Dr Alex Young, CEO of Virti
Are you a dreamer with big goals, but also a serial procrastinator? Do you never quite manage to kick off the pursuit of your pent-up ambitions?
Well, you’re certainly not the only one. Studies suggest that procrastination chronically affects 15%–20% of adults, and that approximately 25% of adults consider procrastination to be a defining personality trait for them.
Yes, it’s never been easier to access the necessary tools, resources and information, but it’s also true that humans have never had to contend with so many distractions to getting started on a project. And it might be a cliche, but there’s certainly more than a grain of truth in that familiar saying ‘the first step is the hardest’.
If you’re serious about making a difference and achieving your goals, you haven’t got a moment to lose. Read on to find my 5 tried-and-tested top tips for getting started on absolutely anything.
Reframe your fear
Fear, a feeling caused by the perceived threat of danger, pain or harm, is an emotion that humans are biologically programmed to avoid. Our physiological feedback loops, such as the fight or flight response to danger, and our natural brain wiring mean that if we believe something is going to cause us pain or discomfort we immediately try to avoid it through internal reasoning (“I shouldn’t do this because…”) or inertia (doing nothing).
There are a number of reasons why the thought of getting started on something might cause you fear. It might be a difficult, overwhelming or painful process, you might fear failure, or falling short of perfection.
Luckily, the same complex physiological mechanisms that are holding you back, could, with a little mental reframing, actually help you to take the plunge.
As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art, “At some point, the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it.” Essentially, to overcome fear of doing something, you need to make yourself scared of not doing it.
Think about what you might miss out on if you don’t pursue your goal – from success, fulfillment and experience to simply answering that nagging ‘what if?’ at the back of your mind. By shifting your perspective, you can also shift your fear response to work in your favour.
Most importantly, the next time you procrastinate, try to recognise that this is happening and then write down the internal beliefs that might be driving your fear. Once you’ve identified them, you can evaluate whether the reaction is proportionate to the circumstances, or whether you need to mentally override your instincts.
Define your ‘macro’ mission
I believe that unless you are very certain of what your personal mission is, you’ll struggle to make a tangible impact. For scaling businesses, a strong company culture aligned to a mission statement can be the difference between success and failure. So, before you get started on anything, you need to define your personal ‘macro’ mission.
This is because having a defined purpose and striving for something bigger than yourself helps to frame and align everything you do. It serves to focus you and, in moments when you feel like procrastinating or not taking action, to remind you of the reason to move outside of your comfort zone.
It’s important to mention that a macro mission is distinct from your micro goals Micro goals are smaller targets you need to hit in order to propel you towards the achievement of your macro mission.
In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek suggests that people can identify their core values by examining their past actions, and reflecting on how and why they did what they did. My advice on identifying your own mission is to be as introspective and personal as possible. Really think about what makes you tick and where you find the most enjoyment. Then you can be as bold as possible in your mission.
Don’t wait for motivation
People often tell me that they can’t get started on a project or a personal goal because they can’t summon up the motivation.
But motivation, the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior, is not the solution to procrastination. In fact, it is a result of a consistent commitment. You build motivation through action, not the other way around.
But how to kick start the process? Well, immersing yourself in a group of like-minded action-takers will certainly encourage and hold you accountable. Seeing an example of someone making a change or performing an action might give you the external encouragement to do the same, but this is very much an external or passive motivator.
Motivation really becomes powerful when you first take a small step and see and internalise the results of your own actions at a micro level. For example, when you go to the gym for the first time, you might get a feeling of achievement triggered by dopamine release. Now this behaviour becomes something that you know leads to positive consequences, and you feel motivated to return and obtain the same benefit. This well-researched psychological mechanism (trigger followed by a reward and leading to a long-term habit) is outlined in books such as Hooked by Nir Eyal.
Just be kind (to yourself)
Now you know that motivation really comes after achieving a small personal goal, you can hack that knowledge by setting yourself an easy and quick micro goal that is achievable.
Not only does this breakdown your work into smaller bite-size chunks, but it helps you to focus on the journey over the outcome and it supercharges your motivation levels. Make your first steps as small as possible for maximum benefit; to paraphrase Neil Armstrong “one small step for you, one giant leap for your macro mission”.
In sports psychology performance coaches encourage athletes to focus on process over outcome and on what they can control. So, be kind to yourself and ensure you celebrate small, achievable goals. Equally if you miss a goal don’t dwell on it, acknowledge this is part of the process and aim to hit your goal next time. Remember, ideally you should be having fun rather than treating the pursuit of your mission as a chore.
Try writing down something you consider an ‘easy win’ in the context of your mission and goals. This could be as simple as telling one new person about your business idea, or setting up a dedicated email account. If you are struggling, assign a time of 5-minutes to whatever it is you are doing – read a book for 5 minutes, jog for 5 minutes, meditate for 5 minutes, record a 5-minute YouTube vlog – and then build from there after celebrating your success.
Harness the ‘power of now’
My last piece of advice is simple: Just. Do. It.
Sometimes it’s truly best if you don’t give yourself time to think; just live in the moment and momentarily silence any inner voice or dialogue.
Books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now expound the virtues of clearing your mind and focusing on what your body is doing and what’s going on in the moment. This is also a concept used widely by performance coaches and mindfulness practitioners.
This is not the same as being reckless or impulsive. It’s about being confident in your own choices and judgement and not allowing those niggling doubts or external distractions to get in the way.
My personal tip here is to place a greater weight on the benefit of taking action than on the outcome itself. Ask yourself “did I take action?” (regardless of whether the result was good or bad) and celebrate this part of the process. This will provide the positive reinforcement you need to repeat the action next time.
As Newton outlined in his First Law of Motion, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. That means that once you’ve got started, the effort you need to input to keep your progress going will diminish as your project gathers momentum. So let that knowledge be your final inspiration to, with the help of the 5 above tips, kick-start that project or task that you’ve been putting off!