How to Stop Procrastinating

It’s not even that we don’t want to do it. Sometimes the things we procrastinate are actually kind of enjoyable—once we get going, that is. Regardless, we’re all faced with tasks that feel like a chore, and they’re somehow able to make us incredibly productive in other areas. Isn’t it strange how past-due paperwork can spur a deep clean of the kitchen? And the reverse can also happen, where the stack of dishes becomes the harbinger of brilliant creative projects. The following is a list of tips to try to clear the clutter and get to the task at hand.

1. Make Yourself  a List
To-do lists are a particularly wonderful tool for those of us prone to anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed and overloaded. They provide us with a way to compartmentalize our tasks, so that we can stop swimming in a great soup of stuff, and start seeing a nice, linear outline. They work for pretty much any sort of task.
For instance, household chores are easy to scribble down and stick on the fridge. But even our long-term, more complex goals can be broken down into a series of steps. Those big where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years questions can be tracked in a journal of neat lists. The key is to break them down into palatable portions. (Sort of like tearing up bits of lettuce to prevent a leafy green overdose.) Recently, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and the experience was rife with the opportunity to procrastinate. The idea of writing a novel of at least 50 000 words, complete with plot, characters, and of course, legible sentences, was so daunting that I questioned my ability to get it done.However, as soon as I had a list complete with daily quotas and targets, I found it much easier to get to work.

How can you break your tasks up? To which tasks do you give priority? It can also be helpful to include rewards at this point. Likely, crossing items from a to-do list will provide a little dopamine rush from your brain’s pleasure centre, but if you’re really struggling with something, make sure you treat yourself afterwards.

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How will I manage to get through all six tasks?

2. Clear up your Environment
Even the most prolific among us would struggle to get stuff done in a place with too much stimuli, but that doesn’t mean we all have the same ideal work environment. Some of us crave the minimalist room with a simple desk and chair, and some of us need the espresso-and-Michael-Bubblé background sounds of coffee shops to get in our zone. It’s good to be flexible: we can’t always work in our ideal spaces, and we can’t allow that to inhibit our work flow. (But wouldn’t we love to use that as an excuse sometimes?)

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of putting on the right soundtrack. Personally, I’m a fan of ambient music and instrumental tracks when I need to focus. That way, I don’t get sidetracked by provocative lyrics. (And I’m less prone to chair-dancing.)

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Meet me on the dance floor!

3. Do your Creativity Ritual
If it feels wrong to get to work without a hot cup of coffee or a protein shake, then by all means, bottoms up! Being productive is not about deprivation, after all—no need to flagellate oneself when the task at hand already feels like torture.

If anxiety is the issue (and with procrastination, it often is), then get some air. It’s perfectly fine to get a stroll in, as long as the stroll doesn’t become a cross-country attempt to escape the impending deadline. More tips on getting a creativity ritual can be found here.

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My ritual is to play every single game my boyfriend owns before I can work.

4. Try Some Different Methods
I have a friend who uses a wonderful strategy to get her work done. She sets a timer and works hard for 25 minutes, and then takes a 5 minute break to check her emails and give her brain a rest. This technique is one among many others, all of which suggest different ratios of work and rest. (Some call for 90 minutes of work with a 15 minute break, and of course, there is the classic schedule that retail workers are familiar with in which two 15 minute breaks and one half-hour break pepper their 8 hour work day.) The idea is that we may be less prone to burning out, particularly on tasks which we’re not passionate about, if we give our brains and bodies time to rest.

On the other hand, it’s nice to give ourselves the opportunity to get into that strange feeling of “flow” — that feeling where time ceases to exist because we’re so enveloped in the task at hand. There could be a garden-gnome rebellion in full swing, and we wouldn’t even lift our heads.

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Oh, I know you aren’t so innocent.

5. Don’t Make Excuses
I apologize sincerely for making this point, because as a fellow procrastinator, I know it’s not something we like to hear. After all, these are the words that every nagging person has ever uttered in our presence, and they’re almost always the words we tell ourselves deep in the recesses of our critical minds.

But alas, sometimes we just need to get ‘er done. Start small or start big, but start somewhere.

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Take a deep breath and get it done. I believe in you.

How To Establish a Creativity Ritual

If we have a job or a hobby that requires a significant creative output, it can be frustrating to sit in front of a blank page, fingers at the ready, only to realize that we’re distracted (or worse, empty). Some people, such as Eat, Pray, Love writer Elizabeth Gilbert, refer to their creative self as their muse. Others, such as novelist Steven King, refer to it as “the boys in the basement”, a notion psychologists might understand as being one’s subconscious. But no matter the metaphors used to describe this mysterious force, most people will experience the annoyance of showing up to work without it. It can therefore be helpful to create a ritual that will, in a sense, summon creativity. The ritual serves to snap one’s mind into a state where it’s ready to work. It can trigger that notoriously elusive muse out of hiding. The best part is that our ritual can be personal, and we can tailor it however we want. The following are some tips on finding and establishing a creative ritual.

1. Reflect on What Gets your Juices Flowing
This will be different for everyone, as evidenced by the writer of Katy Perry’s lyrics: “do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?”.  It may not be various detritus that makes us tick, but it could be. For some, it’s imperative that they literally get their juices flowing, by going for a walk or a jog. This can be helpful for generating ideas and the hit of the happy-chemical serotonin doesn’t hurt, either. Some feel the need to perfectly sharpen five pencils in order to get to work. Others will swear they just can’t think unless they’ve had their cup of coffee. It could also be helpful to review how to make the perfect cup of tea. The only caveat here is to choose something that will be beneficial to long-term wellbeing. While moderate amounts of caffeine are generally thought to be pretty harmless, one should avoid copious alcohol and other drugs for their creativity rituals. In the long term, these practices will impede creativity, not to mention hurt our liver friends.

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Unfortunately, it can be hard to go for regular walks in this kind of foreboding weather.

2. Find your Most Creative Time
This may be something you already know about yourself. Sometimes we realize that we do most of our good work late at night, like some sort of vampire who happens to be really amazing at painting. Or we may wake up and find ourselves hammering poems out first thing in the morning. Most likely, these ideal times will coincide with the period in which we are less prone to outside distractions. For instance, early morning or late night hold the benefits of everyone else being asleep. Perhaps a lunch break in which everyone else has fled to the salad bar presents a good opportunity to do some brainstorming. It’s fine to experiment with different times of day, as well. Personally, I’m a sworn night owl, but I’ve found that I get most of my work done if I begin within half an hour of waking up. Otherwise, I am prone to finding all sorts of things to do around town.

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Your ideal time might be a bleary-eyed 1:44 am. 

3. Carve out a Space
We would all love the broad oak desk in the study with the panoramic windows overlooking the sea. (Or perhaps I’ve spent too much time coveting neighbours while living on Vancouver Island.) While we may not have our ideal space, it’s important that this does not stop us from getting creative. Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro apparently wrote from her laundry room during her children’s nap-times in her beginnings. Some of us may carve out little nooks in our bedrooms, or we may even get our best work done in a certain coffee house, with a stream of java mainlined to our veins. Personally, I write from a seat at my kitchen table, which is somewhat reminiscent of the times I spent hopelessly labouring over math assignments in my parents’ kitchen. But it works. Carve out a space, and feel free to hang up a sign as if belonging to a child’s treehouse: Muses Only.

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Pictured: my boyfriend’s desk—it works for him. 

4. Choose your Action
With the preparations now in place, it is time to commit to an action. Think back to the first step and choose the action that most gets you mentally “at work”. Break out the coffee or the tea. Get that sugary sweet snack. Sharpen those pencils. Pour out that paint. Say that prayer, or meditate. Repeat a mantra. Speak to your muse. Take some deep breaths. Light some incense or a candle. Listen to a specific song or a certain type of music. Do some stretches. Compartmentalize your worries and save them for later. Turn off your phone. Set a timer for yourself. Turn off your wifi. There are plenty of ways to trigger the mind into that creative state, but make sure it’s something you can summon day after day.

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Copious amounts of coffee have factored heavily into my ritual since university.

5. Practice for at Least Two Weeks
Repetition is the key to acquiring a new habit. In fact, habits really are just repetition. And what are rituals, if not mindful habits? In order for the ritual to be reliable, we must reliably commit to the ritual. Therefore, if we can practice every day for at least two weeks, it will have a better chance of snapping our minds into work mode. Invariably, there will be times when we faithfully do the ritual and we come up empty. It’s important not to become frustrated. We can either work through that emptiness and try to force work out (if writing, we can try to write 300 words and see how we feel afterwards). Or we can use this time to be silly: scribble and sketch, write a dumb limerick, sew a funny hat, design a website for our dog. It may not be our most productive day, but at least we’re being creative, and we’ve deflated the pressure (and sometimes it’s that pressure that leads to creative blocks). It doesn’t matter what we create, just that we respect the ritual and create something. In time, we may have less silly scribble days and more serious writing days. (Though it’s important not to underestimate those silly days, for they may generate some surprisingly good ideas.)

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Pictured: how Da Vinci came up with the Mona Lisa. Probably.

The keys to establishing a successful creativity ritual is to choose something we can do again and again. We need to be able to create a space for ourselves in which do it, and for best results, do it at a time where we feel most alert. It’s also important to leave behind that critical, self-judging attitude—the voice which suggests we should just give it up and that we’ll never be as good as whomever else. There will be less productive days, but if we stick with them, our creative rituals will be able to snap our minds back from the shallow depths of mundane fixations to the rich worlds of our creative potentials.