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Progress is the Only Protection

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Last week’s post on the roots of procrastination has evidently motivated a whole slew of procrastinators to focus at least long enough to comment or email me to say that they feel like the post was describing their own lives.

I knew a lot of people would identify with it, but I didn’t realize quite how pervasive procrastination is in people. I thought I was particularly neurotic in this regard and it brings me a selfish sort of comfort to know that many of you are suffering in the same boat. Misery loves company — welcome aboard.

As promised, today I’m going to outline my plan for taking on the procrastination monster, with my 11th Raptitude experiment. I have a lot to say about this topic, so if you’re about to fret over how long it is in this high-speed age of 600-word blog posts, then take a break in the middle and get back to it later. Have a nap if you need to. I’m confident that in the long run reading it will give you an outstanding ROI for your time.

Ok, here goes. First things first:

Pitfalls to be aware of

As with all my experiments, the broader purpose is to learn more about how my mind and my habits operate in order to better know how to contend with them. In the two weeks since I decided it was time to tackle my procrastinatory tendencies, I’ve been studying the patterns and pitfalls in my behavior that continually lead me to procrastinate. Time will tell, but at least right now I have an idea of what I’m up against.

Here are what I suspect will be the greatest dangers:

Disorganization – Being disorganized leads to overwhelm and indecisiveness. So there are a few fundamental minimums for organization that will need to be met in order to lessen the threat of losing track of my commitments. Once you lose track of the finite list of responsibilities you’ve taken on, they appear to the mind as one big insurmountable entity. I don’t want to let it get to that point. The more organized I am, the better I can see the proverbial forest for the trees. Planning the next day is most important. If I do not have a plan I don’t know where to start, and if I don’t know where to start I don’t start. It’s that simple.

Perfectionism – If you read last week’s article, you know that an intolerance for errors and mistakes pretty much guarantees procrastination. No matter what rules or intentions I set for myself in this experiment, I cannot depend on being able to execute them perfectly. I must be able to botch one of my agreed duties now and then and not have the whole effort collapse. I must be forgiving, and carry a spirit of “No matter what happens I will not make a total loss out of this moment, this hour or this day.” Mistakes are fine. Writeoffs are not.

Defensive distractions – When I hit even the tiniest snag while I’m working, my hand automatically moves to click on my email, Facebook and Twitter icons without even thinking. Anything that’s mildly gratifying and entails no responsibility will do. It’s a reflexive act of self-defense against responsibility. This all happens almost on the level of muscle memory, so I must have the resolve to shut the browser without thought every time I notice myself doing this. This conscious interrupting of myself whenever I notice I’m off-track is a reflex I’m going to be practicing a lot.

Restarting – This is one of the procrastinator’s sneakiest strategies. When you notice you are procrastinating, you feel justified in letting it take over, because you can start again the next day, or the next Monday when you get another clean slate. I have been restarting on a daily or weekly basis my entire life. It doesn’t work. If I’ve fallen off the wagon, I must restart immediately. I must stop right there, look at my plan for the day, and decide what really makes sense to do. I can reflect at the end of the day, but I cannot ever convince myself that I should write off the rest of a day, or even a part of a day (such as deciding I will stop trying to get anything done between now and dinnertime, since it’s only an hour and a half away anyway.) The clean slate is always now.

Indecisiveness – When it is not clear what to do, I only feel okay doing nothing. This is a good reason to stay organized, but I am hesitant to let the whole thing hinge on just staying organized. I must know how I’m going to decide what to do when I don’t have all my concerns written in a tidy list. What’s most important is to pick something that has to be done and get on it, without too much thought. I always worry that I’ll pick the wrong task somehow, so I do none of them. I will practice picking a task with a casual abandon. If I survived twenty years of doing nothing instead, then clearly I can survive getting the “wrong” thing done instead of the optimum thing. The time will go by anyway.

“Over-starting” – I don’t know what else to call it, but I know this phenomenon is one of the major justifications I use for procrastination. When a task seems like it will take a fair amount of time (hours or days) I tend to avoid it unless I can cleanly block off two or three hours to begin it. I reason that if I were only to commit half an hour to a task or project, that I’d have to leave it off in some hopelessly messy un-done state and I’d never be able to cleanly resume doing it. Yet from experience I know that a thirty-minute commitment is more than enough time to really advance a project to a new position where it looks smaller and less intimidating. I know that I have gotten unbelievable amounts done in thirty minutes.

Rage – As I wrote this on Saturday I was in a state of rage. I had blown my most open day (Saturday) again. It was closing in on 5pm and I had already committed my evening and my Sunday to something. To be ready to go Monday (today) I had to do two things: write this post, and review all of my commitments and get them written down. But I’d left so little time that I thought I might not be able to pull it off. The remorse over blowing my Saturday sent me into a fury. Everything set me off. I was looking for things to set me off.

It was unbelievable how angry I got. I was at the point of hitting inanimate objects. I strangled a plastic water bottle, which was almost full, nearly ruining my laptop. It’s embarrassing to admit that I still reach that point sometimes, but I do. My thought process became completely hijacked by disjointed parts of my victim story, about how I’m constantly being thwarted by the job that “takes” five of my seven days, or the social conventions that take parts of the other two.

Rage is a brick wall to progress. It’s the point where all bets are off. There is no reasoning with myself here — by then I’m lost in my story of injustice against me and there is no accountability anymore. The story is always, “Things have been made difficult for me and I have no choices here.”

As awful as it was, it is interesting to note just how violently resistant I become when I get close to confronting this procrastination problem. I’m starting to see that what this experiment amounts to is becoming fully responsible for myself for the first time ever, and part of me seriously does not want that to happen.

If procrastination is a network of addictive behaviors — and I think it is — then exploding with the victim story is one of the more powerful ones, and victimhood is what rage is all about. I must recognize the danger of rage and know its triggers because there is no way to reason out of it once it’s happening.

The No-Procrastination Philosophy

I need to keep my experiments simple in essence or I won’t keep them up. If I invent some convoluted system to govern my behavior, it will amount to making too many adjustments at once. Further down in the post, I’ll define my behavioral commitments in a few simple rules.

But it’s just as important to be constantly reminding myself of the spirit of what I’m doing here. If I’m trying to operate only on a commitment to completing certain actions, they’ll probably come to feel like obligations to me — things I “have to” do, which only lends itself to resistance and procrastination.

So I’ve got a few mottoes and mantras to keep my intentions sharp here:

Now is the best time. Sooner is many times better than later, and now is many times better than soon. Not somewhat better, but vastly better — analogous to pulling out a weed now as opposed to uprooting a tree later.

My identity and worth are not related to outcomes. Identity is forged from intentions, not outcomes. If my intention is to avoid, that will become my identity. If my intention is to progress, that will become my identity. I will act and let the outcomes settle, including people’s impressions of me, and work with the results indiscriminate of what I might prefer instead.

Work means undivided attention. I often convince myself that I can listen to a podcast or some other audio while I work, even though it’s clear that it only detracts from my effort, usually spoiling it completely. If I want to recreate while I work, it’s recreation, not work.

Task-switching is a red-flag behavior. All procrastination is avoidance. This is obvious, so in order to nip it in the bud I must ask myself a question whenever I switch tasks: “Am I doing this to avoid something?” I want to condition a general distrust of task-switching.

Progress is the only protection. Procrastination is nothing but an attempt to protect oneself from bad feelings. The feeling of failure, of rejection, of disappointment in yourself, the feeling that you are never going to be who you insist you should be, the feeling of awkwardness you experience when you’re not sure what to say, the feeling of derision from others when you step on toes or make assumptions, the feeling of being judged as a hack or a wannabe, the feeling of being reduced to an archetype or a dime-a-dozen personality — procrastination is only ever an impulsive effort to protect oneself from these unpleasant feelings, which we all know will happen anyway. So there is no real protection, no real security. From here on in I will resolve to prefer progress over protection. Growth over security. Ultimately, progress provides the best security anyway. Prizes over protection.

I’m only ever afraid of a feeling, never a task. The tasks on my to-do list aren’t actually what’s scary. Even the biggest project will come down to a finite number of very simple, doable steps. What I’m afraid of is always some unpleasant emotional experience that I suspect might be a little part of it. I have experienced many thousands of instances of these types of emotions in my life, and while I will never like them, evidently not one of those instances killed me. Do the task, be willing to eat a bad feeling now and then if they come along, but don’t start anticipating them or thinking you can live free of them.

There is no such thing as “have to.” No matter how victimized I feel, I don’t have to do anything. Whatever I do, it is all voluntary. I don’t have to go to work, but I choose to because it’s a smarter choice than not going. I cannot escape the reality that everything that happens to me requires a response, and if I let avoidance be that response, then I will be receiving whatever fruit that response bears, which is consistently, predictably poor. This truth is the one thing I can’t avoid. There are always, always superior ways to respond than to avoid deciding. If I’m going to do nothing, it will be a conscious decision to do nothing.

The Hard Rules

All of my experiments must take the form of a clear commitment to certain behaviors, for a certain period of time.

I’ve decided that it would definitely pay off to have a “field test week” in which I try out my initial plan to identify what’s working and what’s not. Next weekend I’ll assess whether these rules are good enough, or require some changes. The idea here is to avoid striving for airtight system, but to stay playful and forgiving while I see what really is serving me. Following field test week I’ll stick to my rules for a 30-day period, after which I will decide what to do with the rest of my life.

Field test week starts today, May 9, 2011, and the thirty day period begins a week today, May 16, 2011. The last day is June 14. I’ll post my final report a few days later.

At the outset I have three behavioral commitments.

#1 – Daily planning and reflection.

At 9:10 each day, I’ll stop what I’m doing, and go through a little checklist:

1) Put everything away. That means everything in its place. If it does not have a place, put it in the “Stuff without places” box. This should take less than ten minutes. Waking up to an orderly household has a profound effect on my clarity of mind that sets the tone for my whole day.

2) Ten minutes journaling about today’s progress. Set a timer. I’ll Just get down the gyst of what worked and didn’t work today. Ten minutes maximum here. No need to get fancy.

3) Review Projects List and plan next day. Take out a sheet of paper and write up a clear to-do list for next day. Highlight one mission-critical item. Put the binder open to the projects page on the dining room table. That is its home.

4) Sit and watch the breath for ten minutes. Forgive myself and just sit for a few minutes. Five is better than none. I know this is an extraordinarily worthwhile use of my time. Let the day go, and be grateful for where I am. Go to bed forgiving of myself and everyone else. Emerson’s take on this one: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”

This checklist is crucial because it provides a backstop for everything I do throughout the day no matter how it went. If unresolved issues and ambiguous areas never get addressed, my resolve will go stale pretty quickly and my habits will take over.

There are times I won’t be home at 9:10. In those cases I will do it before I leave, and if this is not possible, there is a failsafe: If at any time I realize I have missed one of these reviews, I will do it right then, which means planning the remainder of the day, journaling and sitting. It never takes long and brings my course of action into clear focus again.

#2 – The Weekly Review

I’ve been doing weekly reviews on Sundays, on and off, for a couple years now. Basically, I make a complete list of everything I intend to act on this week, which includes everything from buying new jeans, to calling so-and-so about that thing, to posting a new Raptitude experiment. This is adapted from David Allen’s famous Getting Things Done (GTD) system, which I’ve been unsuccessfully implementing for years now — the planning part goes brilliantly for me, but my unwillingness to ultimately do any of it is why it hasn’t worked. No problem listing, organizing, reviewing — just doing. For me it should be called “Getting Things.”

#3 – The “Ok, What Am I Doing Right Now?” rule

I will make a commitment to always knowing what I’ve decided to do. Whenever I notice I am doing something aimlessly, (like reading a flyer or poking around on the internet) I will stop and stand up and decide what I am going to do right now. There’s nothing wrong with reading flyers or poking around on the net, but it must be a conscious decision — I will not live impulse to impulse. This means I will know when I’m going to do something else. The idea here is to get into the habit of deciding how I spend my time and taking responsibility for that. All breaks must be a conscious decision to take a break, and I must decide how long it will be and what comes after the break.

Put more simply: Know what you’re doing right now, and decide when you’ll be done doing it.

I will post my progress in the progress log after the first day, where you’ll be able to cheer for me or heckle me if you want. Better yet, join me.


Photo by tropical pete

Tobi May 9, 2011 at 2:16 am

First to leave a comment!!!!!!!

Anyway, I have been doing experiments like yours on my blog. The only thing, they never get done! I am one of those people who could have written that last post… and I am thinking about just erasing those and putting up this exact one and doing what you suggested at the end, which is joining. I would love to join you… this mental monster is ruining my life and I’ll be damned if I let it any longer. This has happened so many times… the ‘final straw’ the ‘it’s this moment’ type thing where I decide I’m going to change! Usually triggered by some new dream or inspiring thing I read or watched. So this moment is nothing new, I’ve had it 1000 times. And I’ve said ‘hopefully this time will be different’ 1000 times. But, now that I’m more aware of my self destructive behavior, I don’t see why I shouldn’t give it one more shot.

Thank you David for not only posting this but existing! If it weren’t for your existence a million others wouldn’t be as good as they are or will become.

mara May 9, 2011 at 5:44 am

thanks god i got over the perfectionism barrier, it was one of my main barriers in arts and crafts, now whatever comes to my mind i try it almost immediately, even if its not as imagined at least i learn what works what not, new techniques etc… another barrier of mine was the time, some projects don’t take hours but days, i was breaking the project into parts which again required hours as a result procrastination rooted for months… i applied a great trick on this issue, i just start the task from any point i felt like it without expecting much progress, 20′ today, 1hr tomorrow… progress wasn’t visible but i managed to finish as estimated and it looks great :))), something that looked difficult is now accomplished and several techniques and lessons are learned. it was more like painting meditation, rather just thinking “i have to finish” this or that, i was concentrating more on the movements of the hand, the shapes, colours, i even started enjoying the whole process and procrastinating other stuff for it

Susan A. May 9, 2011 at 7:44 am

“I’m only ever afraid of a feeling, never a task.” — This really rings true!

Just discovered your blog and am looking forward to reading through it.

Shanna Mann May 9, 2011 at 9:02 am

Yes! I was going to point that out. And also, your cri de coeur: “I will not live impulse to impulse”.

I have often noticed that tendency to task switch whenever I begin to feel frustrated– often before I even become conscious of it.

Shanna Mann May 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

The test week is a very, very, good idea. Squash that nasty perfectionism immediately.

I wonder why you found it so much easier to minimize, and create decisions to *only* have things which have homes in your house, than you do to GTD? Minimizing is a substantial decision-making process, and you evidently didn’t encounter too many difficulties there. Is the crux of it dealing with people and their perceptions of your worth, whereas in your home you have no one you feel accountable to?

David May 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm

That’s a good question. When you get rid of stuff, it’s gone, and the clarity of being rid of something pays off immediately. With GTD I was too addicted to letting myself off the hook, which meant I couldn’t really accomplish anything that I expected to have unpleasant parts, unless there was a looming consequence of NOT doing it that appeared more unpleasant.

Part of it is that I must deal with other people, like you say, and probably most of my avoidance stems from that.

Nams May 11, 2011 at 2:27 am

Is that why you also don’t have “Get married or find a loving partner to share my life and energy with” in your bucket list? (I have noticed you have “become a parent” in there). Curious why you have picked only one and perhaps both.

I have been reading your blog every night, and every word of what you write and what you have written resonates with me, with so much power and force, that it has accomplished what I had given up on a long time ago and which until now I had perceived to be impossible – believing I am not alone in the way I think and feel. (Its been a long and frustrating journey for me, and I have mostly been alone and lonely. Only since recently am I beginning to understand the difference between the two.)

But I am also fully and sadly aware of how difficult it is to find true and inspiring love, and how fortunate one is to be able to share it back, in this life. I have searched your posts for inspiration and anectodes – I have found none. How come David? Is “becoming better at being human” easy only when one is alone? I truly embrace every thought you think and share with us, but when will you write about “love with ANOTHER human, who is also trying to be better at being human”.

Thank you David for showing up in my environment and also a big thank you to the internet for allowing it :)


David Bowlby May 9, 2011 at 9:35 am

Defensive distractions are definitely my weakness. To help me with it, I created a separate host file on my computer that sends them to localhost. I have a script that runs during work hours to swap them out and then sets it back after work hours. I find that it helps with the time wasters, like Facebook.

There is something unnerving about the instinctive navigation to those sites when I’m avoiding the task at hand.

Good luck!

Monica May 9, 2011 at 9:51 am

Thank you for this intelligent thoughtful article. Yes, I like your pointers and I wish I had something more interesting to say, but if I wait for that I wouldn’t comment at all (hehe) so here ya go, I commented.

David May 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Good job! :) Gold star for you.

sara May 9, 2011 at 11:52 am

I can completely relate to this article and especially like rule #3. In addition to what you wrote, I find I have resistance to new ideas, new thinking, and in general doing new things outside of my comfort zone. I think its because I can’t “auto pilot” it and be off in la-la land while doing it, but really have to focus. It is very hard for me to want to learn a radically new idea unless it is something that builds atop of something in my comfort zone (not sure if that makes sense). Hope you get at least some of what I am trying to say… good luck with your experiment, and I shall be trying my own version along with you :)

David May 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I’m starting to see that my downfall has been that I insisted everything be comfortable, and that’s just not possible. Today went very well, and it took just a minor push into the uncomfortable to be much more productive than usual. And the best part is that the high of achievement is a stronger pull than the need to be completely comfortable, so it doesn’t feel like a constant effort.

Nate May 10, 2011 at 10:41 am

Maybe this should be one of your bullet points above. The habit to do what is uncomfortable now in order to maximize comfort when it’s time to play.

Great article. I’m in.

I’ll start by knocking the dust off my focusing methods since these concise points have motivated me to give it another try.

“Time’s up chumps, let’s do this!” -Leroy Jenkins

George May 13, 2011 at 5:37 am

So true – if you can just accept that some things are uncomfortable and get over that initial bump, then things quickly seem clearer and flow; the momentum (and enjoyment) comes by itself.

But it’s staying with and getting past that initial discomfort that’s difficult – more so in some areas where it can be more of an all-consuming panic than just ‘discomfort’, which can be pretty difficult to just push past; it feels life-threatening and you just freeze up.

I was thinking about this earlier today and I remembered an article I read when looking into vision improvement (with the Bates Method, etc) which might be worth a look:


Basically, it comes down to literally adopting a different ‘location’ for your awareness, one which provides some distance and perspective in a stressful situation where your normal tendency might be to focus and identify tightly with that situation in such a way as the discomfort becomes your whole world. (Specifically, the location is in that sensed ’empty space / void’ some distance one perceives behind the eyes / behind the visual scene before you.)

In the past, I have definitely noticed an ‘opening out’ in my sense of the world about me once I’ve finally got going on a big project – usually once I’m exhausted by the stress and have to let go a bit – at which point everything got much easier. Using this approach seems to help get to that point at an earlier stage, and make the initial discomfort easier to handle.

Nevill Wilder May 9, 2011 at 11:55 am

Count me in, minus the weekly review, which I have shifted to a bi-weekly status to fit my patterns. Here comes one hell of a month facing some deep demons.

David May 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm

*high five*

Cindy May 9, 2011 at 11:59 am

I swear you are the male version of me every time I read your blog. You just described my weekends. Everything you say is relevant to my life and you are helping me immeasurably with every post and experiment. Thank you!!

sara May 9, 2011 at 11:21 pm

lol I feel the same way

Vanessa May 9, 2011 at 1:39 pm

“Everything you say is relevant to my life and you are helping me immeasurably with every post and experiment. Thank you!!” I couldn’t agree more.
I’m in awe of your personal insight and the degree of which you are able to be so honest about it. Misery does love company and your blog is good company in the name of progressing out of the misery.

Annalis May 9, 2011 at 6:31 pm

The best tip i’ve gotten on accomplishing things is from Tim Ferriss. He said, however you spend your day, accomplish one important task before noon. What defines a task as important? Something you don’t want to do or that makes you uncomfortable that’s on your to-do list.

Other good tips are to collaborate and schedule meetings with people- you’re more likely to follow through when another person is depending on you.

Generally, day jobs (in a 9 to 5 sense) suck the life out of you and give you a safety net that makes it often impossible to get the motivation/ energy/ terror needed to pursue other endeavors.

If you really want to accomplish something, there’s no doubt it takes a certain obsession and level of momentum to wake-up every morning and do it.

Also- when it comes to writing, none of this applies. Recently I found that If you want to do everything but write a book, decide to write a book.

armin May 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Usually I like your posts and think that they are very insightful and provide a lot of value to your readers. But this one (and the previous one, which I’ve labeled as an exception), is just an outburst of accidental complexity.

That sounds hard and arrogant, but from my perspective, enduring procrastination is not a problem that can be solved by applying principles or reviews.

What you your blog post is all about is putting yourself under pressure, and I predict that it will last a few days and then won’t work, even if you take reading this comment into account (which should motivate you a lot to prove me wrong).

And there it is: motivation! That is your cure. Try to find out why your damn todo items or their outcomes don’t motivate you to put them into reality.

Find the thing that really defines you.

I furthermore assume that this blog post is a cry by your subconscious self telling you that it finally figured out what you need to do for the rest of your life.

Not many people get that call. Label that your “last project”, and put it into reality.

Deriving from the amount of work that you put into trying to cure your procrastination (which effectively is a paradox, because that work in isolation is brilliant), I guess you already know what you have to do but it scares you to hell.

If change is inevitable, logical reasoning (obviously your preferred tool to process the world), can be used to accept the simple fact that progressing now is almost always better than progressing later.

Put simply: If you are suffering from procrastination, consider that you’ve chosen the wrong agenda.

David May 9, 2011 at 8:20 pm

I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say here.

My blog post is not about putting myself under pressure, it’s about taking on a more sensible ethic to my work which will relieve the pressure that is inevitably created by anyone who avoids tasks until they create big, impending threats.

I have always been motivated. My problem, as is becoming clear to me, is that my motivation is primarily negative. I’ve been motivated away from any tasks that symbolize particular types of painful experiences for me, namely failure, self-derision and powerlessness, and I’ve let those aversion motives overshadow the positive incentives that drive habitual achievers.

“Motivation” as some standalone, magic tonic for achievement that some people have and some don’t, is a myth. It is not a uniform commodity. Everyone who is alive has motives of all sorts, and they result in actions of some kind or another.

I’m not at all interested in proving naysayers wrong, but that is a likely byproduct of this experiment.

Nate May 10, 2011 at 11:14 am

I totally agree with this. Motivation’s not the problem. One of my theories about people that live simple, organized lives and don’t have procrastination problems is that they are motivated simply by keeping things the way they are. Which, to some of us, is the antithesis of motivation. I’m not comfortable with what IS. I always want things to be better, to be challenged, to always keep learning. My greatest fear is that a day in my life 10 years from now will be exactly the same as today. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my life now; I do. But it would mean that I hadn’t grown and explored to find out how to make it all even greater. I get the feeling that many many people never want their life to be different so they are absolutely content with their routines and don’t constantly call them into question and ask big questions all the time like we do. They don’t procrastinate because their perspectives and priorities NEVER CHANGE and THEY ARE OK WITH THAT.

For those of us in constant learning, questioning, and growth mode, maintaining a baseline of structure that imitates the habits of simple people IS REALLY F’ING HARD! Motivation isn’t the problem. Too much of it might be…

I’m never sure if I envy or pity the guy that apparently gets complete fulfillment from keeping a pristine lawn and eating the same thing at the same time for lunch every day without ever wondering if that’s really what he wants to do with his life. Whatever ‘motivation’ that guy came up with to define his reason for existing that enabled him to never procrastinate on his set of recurring and simple responsibilities is very different than what I’d come up with.

But he’s not consumed by a constant feeling of disarray, so maybe he knows something that I’ll someday figure out and then start preening my lawn more consistently and be at peace with that. But I doubt it. Because I’m more motivated than that.

But there is a happy middle, I’m 73% sure of it. To be free to grow, yet maintain enough order and predictability within which that growth can consistently keep moving forward without having to constantly re-start every day(fabulous point btw).

Leigh Ann May 10, 2011 at 12:05 am

I’m in! This is THE obstacle in my life and I’ve been working on it for a long time now. I have made some significant progress, particularly recently, but it’s time to make a firm commitment to getting out of my own way once and for all. There are too many fantastic things to do to waste any more time being afraid. It *is* only the feeling I’m afraid of. Feelings are powerful, but there’s only so much they can do to you.

I will begin tomorrow (instead of waiting for Monday, like I first decided! Lol) and I will let you know from time to time how it’s going, if you would be interested.

Thank you for another insightful, relevant post that really inspires me to keep working hard at being the best I can be.

EcoCatLady May 10, 2011 at 4:02 am

This post made me want to cry. I spoke of my “boy wonder” older brother in a comment made on your last post. It always seemed to me that he never had problems with procrastination or anything like that… he just got things done… perfectly.

Well, one day he was away somewhere and I needed to borrow something from his room. I went over to the desk to look for whatever it was and was shocked by what I discovered. Every drawer I opened contained little sticky notes that said things like “If there’s something to do, don’t whine about it, just do it” and other similar self-berating statements. It turned out that boy wonder wasn’t any different than the rest of us, he’d just managed to subjugate his emotions much more effectively than your average bear.

Fast forward 30 some odd years… My brother, the boy wonder physicist, is now a menial computer programmer lost somewhere in a huge defense contractor. He never made any great scientific discoveries, he just “got things done.” He’s never had a relationship, or sex… hell, he’s never even had a date! I don’t think he’s ever really even had a friend.

My brother is an extreme case, I’ll admit that, and I don’t really think there’s much chance of most people putting themselves in emotional jail to the extent that he succeeded in doing.

But here’s the thing, you are absolutely correct when you say that it’s not the tasks that you’re avoiding, it’s the feelings. But the solution to that is not to simply power your way through it all. The important part of the equation is the feelings, for heaven’s sake.

I have never seen the “just do it” approach work in the long run. for my brother, my self or anybody else. Denying your feelings is what’s gotten you into this procrastinating mess in the first place, it’s certainly not going to get you out.

I think you really only need one rule. When you start to feel the “I don’t wanna” bug well up in your guts, stop and feel the feeling. I mean really feel it. Go lay down in a dark room and focus on nothing else but the feeling. If you feel rage, then rage. If you reel sorrow then cry. If you feel fear, then allow yourself to feel it completely. And don’t try to make the uncomfortable feelings go away….

My experience is that when I really explore my feelings in that way, I generally get to the root of the issue pretty quickly. And once I feel what it’s really about (which is generally some pent up feeling from my crazy childhood) it sort of looses its grip over me.

And once the task is no longer emotionally loaded, I generally can complete it easily and often even enjoy it.

David May 10, 2011 at 6:52 am

Thanks for sharing your brother’s story. He does sound like a somewhat extreme case, but it probably isn’t that uncommon. We can’t help but develop survival mechanisms as we go through life, and many of them take the forms of walls and disguises.

I feel like I should clarify that “Just do it” is not my philosophy here. I don’t intend to power through it all, emotions be damned. But I think it is beneficial to stay aggressive with regards to moving through these small daily commitments I make to myself, or I will stop and bog myself down with thinking.

Calling to make an appointment with a mechanic does not require emotional self-therapy, it just requires a bit of dialing and a bit of talking. I have been making far too big a deal of my thoughts and feelings about these little tasks, which always leads to delay for me, which leads to pain. 95% of these to-do’s are not a big deal and I have been making them into big deals.

I think you really only need one rule. When you start to feel the “I don’t wanna” bug well up in your guts, stop and feel the feeling.

This is essentially what I’m doing, but I also need to instill a practical routine for staying clear on what I have committed to doing for the day.

For example, my nightly check-in allows me to wake up without feeling aversion immediately. As valuable as it is to allow and examine negative feelings as they arise, it is certainly worthwhile to set up the practical side of life such that my days don’t generate a steady stream of these negative feelings that I must address.

Shanna Mann May 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm

You say you’ve tried GTD. How did the 2 minute rule work for you? I’m curious. I keep them all in a list in Remember The Milk and whenever I’m feeling useless I go and swat a few of them. The only problem is that, although I feel better about myself, it doesn’t address the higher-priority tasks that really weigh on me. Just wondering your thoughts?

David May 10, 2011 at 10:29 pm

The two minute rule works for me but I had to learn to keep it to a strict two minutes. Some tasks seem like they’ll take two minutes but can quickly become ten or fifteen.

I don’t make separate lists for small and large tasks. I have “organize entire house” on the same list as “Put umbrella in car”. For bigger projects I have a sheet with a sequence or plan, so that I always know what the next step is. So it’s all small stuff anyway. Ask me again in 35 days.

Karen May 10, 2011 at 4:21 am

Anything thats this hard to do just isnt meaningful enough to you. You dont really want to do these things. I predict a transformational experience happening to you round about now, its what youre crying out for. Have you considered you are not yet on your lifes

David May 10, 2011 at 6:41 am

I’ve received a few comments and emails along these lines, and I have to say I don’t agree that if something was right for me it would be easy.

What I’ve described above, even though it is long, probably represents a much easier way to live life than I’ve been living. I had an incredible day yesterday. For the first time (probably ever) I completed an entire list of intentions I had made the day before, and eased pressure on my life in so many places.

There is nothing on my “to-do” list that I don’t have a desire to do. It wouldn’t be there otherwise. But I have developed a habit of letting my aversions to the difficulty and uncertainty parts of those items decide what I will and won’t attempt. This has been sapping my quality of life and it’s time to address it.

Have you considered you are not yet on your lifes

If by that you mean “Have I ever felt like I am not doing with my life what I should be doing?” the answer is yes. But the whole thing is a path, even the wrong turns, reverses and lane changes. I am finding my way.

Otter May 10, 2011 at 7:35 am

I just found your post on procrastination and I instantly know it was about me too (My name is David also, by the way). This thing is just killing me. The only luck I have I think is that I’m too “big of a coward” to end my life. I want to do things so badly, but I can’t. I even go as far to not do it and fail in my tests in the university, feel regret afterwards and then forget it and feel nothing. It’s like a phobia (I know it, because I have a case of arachnophobia) I just completely froze, my mind not letting me to work and I tend to stand still until I get back into procrastinating. And It expends on my whole life, not just my studies. My hobbies for example, I can’t do my damn hobbies because if it (It’s mainly artistic stuff like drawing and writing) I have no idea how to motivate myself and never did check what makes me get things done. I went to psychologists with no luck. I tried Silva’s method, meditation, self-help books, nothing helped (procrastination also “helps” me avoid solving the problem, meditating usually)
Worst of all is the environment. I’m in constant discrimination. Everybody thinks I’m lazy, and no matter how hard I try explaining it’s not the case it always falls back to “David is lazy” in time. Nobody supports or comforts me in a way that makes me do progress. I have no friends, my classmates are idiots who only do underneath each other then try to work together. Doesn’t help that I’m a bit anti-social too as in feel uncomfortable around (and speaking with) people, especially strangers and the ones I don’t know if they care or not.
I had a similar case when I grown up, I was expected to do well and everyone was unhappy if I didn’t do as expected. But now that I know the problem for a few years now I just want to get rid of it. I just want to “kill” this thing and get on with my dreams. A thing that doesn’t make me “Just do it” because I can’t, for obvious reasons. That doesn’t require pointless time sheets, cheesy self-help and smart quotes from random people I don’t know.

I see that you started this thing and what a coincidence that it’s just starting right now (maybe a sign?) I going to follow it, just hope it helps. I really can’t stand myself. Like in a “I don’t hate everybody as much as I hate myself” way.

Crys May 10, 2011 at 8:11 am

I saw your post, it looked pretty long so I decided to skip it and go get a few things done. Gonna re-pot some plants this morning.
Thanks for the motivation.

Kerri May 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Thank you, David. Your writing in general but especially these articles on procrastination have been inspiring for me. I am especially grateful for this insight: “I am only ever afraid of a feeling, never a task.” It rang a gong and even helped me through some early-hours anxious waking this morning. Feelings, like thoughts, come and go. Understanding that feelings are the barrier, not the task itself, is both comforting and empowering.

Daniel M. Wood May 12, 2011 at 4:00 am

I would like to give you one piece of advice that has helped me and hundreds of people I have given this advice to when it comes to procrastinating.

Break big projects into small parts.
It is usually the big insurmountable problems that make us want to put it off. If you instead break it down into small actionable steps and just promise to do the next task.

Katie May 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm

My friend, a full-time writer, has this to say about getting stuff done:

Waiting for Inspiration: A Writer’s Morality Play In Half An Act

The players, Three Fairies:

Inspiration-a classical sparkly-winged tinker-bell type

Motivation–a rather weasely looking fellow in the mode of a low rent Puck

Discipline–a 500 pound gorilla in a tutu and obviously taped-on wings

The scene:

A gray stage, empty save for a gray desk with a laptop and two chairs.

Discipline: It’s nine, let’s get to work on this manuscript.

Motivation: (Nervously) Don’t you think we should wait for Inspiration? She was here at the beginning.

Discipline: Yeah, and she’ll be back at the end to take all the credit, just like always. Between now and then we won’t see hide nor hair of her.

Inspiration: (In the wings) Just to show him, I’m not going to come help with their stinky old manusc—Oooh, shiny. (Turns away, the sounds of bells and sprinkled fairy dust fade into the distance)

Discipline: Are you going to help me with this, or not?

Motivation: I don’t know. I really like Inspiration. She’s almost as good as deadlines for getting me moving.

Discipline: Speaking of dead lines, if you don’t get your ass in that chair and write some good lines, dead is exactly what you’ll be. (Cracks enormous knuckles and glares at Motivation menacingly)

Motivation: Let me see about that next scene opening….

Discipline: There we go.

The moral: Motivation rocks when it’s there for you, but Discipline is what makes deadlines. Forget Inspiration.
–Kelly McCullough

Jeff Gaver May 13, 2011 at 9:18 am


I read something from Ariely on a basic normalization, in that we put off the things we hate doing and over indulge ourselves in things we enjoy. This, in turn, gradually normalizes ourselves to pleasurable experiences to gradually degraded baseline normal. The interruption and restart of the unenjoyable experiences, keeps the intensity level of displeasure at the same higher level. Procrastination plays a large role in this in that if we reversed our habit… the disdain of unenjoyable experience would degrade to a baseline normal and as Huxley put it…

“Habit converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities.”


Remelda May 14, 2011 at 8:17 am

I am enjoying your blog very much and have taken to heart many of the things you write about. Up to today I was identifying with your ruminations about procrastination. Today I think you are over thinking it. The planning aspect of the experiment and the experiment itself seem like a big victory for you.
Quite honestly, owing to your initial post on the reasons for your procrastination, I let go of my perfectionism last week. I let a more spontaneous and less analytical mindset take hold of me. I announced that I was letting go of control of my family, the tasks in front of us, the future. I embraced failure. I recommended your web site to some friends and told them I loved it and then said, “feel free to hate it!” I decided to stop trying to bend people and events and fate to my will. Consequently or coincidentally, I have become remarkably productive during the last week. And I haven’t beat myself up when a deadline has passed.
With all that being said, and in keeping with my letting go of control and trying to make you see that I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT AND THIS REALLY WORKS FOR ME, maybe your detailed analysis and planning will be the ticket for you and some of your readers. I hope so and thanks for your spot on thinking and amazing writing.

David May 17, 2011 at 6:59 am

I know the post is long, but my thought process is rather simple here: know what I’m doing right now and when I’m going to do something else.

Justin | Mazzastick May 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm

I can relate to your story about rage and strangling the water bottle. Whenever I get to the breaking point like this I realize that it is time to re-start and prioritize myself.

Danielle May 16, 2011 at 7:18 am

All I have to say is thank you. Progress over protection is my new mantra!!!

Greys Anatomy Episode Guide May 17, 2011 at 7:04 am

perfectionism is a goal that almost all of was wants, but the dare to realized the absence of it is better than it really is, makes life worth while, is just a matte r of getting used to it and doing our best in everything we do, that’s the real score

Steven W May 18, 2011 at 1:17 am

“Things have been made difficult for me and I have no choices here.”

A related version for me:
Things have been made difficult for me-
I could simply choose to take the actions that need to be done,
but then my parents might not ever realize how they really screwed up the job of raising me.
And they might even think they did everything right, and be happy about it.

I know that line of thinking doesn’t help me or anyone on the planet so I will figure out how to overcome soon.

Revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

Axeell May 18, 2011 at 8:41 am

I just realized, sad.. I procrastinated on reading this post :(

David May 19, 2011 at 6:43 am

But you did do it

George May 19, 2011 at 4:56 am

Was doing a bit of browsing and came across this:


The description of ‘being the observer’ pretty much nails it for me I think. Until very recently I’ve always struggled to describe or recreate that sense of ‘standing back’ that lets me get things done.

David May 19, 2011 at 6:36 am

Great article, thanks George

Susan May 20, 2011 at 10:42 am

#2 Weekly Review is hysterically funny (and I couldn’t be more grateful for a reason to laugh right now). When I’m done procrastinating, I might post a response to this whole article which triggered lots of interesting ideas and thoughts for me.

Andrew Johnson May 24, 2011 at 5:27 am

Perfectionism is probably my biggest downfall that stops me from taking the action that I should. I’m slowly learning to not let perfect get in the way of getting work done.

Also, I find that whenever indecision strikes me, if I just do one little thing (anything at all) ideas and action just flow easily.

Haley May 31, 2011 at 8:32 pm

So many useful and meaningful things that I can get from this post.Thanks for your sharing

rey June 21, 2011 at 11:20 pm

awesome. I love using this list to see what I have in check and what I have to continue to work on. Progress is your best friend!

Jon Bizri July 10, 2011 at 1:18 pm

You’ve really hit on all the important things here, and described them well. I’ve got this page as my home page right now, so I see it first thing when I launch the pandora’s box that is the web browser. To wit:


Great project you have here in general. I am particularly heartwarming to see that I’m not the only person who perceives veganism as part and parcel of living up to one’s ideals and optimizing one’s behaviour. And not being a shit – even if you don’t have to be around for the unpleasantness you have caused.

David July 17, 2011 at 8:51 am

Haha! That cartoon is right on the money

Anthony July 12, 2011 at 2:04 pm

The bit about Restarting is amazing. It resonates 100%. I have always thought it is just me. I restsrt my life several times a week, often several times a day. I’m constantly setting ‘Life starts now’ times in my calendar or sending myself emails etc. I’ve always thought this is completely bonkers behaviour and have never been able to find any reference to anything similar on the net (which I obviously search while I’m avoiding work). I always new it was procrastination but always suspected it might be a bit more. At least now I know it is just porcrastination, and I’m not the only one.

David July 17, 2011 at 8:52 am

No worries, we’re all crazy here

Amy November 9, 2011 at 11:20 pm

This post really hits close to home. Procrastination (or is it just laziness? Is there a difference?) is a huge downfall for me when there’s stuff needed to be done.

I will try following your rules for a week…starting tomorrow ;)

Amy November 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Okay I just found your other post – “Procrastination is Not Laziness”. I guess that answers that question…! :)

Ika December 22, 2011 at 11:34 am

I love the experiments. I try to run these (not procrastinating, meditation, not complaining, some excercise and veggies) in parallel, but I have very loose rules :) … every min of meditation and unvoiced complaint counts, also those two apples I ate two days ago and your blog simply cannot count as procrastination.

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