Procrastination (Or Why You Can’t Trust A Version Of You From The Future)
Procrastination – it is the bane of all writers, something we all struggle with. How many times have we sat there ready to write and then find ourselves distracted by social media or cat memes on the internet? How many times have we said we’ll start work on that new chapter right after we’ve baked a cake or tidied the entire house?
Procrastination means that your novel is still unfinished, that your dreams are unaccomplished. If you want to be published, either traditionally or self-published, It’s important to conquer the art of putting things off.
There are a hundred and one articles out there on time management, there are plenty of tricks and tips for combating procrastination (from reducing everything into small manageable tasks to software that will block you from accessing the internet for a period of time) but I suspect many of you are like me and need to understand it before we can ever hope to combat it.
As it turns out, whilst there is a derth of articles on productivity, the internet seems pretty light when it comes to understanding what causes us to procrastinate. It turns out that a large part of the problem is due to humans having a distorted view of time. It’s called cognitive distortion.
By way of an example, if I were to offer you £100 right now or £200 next year, most of you would probably go for the £100. (Note: I am not offering you a £100. I am a writer, we don’t have that sort of money!) You’d worry something would happen or we’d lose touch in the coming year and so go for the £100 now. But if I were to offer you £100 in five years’ time or £200 in six, most of you would probably go for the £200. Why? Because five years is a long time and if you can wait five years, why not wait an extra year and double your money?
When it comes to our own tasks we also have a distorted view of time. We believe that our future selves are better prepared to cope with the tasks and distractions that are in front of us today. And so we delay starting that piece of writing, or making the first steps in some big task because we mistakenly believe that our future selves will somehow handle it better.
But just because you are busy today doesn’t mean you won’t be busy tomorrow. Overnight, you will not master time management and suddenly find that time to write you couldn’t find today. Tomorrow you will be just as easily distracted as you are today. The fear and worry you have about starting a task will not disappear by tomorrow.
There’s also an element of perfectionism in there. We’re so afraid that what we will do will be bad or not good enough that we defer the task to a future version of ourselves who we mistakenly assume will be better able to avoid those problems. It’s because we have this distorted view of our future selves that procrastination exists. So how can we combat it?
I think the first step is to identify it as a problem. Knowing that the only reason you are cleaning the entire kitchen is simply because you are trying to avoid that difficult phone call or writing that essay can make it easier to address.
The second is to realise that your future self is going to be just as incompetent at solving today’s problems as you are now. On the little notice board above my desk I have written, “You cannot trust the future you”. Whilst this sounds like a line out of a time travel movie, it’s to remind me that putting things off because I find them hard today, won’t mean I will find them easy tomorrow.
The final tip is to develop some time management system. There’s a huge range of them out there from Getting Things Done to Pomodoro to Post It Notes, but they all boil down to the same thing. Take large tasks and break them down into small more manageable tasks. How you do that and how you prioritise will be down to your own individual time management system. Try a few and find a system that works for you. Don’t be afraid to adjust them to suit your own personal needs. Simply put: if it works for you, it works.
One of my favourite tricks is to find two completely different tasks I’m procrastinating on (for example: writing a book and completing a video game with a lot of quests) and use one as the procrastinating activity for the other. I find I enter this Mobius strip of productivity where I keep swapping between the two and come away with a serious amount of productivity.
If you understand why you are procrastinating and remind yourself that the future you will be just as useless at combating this, you can use your system to push through and go from being a procrastinator to a productive person. Just remember, if the future you time travels back and says he can help you…don’t trust him!