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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