I’ve been a chronic procrastinator for as long as I can remember. I’ve been at H&R Block on the evening of April 15th asking questions about taxes. I can’t tell you how many times I was up late at night prepping Girl Scout and Cub Scout projects during my years as a troop leader. And I don’t think I wrote a single paper in college that didn’t result in pulling a last-minute all-nighter.
Last year, I found myself feeling frustrated that an idea I’d been kicking around for a couple years — launching a podcast — was still just an idea. Over the previous months, I’d been doing tasks around the margins, like brainstorming lists of guests, and getting graphics made. Lots of little to-do’s were getting done, and yet I was no closer to actually launching. Something was blocking me from pulling the trigger.
Then, one tweet from Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant changed all that:
He wrote: “We all have phases of productivity and periods of procrastination. But we’re consistent in our inconsistencies. To become more productive, study your if-then signature: what situations bring out your discipline and focus?”
I thought about Grant’s question, and it was an easy one for me to answer: deadlines. Deadlines keep me accountable, and deadlines force me to take action.
I knew that I work best when I have a set deadline to hit, but I also knew that if staying disciplined was just a matter of creating deadlines, that would be easy to fix. There had to be something else holding me back.
I considered whether to add some “if-thens,” such as “working on something meaningful,” but quickly rejected that. I’ve procrastinated on plenty of meaningful projects, so there’s got to be more to it than that.
So, I flipped the question, and started thinking about not only the patterns that help me focus, but also the patterns that bring out my procrastination.
I realized there were four:
Fear of failure
Call it imposter syndrome or general fear of failure, but this fear holds me back from tackling my work head-on, and causes me to procrastinate.
These days, if I can recognize fear as the issue, then I can usually kick it aside. When my husband was in the hospital and I had to tell him that he was dying — and needed to write cards to the kids — I realized right that nothing else would likely provoke as much fear and dread in me as that. Now, when I recognize that fear is the issue keeping me stuck, I remind myself of that experience — and the fear tends to melt away.
Not seeing the big picture
When working on a new idea, I’ve found I need to understand the big picture. I need to build a “mental model” for myself of how and where it fits. Until then, I feel like I’m just digging around in the weeds and not getting anywhere. So, if my procrastination is caused by this issue, I know I need to push aside the details and focus on articulating the big picture in order to move forward.
I like to marinate ideas. I brainstorm, ponder options, and dream up possibilities. It’s fun for me, and it can be highly beneficial to the creative process. However, at some point this process has to come to a close, or nothing will get done.
Lack of motivation
Sometimes I procrastinate because I am not motivated to work on something. I find that it helps to recognize these situations in the moment, and then consider whether something needs to change. For example, I’ll ask myself, “Is this a low-priority item that can be deferred or skipped?” or, “Is this something I agreed to out of guilt but didn’t really want to do?” I find that asking myself these questions helps me decide whether it’s worth the effort in moving forward.
Once I identified what situations bring out my discipline and focus — deadlines — and what situations bring out my procrastination — fear, not seeing the big picture, marinating ideas, and lack of motivation — I understood how to beat my procrastination.
To get the podcast launched, I first decided I had to create a deadline for myself. I decided on November. November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month, and since my podcast is for widowed parents, launching in November was too good of an opportunity to miss.
Then, I dug deep on the flip-side question, and realized that I was happily marinating ideas without producing anything, I was scared to put myself out in the world in such a public way, and I wasn’t seeing the big picture of how this podcast would provide value to listeners.
I decided to focus on defining the big picture, kicking out the fear, and going full-speed ahead. And, I’m happy to say I did launch the Widowed Parent Podcast in November 2018, during Children’s Grief Awareness Month. The podcast just celebrated its one-year anniversary, and hit the 10,000 downloads mark in the first year, with just four days to spare.
I reached out to Adam Grant to thank him for his original tweet, telling him how it caused me to reflect and make changes to my mindset. He graciously replied, and thanked me for sharing what I’d learned. I circled back with him recently to let him know that now, after a full year of implementing this model day-in-and-day-out, I am declaring a personal victory on this one.
If procrastination is holding you back, it’s worth finding a way to break this thought pattern. Consider what situations bring out your discipline and focus, and what situations bring out your procrastination, and create a model that works for you. Then tweet at Adam Grant, and thank him for helping you get unstuck, too.
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