When I asked my friend and editor what the biggest contributor to procrastination was for her, she answered unhesitatingly:
I always feel like I need a BIG CHUNK of time to do something, and I don’t want to start until I do. Well, news flash: My life does not include a lot of big chunks of uninterrupted time. So I have to make myself do little bits, but I have to fight my inclination to want to wait for that whole day.
I’ll bet the coconut muffin I’m holding that you’ve had this exact same feeling. We believe that to start projects, we must have these huge segments of time in order to really dig in. Once we have them, then of course we will be creative.
However, we often don’t have those huge chunks of self-controlled time until we’re successful enough to choose how we spend it. That means we have to get going on those creative pursuits first, and only then will we be able to control that time.
We need freedom in order to create, but we have to create in order to get that freedom in the first place.
… This scenario does not work. The obvious, but not always welcome, the answer is that you have to find the time before anyone is going to pay you for it.
* pause for a moment of dead-eyed irritation at this unpleasant truth *
With school, jobs, kids, family, sports, housework and much-needed sleep all competing desperately for this time, it can be hard to figure out how to cobble together even a few hours. You’re tired, and it seems like your subconscious is always whispering in your ear that later will be a better time.
After you finish this term. After the big presentation. After the little one teethes. After you finish your period and no longer want to kill/eat everything, not necessarily in that order. After, after, after, after.
If you’ve encountered this whole “after” thing frequently, you’re not alone: It’s a scientific phenomenon that seems to affect humanity in its entirety.
Studies have long shown that we humans consistently believe we’ll have more time and money in the future. Have you ever been asked for a favor by someone and responded, “Well, I can’t do it right now, but later I might be able to … ”? If so (and you believed it), you’re falling prey to this erroneous assumption.
Because the truth is, you’re not going to want to go to their beat poetry slam anymore next month than you do now, despite what you’re telling both of you. Ditto when you push back a project and reschedule it in for a few weeks hence, or tell yourself you’ll start that critical business subscription once you _______.
You probably won’t, dude.
Now, I’m not saying break the bank on every glitzy new idea that catches your eye. All I’m saying is, if you really need to start something, it pays to take one big ol’ step back and ask yourself whether you’re actually waiting on more time and resources, or if you just don’t want to start and “later” sounds a whole lot better than now.
Creative work is hard, after all; sometimes it’s just nice to have an excuse. Is that you? If so, bad you! No! NoooOO!
I do think it’s important to acknowledge, however, that some things aren’t very actionable until you cobble together a couple of hours. Trying to code a website, for instance, is an exercise in futility unless you have at least three hours. That’s my experience, at least.
Illustration, one of my side hobbies, is even more intense: It requires a minimum setup time of 10 minutes, once I plug in the tablet, load Illustrator, grab my digital materials and make that cup of tea. Getting past the pleeeeeeeeeeeeeehhhhh I’d rather watch television phase takes another 10 minutes or so, and then I always have to account for the 20-30 minutes at the end when I really should stop and move on with life (usually go to bed), but just can’t make myself.
So yeah, things take time. I’m not saying you should MAKE THE MOST OF EVERY FIVE-MINUTE SEGMENT because I think that kind of advice is exhausting, and I believe wholeheartedly in the restorative power of staring open-mouthed out the window, should you find yourself with five extra minutes on your hands.
Still, the point is this: We often have to make due with smaller chunks than we’d like. Otherwise, the “it’s just not enough time to get into it!” excuse will hold until we’re old and gray and discover we’ve managed to do exactly nothing about our dreams.
But how do we do that? How do we convince ourselves, more to the point, to spend a precious hour or two doing something that is, after all, a self-imposed chore, when family and fun and coconut muffins all call?
Truthfully, this subject has been covered far more comprehensively than I ever could in a single chapter, and doubtless far more brilliantly as well. My favorite treatment of it, however, is 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam.
Once you get past being insanely jealous of/impressed by Vanderkam’s incredible energy and efficiency, you’ll find this book has some pretty darn good advice.
A few of my favorite tips include:
These are all ways to make more time, but we need to be more specific: These are all ways to recognize and avoid procrastination.
By working backwards, you give your brain the opportunity to fight for the things it cares about: television, time at the bar, Wii, whatever. You procrastinate very effectively with the simple argument that “you can’t cut it all out.” By working forwards, though, you avoid all that.
Similarly, by believing in the virtue of your chores, you make procrastination extremely possible … aren’t there always more chores? By putting your dreams first, you don’t have to decide whether or not those chores are worthwhile. You’ll get to them when you get to them.
Lastly, when you start with what’s least important in an effort to give yourself the most uninterrupted time, you actually diminish that time. It’s just more virtuous procrastination. Look how busy we are telling ourselves we don’t have time, when really all we’re doing is creating a raft of reasons to procrastinate. No Bueno! Instead, start with what’s important first, then fill in the blanks.
At the end of the day, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Whole-Day Paradox is simply a subtle way of kicking The Can of Hard Work down the road. You don’t have time right now … oh no! But you will later!
In reality, your id is laughing his ass off at how easy it is to fool you, because you do have time now. In fact, if you cut out all the nonsense with which you fill your time in an effort to put off truly meaningful (but hard) work, you might actually have … wait for it … a whole day.
I know, right? How cool is that?
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