Doing the First Thing – Tips to overcoming procrastination

Separate Decisions from Actions

David over at Raptitude talked about separating decisions from actions. I loved this. He has written very insightful pieces about procrastination. Any course of action is harder if you allow yourself to second guess it while also trying to do it. David uses the example of pushups. He wanted to do pushups every morning. That is a very simple decision without a lot of room for self-doubt or questioning. When willpower is at its weakest, those internal lazy voices start saying “are pushups really the right thing? Maybe sit-ups or a run would be better.” If you allow those questions, you will fail to do the job of pushups every morning. Separating the decision-making from the action can help accomplish the goal.

I fall into the decision-making procrastination trap a lot during the day. There are so many things to do and so many priorities to balance. I have writing projects, experimental projects, planning tasks, and grants all on my docket. I can spend 4 hours a day on the question of “What is to be done first?” I fell into this as a student, too. I would have five classes and spend more time thinking about which to work on than on actual work on any of them.

Spending more time deciding than doing is not effective. The best thing is to keep a running list and just do the top item. This is straight from Getting Things Done by David Allen. It is most critical that every task I need to accomplish be in the list rather than in my mind. If I have to think over the list and decide, it is much too easy to fall into the “what first?” trap. I dedicate some time before going home to prioritizing my to-do list on Remember the Milk. Then I do the top thing immediately upon starting the next work day. If I am tempted to think about prioritizing, I start up an audiobook or album while I work. That distracts the “decision making” part of my brain so my “doing” part can get started.

Motivation with anticipatory rewards

My decision-making muscles are weakest in the morning, so it is easier to overcome the “is this optimal?” self-questioning trap. It still takes a little motivation to get out of bed, though. David uses an app to motivate himself. It tracks his number of pushups over time to keep him accountable.

Spend a dollar and maybe win... a dollar. Somehow it still feels motivational.

I have been trying a different trick: I bought some scratch-cards from the Texas lotto and I get to scratch one if I get up on time and work out. I am not very motivated by the small chance of winning a few bucks, but it does trigger a certain anticipation of immediate reward that helps get me over the side of the bed. Plus, I know that those cards are going to expire eventually. If I sleep in, I have a chance (however small) of losing a few hundred bucks. It seems like a waste of money, but spending $1 on getting up feels like a pretty good value for a good start to the day.

Distract yourself from planning

Another trick that I use during the day to avoid procrastination due to over-planning is to distract myself a little. I want to read and plan and think instead of doing. I put on a non-fiction audiobook to distract that part of my brain while I get started on the task at-hand. There are lots of free audiobooks, and podcasts. I sit aside a little money for audiobooks from Audible. While it galls my frugal self to pay for entertainment, Audible’s service is great and I love supporting the writers. Plus, I just discovered that I can return Audible audiobooks if I dislike them (I started a novel and despised every character in it). I returned a book with ease and I can use that credit to get something better.

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