Starting is the Hardest Part

Photo by Jukan Tateisi

I really don’t want to write today. Or do anything, really. I just stepped off a 13-hour flight that took me across 8 time zones. Picture a groggy brown bear after a four-month hibernation and you’ll have a pretty good idea of my current attitude.

I’m better off getting some rest and taking a crack at it tomorrow. 

At least, that’s the story my inner voice desperately wants me to believe. 

Like a second grader trying to get out of doing her chores, my inner voice lays it on thick.  “Hey, I know you have good intentions, but you don’t really need to do that productive / creative / useful thing today. You’re tired. You’re definitely better off working on it tomorrow. Or the next day.” 

That’s what makes starting the hardest part. My brain sees the long, bumpy, and seemingly endless road that lies ahead and does everything within its power to convince me to stay off that scary road. 

Researchers have begun to shine light onto the root cause of this struggle. “Medical imaging studies have shown that mathphobes [people afraid of math], for example, appear to avoid math because even just thinking about it seems to hurt. The pain centers of their brains light up when they contemplate working on math,” explains Barbara Oakley in her book, A Mind For Numbers

Sometimes I recognize the self-protecting, pain-avoidance strategy that my body employs and can muster enough courage to fight back. The battle against procrastination is never-ending and I’m only starting to discover the best ways to conquer the relentless nemesis. 

My current approach? When I have an idea to do something, I do something related to that idea — no matter how small — immediately.  It’s irrelevant how much I objectively accomplish or if I’m still miles away from the finish line. Instead of measuring the outcome, I measure the effort. 

Here’s how it works for me:

  • I have an idea to do something. For example, the thought to write this article on battling procrastination.
  • At the same time, I was feeling tired after a long day of travel. My brain immediately used this sluggishness as an excuse to avoid effort. Thoughts like, “writing is hard and it will take so long to finish,” and “it’s OK, no one will know if I start tomorrow after I’ve had some rest” pop into my head. 
  • At this point in the scuffle, about 90% of us pause, thank their inner voice for bringing up such valid points, and go on our merry way.  
  • But today, I recognized my opponent and their sneaky tactics. To push through the pain, I chose to cast aside my visions of a finished product and started to write. 
  • I didn’t care about the quality of output or making significant progress. I wrote for 20 minutes and then stopped. 

There is emerging rationale for this technique. Circling back to the study of people who felt pain when they thought about working on math problems, results showed “it was the anticipation that was painful. When the mathphobes actually did math, the pain disappeared.”

And like the arithmetic avoiders, by simply starting to write, my pain faded away. It doesn’t matter how much, only that I do something. Twenty words, twenty sentences, or twenty minutes. Just start.   

And a nice side effect? Without consciously trying to finish writing this article, I did.  

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  1. Spot on! I have many tricks to fool my procrastinating mind:

    – Set up a 5 or 10 minute timer to do chores around the house.
    – Tell myself I only have to go to the gym for 15 minutes.
    – And at work, if there’s a system admin task I find boring and keep putting off, I put on a podcast and tell myself I only have to do it during the duration of that program.

    For each scenario, I get in the groove and end up finishing the full task or at least getting pretty far ahead.

    1. These are all great Johanna. Once you get started, the pain subsides and you end up accomplishing more than expected. Love it!

    2. I do the same thing with the gym! Or I just make myself get changed into gym clothes. Getting dressed is easy enough but I know that once I am in my gym clothes I will definitely go. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Procrastination has played tricks on countless occasions. The opportune thing that I recommend to overcome it is to make Pomodoros, small work sessions of 15 or minutes and rest 5 minutes. Meditating and exercising are good habits that help too.

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