How To Beat Procrastination

June 1, 2014 — 17 Comments

Being productive is really a battle. It’s the worst kind of battle: a battle against yourself.

When most people talk about productivity they miss the point. They talk about external distractions and minimizing those influences. They encourage all sorts of external productivity tools and services. That’s all great but it sort of shifts the blame from where it rightly lies: on us, on our tendencies.

The author Steven Pressfield calls this the Resistance. When we sit down to do any important project whether it’s writing a book or a business plan, we face Resistance. The bigger the project, the more vulnerable or creative it forces us to be, the stronger the resistance.

We’re not productive because of the Resistance. In other words, productivity is not a matter of organization or distractions, it is primarily a matter of dealing with and redirecting the Resistance.

I’ll give you an example. I am working on a book proposal right now that requires me to examine some uncomfortable stuff. I also don’t totally have a handle on the concept as a whole, which basically means that every second I work on it is excruciating and difficult.

This is the reason I seek the relief of distractions. It’s definitely not because I’m unorganized. So I pop open Facebook, I come up with reasons to call people, I go around and bother my animals. I say, “Hey, let’s go out to breakfast, I’ll work there,” even though I know that I won’t.

Now, I could eliminate those particular problems or throw away my car keys, but like any addict I’d just find a new one. You’d find me doing whatever the productivity-equivalent of drinking rubbing alcohol is. Anything to take the edge off.

God knows how much energy is wasted by creative people this way. It’s a nervous energy, a pain-driven energy that must be channeled and sloughed off. White knuckling it? Well, that’s not exactly a solution.

I’m reminded of a quote from the dog trainer Cesar Millan, “Never work against Mother Nature. You only succeed when you work with her.” But how do you work with something that tries to distract and undermine what you’ve set out to do?

The key is to find some way to harness and redirect that negative energy.

When I find myself looking for an escape–I have a list of activities I can do that are productive ways to channel the resistance:

-I will take notes on a book I read for my commonplace book.

-I will go through my starred emails in my inbox (emails that didn’t immediately require a response which I’ve marked from the last 7 days or so).

-I will cross the business items off my to do list (review 15five reports, edit documents or research my team did, etc).

They are little pieces of big, never-ending projects that I can always make a little contribution to. They are always there–no matter what else I happen to be working on. This means I can always turn to them and use them as a productive excuse.

As Jerry Seinfeld put it, you want to find the pain you’re comfortable with. That’s the secret. Those are all activities I hate, but can tolerate. It puts me right between the horns of a dilemma. Work, or different work–and either one I choose moves me forward.

This is also where being good at more than one thing can help you. If all you do is write, then the opposite is not-writing. But if you write and consult, well you can run from writing into the arms of consulting or vice versa.

(On a side note, I think this is why creative people spend a lot of time thinking/producing work on being creative. It’s a way to work and practice their craft even though deep down they know they’re putting off a harder version of it.)

The real benefit of those tasks isn’t just setting up some sort of Sophie’s choice. It’s that when I put off writing or thinking about something and cross those other items off the list, I start to accumulate some momentum. When I switch tracks again, that momentum carries over. It makes it easier to get through whatever Resistance was holding me back.

So that’s my productivity secret. It’s not about systems. It’s not about technology–you don’t need Evernote or 37Signals to do it.

It’s about having a set of tasks that you can always do when you feel like procrastinating. This way you turn your least productive habit–running away from your work–into a potent motive force.

All that’s left to decide is what that happens to be for you.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can bee seen there.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

17 responses to How To Beat Procrastination

  1. I read your new book, The Obstacle Is The Way to procrastinate revising for my exams. Despite not being confident on the exam front, your book has filled me with optimism for the future, and I thank you for that.

  2. Great essay. Really well-needed, as I’m in the middle of a project and keep procrastinating on it. I love the Millan quote. Often-times we try to fight our tendency to distract, rather than manage or convert it into an opportunity (hence, The Obstacle is the Way). Insightful thinking!

  3. I loved your aside about creative people writing about being creative. That couldn’t hold more true for me and for a lot of really talented creative people I can think of.

    Great little tip, I’ll have to see if I can redirect some of my wasted reddit time onto something that matters. Thanks for the article.

  4. This is kind of super excellent

  5. As a college student there’s a cultural expectation where you’re expected to be “working” or procrastinating/partying in an off/on dynamic. I’ve found alternating between working on school assignments and writing blog posts helps extend the amount of time I can be productively creative at both. Not saying I’m great at it—the internet is a seductive rabbit hole—but I’ve been able to milk a lot of thought that would have been lost to distraction with this method. I can’t comment on the effectiveness of this method in a professional setting, but I image the benefits would be even higher when there are real stakes involved.

  6. Redirecting this “resistance” as you call it really seems to be the best thing to do. To be honest, i had this thought of “why do i have this urge to be unproductive” a lot of times, but never came to the conclusion of using it to get ahead in a different field.
    Thank you!

  7. Glad to see that this is exactly what I do when I procrastinate. I just switch to other, less painful work and when my engine’s running I switch over to the hard stuff.

  8. I read your new book, The Obstacle Is The Way to procrastinate revising for my exams. Despite not being confident on the exam front, your book has filled me with optimism for the future, and I thank you for that.
    See Also My Website – Procrastination Definition

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