My definition of procrastination is nothing particularly deep or fancy. Simply put, it’s to avoid something you should be doing, or you think you should be doing.
The you think part means that procrastination can indeed be good when it makes us postpone things that are not really that important. Instead of wasting time, we’re in fact saving it.
Make no mistake, though: in most cases procrastination is not your friend. Steven Pressfield wrote a wonderful short book about it, called The War of Art, where he calls it Resistance.
Resistance, he says, comes from
“any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower.”
It’s not hard to see why giving up immediate gratification generates resistance: following our higher nature puts us in a vulnerable position, like the risk of failure, rejection, or looking dumb. The positive part? If you’re procrastinating, you’re probably onto something good.
Like all freelance writers (and all professionals solely responsible for finding their clients), I fight my daily battles with procrastination. Very often I win, but not every time. And I’m making peace with that: it’s part of human nature, so there’s no getting rid of it. If it’s really a war, then it’s a trench war, where neither army can win.
The worst part about procrastination is that it’s sneaky, always ready to take advantage of every moment of tiredness or weakness. As Pressfield says,
“reduce it to a single cell and that cell will continue to attack.”
Sure, if you spend a Tuesday afternoon on Facebook or watching TV when you should be working that’s kind of obvious, but there’s not always a flashing neon light attached. You may be procrastinating even when you’re working, simply by doing less important (but easier) tasks, and thinking you’re being productive.
How to fight back at procrastination
With that in mind, there are four things freelance writers (and other work-from-home professionals) can do to win more battles in the war against Resistance.
Use a to-do list. Nothing really new and exciting, I know, but that’s still the best way to start a workday, especially when you’re the one dictating what needs to be done. With my list, I follow the Eat That Frog principle: identify the two or three most important tasks and start with those. Here, Resistance can be your rhabdomancy wand: see where it points, and you will know what they are.
Start immediately. Some days it’s very clear what your priorities are, and a to-do list may not be necessary. What is important though, is to start working immediately, meaning as soon as you sit down at the computer. Every second of hesitation is an opportunity for Resistance to stop you in your tracks with a “first let me check if Amazon is delivering my packet.”
Use a distraction bucket. The “let me check Amazon real quick first” is a typical procrastinating trick, falling under the “I need to do X before I forget” category. It may sound harmless enough, especially if it really is a quick thing. The problem is, one distraction calls for another, and then another… If fear of forgetting is your problem, write it down, so you can go back to what you’re supposed to be doing.
Consider this as a sort of secondary to-do list (or distraction bucket, as I call it). Later, when you’re done and go back to it, you’ll find some of the items (like ‘checking on Wikipedia whatever happened to the cast of my favourite sit-com’) hilariously trivial.
When that happens, congratulations, you’ve just beaten Resistance’s best tool: the urge to get some instant gratification before working on long-term goals.
Don’t beat yourself up. As I said earlier, dealing with procrastination is a trench war where your goal is to win most of the time. When you don’t, don’t beat yourself up about it, move on and do better next time. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy, it could be lack of sleep, a sincere need to rest, or just that the scene of Chandler trapped in an ATM vestibule with Jill Goodacre never gets old.