I’ve just wok up and completed all tasks except writing. And I just can’t do it. All the procrastination mechanisms in my head kick into high gear. I’m checking email, Facebook, and Reddit incessantly.
This is understandable - writing for me is tied up with all sorts of emotions and fears, and it’s a task with many vague parts. This all reminds me of an article (now a book!) philosophy professor John Perry wrote long ago on procrastination. Procrastinators, to him, are rarely lazy. Rather, they have problems actually doing the task at the top of their list. His initial technique from the original article (I’m still reading his book) is incredibly unsatisfying: fool yourself into thinking that the top of the list is on the bottom. This allegedly works because procrastinators also have high self delusion skills. He then advocates a Lazy Susan approach - rotating tasks to satisfy that need for distraction.
This strategy doesn’t work for me. The task at hand is like touching a hot plate – it’s filled with an initial fear of pain and nothing is going to delude me out of knowing that the primary task is sitting there like a lump of hot lead.
Observing myself, I’ve come to some conclusions. I get tense. It’s an almost unconscious avoidance. It definitely has to do with the magnitude of the task, and it accumulates with tasks further on down the line that I’m not even working on at the moment, making what's directly in front of me feel like an unliftable weight.
With that in mind here are some strategies I’ve come up with:
1) A smooth NLP-like transition that robs you of agency. The ideal is the oft-repeated intro line to most of the yoga classes I took back in 2005.
“As you bring your attention to your breath it will naturally lengthen and smooth out.”
NLP is a weird field, but one aspect I like about it is that it can function like an irrigation ditch for the pond of the mind. If I ask you to notice the tingling sensation at the back of your neck, it really doesn’t matter if there is such a sensation there or not; you’ve probably already brought your attention to your neck.
2) Relaxation. The rising sensation of panic followed immediately by tension and avoidance encompasses the emotional range of failing to start a task. In the face of relaxation tension cannot exist. So, perhaps a relaxation routine can help the starting of practice. This could be something as simple as starting my music playlist.
It’s exactly like a TinyHabit, but for an one instance of a practice session.
4) Drop Sets. Drop sets in bodybuilding is a technique of continuing an exercise at a lower weight after muscle failure at a higher weight. I think that if I can’t immediately start a session, there’s nothing going to happen except more dithering. I recently worked through dithering this week by just dropping 30 minute sets to 20 minute. I managed to actually do more work than I usually do despite an immense upwelling of procrastination at the beginning of the session.
5) The 3 second or 5 second rule, which I’ve talked about before. This works hand-in-hand with the previous point and the next one.
6) Jumping into the process with a timer. This has naturally been the best method for other tasks like meditation. If I don’t just start my timer, I just start dithering, but if I start it I’m pulled along almost despite myself. The 3 or 5 second rule helps out with this as well, preventing paralysis by analysis. This works hand-in-hand with:
7) Proper micro formation of a habit. Implementation intention shouldn't just be
when [I take a shower] then [I meditate]
Rather, it is more efficient (and prevents procrastination) if it’s:
when [I put on my clothes after stepping out of the shower] then [I start my meditation clock and sit down]
6) Ritual. I’ve theorized before that a ritual can help ease the beginning of an action, like overcoming inertia in physics. Athletes seem to use it to great affect, and it functions as a kinesthetic form of anchoring.
7) Smaller transitions in advancement. Jumping from 5 minutes on a rower to 1 hour just doesn’t work. 5 minutes acts because it’s a small change - it’s easier to just do it. Jumping from that to an hour makes it so that there’s a huge wall in your mind. But at the same time you’ve developed a habit of doing that action. And there’s the real problem. On one hand you have to do the task because your habit is solid. On the other hand you cannot accomplish the daily minimum. You’re stuck, and because you’re stuck you can’t skip the task and go on to the next task.
8) Avoiding lags. The one thing I notice is that once I’m working, if there’s a lag, the same painful procrastinatory host of sensations comes up. It’s talked a lot in the discussion of flow states, the conditions of which are incredibly informative when it comes to forming a practice session.
9) Shuffling tasks. The Lazy Susan approach could potentially work to prevent lags. A long time ago when I started shuffling reading multiple books in a session I found I actually read more. I never just have one writing/work task to do - I have a bunch, so it might work to have a list to shuffle through if I ever hit a lag.
10) Artificial Starts.Holly Lisle advocates just writing a nonsense throwaway sentence to get started, which could be incorporated into a ritual.
11) An incredibly clear protocol. In writing I’m now very good at spitting out first drafts. In editing, I get bogged down, and this creates lag, which then creates procrastination and no forward momentum. I’ve discussed about a possible protocol for rewrites courtesy of James Patterson’s Master Class.
12) Block distractors like facebook, reddit, or gmail. I’m hesitant to use such surface level fixes because I don’t believe that they actually address the deeper problems. But it could be something to try.