By Leo Babauta
It’s pretty rare to find people who (almost) never procrastinate — in my experience, 95-99% of people procrastinate, at least part of each day. If not most of the day!
That’s not a judgment — I procrastinate too. It’s about understanding our habitual reactions to stress, uncertainty, difficult tasks, being overwhelmed, distractions and more. Most of us procrastinate, based on habits we formed as kids and teenagers.
But some people rarely procrastinate. It’s like finding a unicorn — they are beautiful and a little unbelievable! So when I find one, I interview them.
Here’s what I’ve found two habits of non-procrastinators are (and they’re habits I try to practice most of the time), plus a bonus habit that I’ve found to be useful:
- Compassion for future self: This is the main one I’ve found to be true in non-procrastinators, and most of them do it without really thinking about it! They think about what would make their future selves happiest, or have the least amount of pain. Then they do that action. So simple right? Ha!
- Making the steps small & doable: This is a fairly common tip, but combined with the above habit, it’s a powerful one-two punch. Take any difficult task and make it smaller, easier, more doable.
- Bonus: fully open to the task: This is something I’ve added, that not every non-procrastinator does … but it works wonders. Instead of closing ourselves to the task, instead of wanting it to be over, you can open up to the task fully.
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
Compassion for Future Self
You’ve heard this one before, but it’s worth thinking about again. One of my favorite meditation teachers wrote about this the other day, and I wanted to explore it a little bit.
I think non-procrastinators formed this habit when they were in elementary school, and don’t even realize they’re doing it much of the time. Something happened when they were young — maybe they turned something in late because they procrastinated, or they had to do it last-minute and really hated it — but they learned that putting things off equals future pain.
So instead, they have a mental habit of thinking:
- If I put this off, it will just be more trouble for me in the future; or
- If I do this now, I will be happier in the future; so therefore
- I should just get it over with and do it now.
So simple, and yet this must be ingrained as a habit. Instead, most people have a habit of thinking:
- I can do this later, it’s not a problem, I would rather do something else right now; or
- I want to get away from this pain right now, I’d rather put it off and relieve my stress with comfort food/distraction/etc.
- Therefore, Internet!
It’s such a strongly ingrained habit that we don’t even think about it.
To change the habit, pause and be more deliberate. Think about your future self, tomorrow or a year from now. What action taken today, and repeatedly, would make this future self happier? How can you be compassion with this future self, so that they don’t have to suffer?
Practice it and make it a habit. It’s simple, but again, combine it with the next habit, and you’ll see the power of this method.
Make the Steps Easy & Doable
The above habit is simple and perhaps a bit obvious to people who have read it before. And so is this habit. But most people don’t realize how powerful it is to combine these two habits into one method. In fact, I believe most non-procrastinators do these two habits in combination, without realizing it.
The habit really is this: make the task seem so doable that starting it will be easy. Once you’ve started, you’re in. You’re already moving, so you just keep moving. So the key is to get moving in the first place, and you do that by making it seem really easy to start. You kind of trick your present self into starting so that your future self will be happier. But it’s not really a trick, as it really can be easy to start, but we build the task up in our minds into something so hard and painful that we put it off. If we just start, we’ll see that it’s not so bad.
So when you’re contemplating a task or project, make it a habit of thinking about how easy it will be to start. Want to write a book chapter? Don’t think about how hard it will be to write a chapter for 3-4 hours, or how many things you need to figure out before you can write the chapter. Instead, just think about opening a simple word processor, playing some nice music, and writing the first thing that comes to your mind. Easy, doable, small. Just think about how easy it is to start, don’t think about the whole thing. The truth is, you can’t do the whole thing, not at once … all you can do is the next simple step. Focus on that.
Combine these two things and see what happens. Empathize with your future self, and then just think about the smallest possible way to start. Be just like a non-procrastinator!
Bonus: Fully Open to the Task
The last habit is something I’ve found to add a lot to this method, even if not every non-procrastinator practices it. It takes a little more awareness/mindfulness than most habits.
It’s about how we normally want to either 1) get away from a task because it’s hard or filled with uncertainty, or 2) get the task over with (like it’s a chore), and move on to the next task, because we have a lot to do. The problem with this approach is that every task becomes some thing to get done with, something we don’t like doing. Which means we spend our days filled with things we don’t really like, and after awhile, this gets tiring, stressful, boring.
This leads to procrastination, because who wants to do tasks you don’t really want to do?
Instead, what if you fully opened up to the task, finding joy in the middle of it?
It’s about allowing yourself to be fully present with the task. For example:
- You’re about to start writing (or some other similar task), so you get into the space, allowing yourself to arrive fully.
- You look at the task full on, and notice if you’re resisting, wanting to run, not liking it.
- You allow yourself to stay with the task, being compassionate for yourself but also your future self.
- You find gratitude for being able to do the task, and connect it with the larger mission you’re trying to serve, the people you care about.
- In the middle of that gratitude and devotion to who and what you care about … you do the task, and find joy in the simple doing.
Notice the difference between this kind of opening, and the way we usually try to just get things done, just get them over with. It’s completely different.
Open up to the task, have compassion for your future self, and just focus on the smallest, most doable way to get started. See what that might change.