There can be something thrilling about procrastination: putting a project off until the last minute and the instant gratification of turning your mind to something more pleasurable.
When you’re an entrepreneur or creative, you may only have self-imposed deadlines. And, you may think the only person you end up harming by procrastinating is yourself—but really, there are potential clients and students you’re keeping from the knowledge you have to share. Not to mention, a potential paycheck you’re not earning.
The tie that binds
Fortunately, you’re not alone. Even the most successful and creative among us are prone to procrastination. And procrastination in entrepreneurs especially is far too prevalent. The reasons why we procrastinate, however, are more nuanced and unique to each individual. At our core, humans are hardwired with a negativity bias to help mitigate risk and stay safe.
Often, the root of procrastination is an underlying fear—perhaps a fear of being seen as a failure or even as a success. It could also be a case of perfectionism disguised as not being ready or feeling like you need to do more research before beginning. (More on this exact topic in our web series, The Creator’s Mind: Fear.)
The purpose behind procrastination
On the other hand, certain types of procrastination might actually serve a purpose—for instance, if the activities you choose to do first are actually productive rather than distracting.
But, when you experience resistance that is uncharacteristic of your work ethic, it could be a sign that, on a deeper, instinctual level, something doesn’t feel right. Perhaps you aren’t ready for or interested in ever completing the task at hand. Of course, some simply work better under pressure (if you’re one of those people, just be honest with yourself if your procrastination is actually helping or hindering you).
The good news is that, with a little self-inquiry, you can get to the root of resistance and learn how to move forward. And thanks to neuroscience, you can actually rewire your brain to create healthier habits that can benefit both you and your business.
The anti-procrastination handbook
1. Check in with yourself
Consider the following questions to learn how to beat your procrastination habits:
- What am I procrastinating? Be specific here. If it’s a big goal you're delaying, what is the next step to achieving the goal?
- Why do I want/need to complete this project? Really dig deep in this step. Keep asking why until you get to the root.
- How will I feel when I complete it? We get it, for you, business is personal. So, how you feel is critical when you're in charge.
- How am I procrastinating? Is there any benefit to it? Do a gut check to see if your behavior is helpful or harmful.
- Why am I procrastinating? If this is hard to discern, identify where procrastination is located in your body. For instance, if you sense your head is what’s holding you back, this might be your negativity bias, disguised as an inner critic. If you notice a sensation in your lower belly or gut, it could be your intuition telling you that something doesn’t feel right.
- If I removed this project from my to-do list permanently, how would I feel? You may find that you’re procrastinating because the task at hand is not actually aligned with your goals or values.
2. Divide and conquer
If you decide the project in question is still worth pursuing, split it into digestible chunks. Do this either by the amount of time you will spend on it or by smaller, specific action items. And set designated times to dedicate to seeing the project through.
A note about boundaries
Creatives and entrepreneurs tend to put their whole hearts into their work. For you, that might look like going all in, not starting until you feel inspired, and not knowing when to stop. The trick here is to develop a routine and stick to it.
That means chipping away even when you don’t feel like it and stopping even when you feel like you’re on a roll. According to neuroscience, consistency is key, so be sure to make you set digestible chunks that are realistic and impactful.
3. Eliminate distractions
Tim Urban, founder of Wait But Why and self-proclaimed “master procrastinator,” uses a similar depiction to explain the mind of procrastinators (watch his recent humorous TED Talk to find out how he managed to write his 90-page thesis paper 72 hours before it was due).
Even if you’re not someone who is normally easily side-tracked, we live in a world where distractions are everywhere. There are more stimuli tempting us with instant gratification than ever before, making it even harder to concentrate and thus further delaying gratification. Find a way to eliminate distractions, perhaps by unplugging, digital detoxing certain hours of the day, or even changing your surroundings by finding a fresh space to work.
4. Flex your discipline muscle
You could punish yourself with consequences every time you start to procrastinate, but just as when dealing with young children, you’ll probably be more effective by motivating your inner toddler with rewards. Can you treat yourself to something small (but sustainable enough to keep you on track) every time you check off an action item? Something big every time you complete a larger goal?
5. Give yourself a firm deadline
In his TED Talk, Tim points out there is an important distinction between short-term and long-term procrastination. The former might be considered a bad habit, as you still eventually get the work done—even if it’s at the expense of your sanity. This is because you have a concrete deadline and typically someone holding you accountable.
The latter, on the other hand, can be detrimental. Without a mandatory deadline, long-term procrastination can lead to never following through on goals and dreams. Again, if you’re not someone that reports to anyone, enlist the help of someone else to help enforce your deadlines. This could mean being more active in the Teachable community, getting an accountability buddy, or hiring a teammate or assistant.
6. Prioritize down time
As contrary as it may seem, resting and recharging is just as important as hard work—and can actually lead to more productivity. Grind culture teaches creators to always be busy. But, designating time to do nothing, especially if it’s something fulfilling and away from screens can help you show up with more motivation and inspiration later.
In her classic read The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron goes as far as suggesting “reading deprivation,” in which even reading a book or newspaper is off limits during down time. She explains, “We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static.”
7. Risk something
In her early days, bestselling author and B-School founder Marie Forleo says she would risk "public humiliation" to ensure she followed through on her goals. She’d tell friends and family or share on social media what she was working to hold her accountable.
If you’re not ready to put yourself on public display, you might consider investing in something or putting your paycheck on the line to hold yourself accountable. For example, if you’re procrastinating a course outline or filming your course material, go ahead and announce your launch date to your audience to hold yourself accountable to meeting that goal. When there’s something to lose, be it pride or money in this case, you’re less likely to fall prey to procrastination.
8. Envision your future self
There are many things in life your future self will thank you for, such as drinking more water, eating healthier food, going for a walk, meditating, saving money, prioritizing an important goal or project, etc. And yet, you still may avoid these things so they fall to the bottom of your to-do list—where they can stay if you’re not careful.
Delayed gratification can make it hard to connect with yourself in the future, which can feel distant and uncertain. Be mindful of your future self, even if it's hard to envision. There's no better time than now to get to work and see your vision through.
The next time you find yourself procrastinating, give yourself a break and know that you’re not alone among creatives and entrepreneurs. While procrastination has a bad rep, it can be an opportunity for self-reflection and internal investigation. It can even lead to action.
How have you conquered procrastination? Let us know your tips.