[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Eva Dale, Web Services Director for the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University. She is a BTAA MOR alum. Eva may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
We human beings are funny creatures. In prehistoric days, if there was a scary shadow in the distance then it was in our best interest to run away in case that shadow wanted to eat us. In our modern world, the scary shadows are a task at work, a big presentation, or a sink of dirty dishes, and we still have the impulse to run and hide even though the task or presentation or dishes (probably) won’t try to physically attack us. Our ancient lizard brain blocks our forward momentum on uncomfortable tasks.
I used to follow my lizard brain impulse to run away. I had projects I knew I needed to work on, but would find ways to escape to something more comfortable until the deadline was imminent. I would berate myself and say I was lazy or I was in the wrong job and needed to 'find my passion.' At my core I knew neither of those were true. I needed to understand and overcome my lizard brain impulse to run away and learn how to accomplish the work I knew I was capable of doing.
What is procrastination?
The first piece in the puzzle came when I read the book, 'The Now Habit', by Neil Fiore. His book abandoned productivity tricks and focused on the psychology of procrastination. Fiore clarified that avoiding work comes from our fight or flight response to uncomfortable feelings. Before we start a project we can feel a sense of discomfort about the unknown of what needs done. Procrastination is an escape from that discomfort providing short term relief through various distractions like social media, coffee, or YouTube.
There is no job free from discomfort
I used to have the impression that when I was in the right job I would not feel that sense of running away when working. Once I understood that feeling discomfort happens to people who love their jobs, then I was able to start working with the feeling instead of seeking a job where I only felt comfortable. Discomfort is a feeling you need to learn to stay with when you start your work, and then it may or may not go away as you are working. Somedays the feeling goes away with a little nudge once I get working. Other days it stays the whole work session and that is okay. The key is to keep moving forward.
MOR as a catalyst for change
The MOR leadership program was a line in the sand for me to create a plan to grow out of my procrastination habits. My university was investing in me and I wanted to make full use of that opportunity. My peer coaches along with the Big Ten cohort created an environment of emotional safety that allowed me to admit to the parts of me that I was not proud of and find solutions to grow out of habits I felt like I should have dealt with back in elementary school. With Gary Auguston as my coach we added ‘making better use of my time’ as one of my first goals. I viewed it as a gateway goal. Once I figured out how to work better then so many things could follow in my journey of learning and growing as a leader.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain
The solution for me has been to find tools to consistently start working. I don’t get stuck on when I will complete the project. Instead, I make time in my schedule to start work. Every time I start brings me closer to the finish. My favorite tool is a website called Focusmate (https://focusmate.com). Focusmate is an online service that pairs you with a partner for a 25 or 50 min session. At the beginning of the session you each say what you will work on and then at the end you check in and say how it went. Yes, you are working alongside ‘strangers’ but I have found this to be a great way to have an accountability partner with a bonus of meeting people from around the world.
Other times I will set a timer on my phone for 5, 10, or 25 mins, hit start and get moving on my task. The key is making a clear point for when you are starting and also letting yourself see there is a finish line when you can take a break. When the break arrives, take it. Do whatever you want. This is the reward for putting the time into working.
Discomfort is a good thing
I also reframed the feeling of discomfort as a sign that I am growing. When I’m out of my comfort zone then I am going to feel...wait for it... discomfort. I now see that as a good thing, not something to avoid. Feeling discomfort is a cue that I'm challenging myself. The more I get out of my comfort zone the more I grow as a person and the more I have to offer to those around me.
Don’t wait to be in the mood to work
Some days you will be pumped and ready to go, other days you will be low energy and not wanting to face your projects. The key is to show up and start the work, no matter your mood. I used to caffeinate myself to try and get myself in the mood to work. That just created a rush of work and then I was jumpy and jittery instead of relaxed and steady. Now I schedule times to start working and through consistently starting I get more done.
Support for you
If procrastination is something you struggle with I highly recommend trying some of the methods I suggest. I’ve listed some of my favorite books and videos below. Once you demonstrate to yourself that you can work through the feeling of discomfort it will increase your self-confidence and you can accept bigger challenges. Having one success lets you build on that and keep the work going. It also gives a sense of relief once you have faced a project you were avoiding. Personally, I often feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders after working productively. I feel lighter, happier and my interactions with friends, family, and co-workers improve.
We no longer live in a world where our fight or flight impulse serves us when it is activated for things that are not going to actually eat us. Take the time to learn and understand when you are following the impulse to escape in benign situations. You will find liberation when you stand your ground, face the sabertooth, and watch it disappear before your eyes.
Further Reading and Tools
The Now Habit by Neil Fiore
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Indistractable by Nir Ewal
Deep Work by Cal Newport
If you would like to work with me here is a link: https://www.focusmate.com/i/ASOl7W5CkJ
5 Minute Rule
2 Minute Rule