer can help you focus and remind you when it’s time to take short breaks. Maintaining a Pomodoro streak can be a powerful motivator for folks who like to check boxes.
Finally, take care of your own needs before you dive in. Maybe you need to meditate to get focused. Or perhaps the ritual of making a cup of coffee is your cue. Make sure to feed yourself and hydrate accordingly so you’re not interrupted by dry mouth or hunger pangs. Pay attention to what your body needs and craft a routine to cue your brain and trigger a positive work state.
Find an accountability partner to keep you on track
Partner with a friend who can hold you to your deadlines and goals, and can show you a little tough love if you when you start getting off track. Share your to-do list and your goals and make a plan to check in at the end of the day or week with your progress. Keep a list of your victories and celebrate them. Marking tiny victories may seem silly, but as Olympic distance runner Alexi Pappas notes, “You can be proud of yourself and want more out of yourself at the same time.” Acknowledging small wins keeps your imposter syndrome in check as you move forward and having a log of your activities can serve as inspiration on days when you don’t feel like working.
If you fall short of your goal, be honest about it. Not every day is a high productivity day. You’re going to have days where you’re stuck, you’re frustrated, you’re blocked by someone else’s decision. On days that you don’t meet your goals, try not to beat yourself up for falling short. Rather, channel that energy into the next day.
Remember: the average novel contains about 90,000 words. If you were to write just 344 words a day on each of the 261 working weekdays in a year, you’d write a book by the end. You don’t need to write all the words in one day. Through consistent effort, you’ll accumulate progress and cross that finish line.
Where will you start today?
This post is an excerpt from Meg’s forthcoming book, Find Your Way Forward: A Step-By-Step Guide to Uncovering Career Insights and Charting Your Own Next Move. The book launches April 14th, 2020 on Amazon.