How Do I Stop Procrastinating?


Question: Why do I have such a hard time getting started?

Procrastination, like phobia, is fear-based: a form of avoidant behavior. What are you avoiding? The fear of death, supposedly. I’m not sure how not cleaning the cat box is a fear of death. Maybe it’s the thought of having to face how awful a person you are for even letting the cat box get to the state that it’s in. Maybe failing to convert all your docs to DITA is the same as letting the cat box go too long.

There’s two types of procrastination: Things you DON’T want to do (clean the cat box), and things that you DO want desperately to do (become a famous poet), sometimes so desperately that you’re terrified of failure (i.e., discovering that you have no talent, AKA “fear of death”). The fourth possibility, becoming a famous poet despite having no talent, somehow never gets mentioned.

Hint: talent is NOT a myth – but worrying about it is a red herring.

Strangely enough, you can find just as many excuses to avoid working on your art as you can to avoid unpleasant tasks. Rather than beat yourself up about it all, try one of these workarounds:

  • Stack unpleasant tasks so that avoiding one just means you have to do the other one. Forcing yourself to choose the lesser of two evils, ensures that at least ONE thing will get done.
  • Use one procrastination to cancel out another. One example is being too lazy to go to the liquor store when you’ve had too much beer already. This self-correcting problem is a win-win all around.

It gets convoluted sometimes. For example, I wanted to take time off to explore my creativity, which meant drawing and writing every day. Suddenly something that I’d wanted to do became a chore!

Then I started doing all this other stuff, paid work and freelance gigs and such. Suddenly, I had “real” work to put off doing. Thus, I could go back to indulging in my art as a guilty pleasure (because I wasn’t… WORKING… ).

Doing art was like crack: The sensuality of being “in the zone”, where the drawing would start drawing itself. Watching my hand travel over the paper was spellbinding. Drawing became a debauch, worse even than beer. I wondered whether it was really much different from other forms of absorption: gaming, gambling, compulsive hand-washing. After all, each of those activities is a distraction that grants a temporary reprieve from the awareness of one’s own mortality.

If you’re really clever, you can stack two tasks (taxes, cat box) in such a way that at least one of them gets done. Usually the lesser of the two (cat box, probably) is the one that ends up getting done. The morale boost you get from actually cleaning the cat box may carry you through at least the first page of your taxes.

This narrows it down to two options:

  • Staring at your taxes, knowing that if you try to get up, the cat box is waiting.
  • Staring at the cat box, knowing that if you turn away, your taxes are waiting.

With creative work, it can be hard to start because the first thing you face is ordinary creative block. This just means you haven’t quite determined what to try first. It’s not a sign of failure or lack of ability, however much your brain may race ahead to tell you that. But, writers’ block can be a blessing in disguise, because if it comes too easily it might be too facile, to shallow, to acquire much depth. Build up a good head of steam and you just might outdo yourself!

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