This wasn’t meant to be a blog. My interest was entirely personal. I wanted needed to teach myself how to stop procrastinating & get more done, faster.

As a business founder there are always competing interests for my time, and I began to feel that I wasn’t in control of what got it. I was frustrated – as I’m sure you have been – getting distracted by something else, struggling to start & complete tasks, even though I knew I needed to do them. 

In an effort to make a change (or maybe to put things off further!) I set about learning about an invisible force. The barrier that somehow stops us from starting, and sometimes finishing, the things we need to do. This article is the result of my learnings, and what I have put into practice every day to overcome procrastination.

“Procrastination is nothing to do with time management and everything to do with emotions.”

Why do we procrastinate?

For me, the worst part of my procrastinating was that I didn’t understand it. Nothing was in the way. I wanted to do this work. Understanding why I was procrastinating would, I hoped, help me to overcome the habit.

It turns out that procrastination is nothing to do with time management and everything to do with emotions. There’s a few different theories, but all the research shows that procrastination is to do with delaying a negative emotion that we are associating with a task. 

Stress was like Radar for Early Humans

Stress

In The 5 Second Rule, Mel Robbins suggests that procrastination is an ancestral survival instinct. When humans were both predators and prey, stress was like a radar – an early warning system for danger. Hunting for food in a world full of much bigger animals with way pointier teeth could be a life or death venture. A highly stressful task that it felt good to delay in favour of the short term satisfaction offered by the berry bush at the cave mouth.

Boredom

It’s not necessarily as deep rooted as ancient DNA, implies Timothy Pychly in Solving the Procrastination Puzzle – most procrastination is simply us delaying  boredom by engaging in something that brings us temporary joy. It’s a self deception that is the worst of both worlds; we’re neither doing what we ought to do or fully enjoying ourselves.

Failure

Damon Zahariades, author of The Procrastination Cure, suggests that a fear of failure is at the root of many people’s procrastination. This certainly resonated with me. Brain resonance research from Germany supports this – people who procrastinate have larger Amygdalas – fear centres – than those who don’t.

We set incredibly high standards for ourselves, but these standards may often be debilitating. If we’re concerned that we may not live up to our own standards – like when the task in question is something we haven’t done before (which is most days when you start a new business!) – we default to procrastination to delay this uncomfortable failure.

How do we overcome procrastination & get started

My two step process to overcoming procrastination is; 

  1. Identify why I’m doing it – what negative emotion am I delaying and how can I mitigate it.  
  2. Find a way to jump in – deploy one of the tactics below to take the first step.

What is the emotion?

Recognising what emotion you’re delaying helps you empathise with your future self and unpick the problem. If you’re avoiding entering into a stressful experience, recognise this, and ask yourself if your future self will be under more or less stress if you do not act now.  If it’s about boredom, ask whether your future self will be able to experience more, or less, if you do nothing now.

For me – procrastination is almost always about fear of failure. I try to overcome perfectionism and remind myself that – as George Patton said – “a good plan violently executed today is better than a perfect plan next week.” Even if my work is only 80%, it’s still 80% closer to perfect than 0. 

Make the first move

I’ve tried three experts’ strategies for the first move, which have all been effective to different degrees.

Eat the Frog – Mark Twain

“If your job is to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest frog first.” – Mark Twain

Zahariades advocates it as a ‘first step’ technique – tackling your least pleasant tasks first (or when you have most energy) so everything else in your day is more pleasant. It’s suffering now so that your future self doesn’t have to. 

I implement this as a general working process. In the same way 7 year old me got the Christmas sprouts out of the way so I could focus on the stuffing (oh, how things have changed!) I try to get my most tedious tasks out of the way first. I find this a procrastination mitigation technique, but definitely not a way to escape from the grips of procrastination when it hits!

The Two Minute Rule

James Clear – author of Atomic Habits – uses the two minute rule. Stop thinking about the behemoth task you’re delaying, and get on with the two minute ‘gatekeeper’ activity. Persuading yourself to run five miles might seem impossible, so just tie up your running shoes. Read one page. Get out your yoga mat. 

Making the task as small and achievable as possible is a powerful psychological technique. It works in two ways, it reduces the size of the hurdle that you’re staring at and it normalises showing up. You become accustomed to stepping up to the plate and make a habit of achieving hard tasks, which compounds. 

I use the two minute rule every day to make dreaded tasks more accessible. For me, it also helps to reduce the fear of failure – as there’s no room to fail in such a small achievable task. In this way, I find the two minute rule helps to both overcome procrastination today, and reduce it tomorrow.

The Five Second Rule

Our final technique to overcome procrastination comes from Mel Robbins and it’s ridiculously simple and incredibly powerful. You simply count silently to yourself, 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1.  Seriously. I know it sounds mad, but it breaks the cycle of negative thoughts that drive procrastination, and creates a feeling of control over your destiny – “the power of the push”.

I use the five second rule in conjunction with the Two Minute rule. As soon as I have thought of a first step – literally immediately – I start counting down from five. It fills the gap in time when other thoughts might creep in, and – like the countdown to a rocket launch – propels me into action. Oh, and yes, I do count down in a Thunderbirds voice!

Putting this into action

I probably started reading about procrastination to make myself feel better about the fact that I wasn’t doing the things I wanted to do. It gave me a sense that I was doing something useful, even if it wasn’t the thing I was meant to be doing. 

But my research genuinely changed the way that I work, whilst I still have to actively overcome feelings that I won’t be able to live up to my own standards, I now have techniques that I can deploy immediately to get started despite them. I’m more effective, more productive and have more time to really enjoy life. 

One final comment – as powerful as I have found these learnings, it’s just as important to keep the distractions limited to keep temptation at bay. Turning airplane mode on & email notifications off, and popping noise cancelling headphones in is also really helpful to make sure you don’t have to keep restarting your process.

It’s learning that has informed what we’ve done at FOGA too – we want to make nutrition exceptionally easy, so you can focus on the things you truly love. I’d love to hear your tips to get moving, and the tools you use in your life to be more productive & effective –  you can get me on ollie@foga.co if you have any suggestions that I should implement!

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