This article was originally published by Forbes.
“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” This Duke Ellington quote used to be my mantra. I’d find myself repeating it as a justification for the frenetic energy I brought to the last minute conclusion of every project. Duke Ellington was a respected leader in his field, I reasoned, so if he operated with this attitude, my own procrastination wasn’t a personal failing.
While some people enjoy the high levels of intensity and focus that can come from relying on deadlines, I’ve recently decided I no longer wanted to be motivated by an intense, often exhausting, push to the finish line. Sure, I always get the project done, but I’m motivated by guilt and stress.
My other key inspiration was what my friend Darcy Roake told me: when we procrastinate, the thing we want to do the least takes up the most time. Uff da! That sounds like the opposite of how I want to operate.
I called my coach Rebecca Aced-Molina for support. Here are the four questions we explored as we strategized about forging a different path.
1) How would things be different if I were able to stop procrastinating?
I described the ways I feel proud of myself when I do things in advance. Working more steadily helps me move through my work at a leisurely pace, which aligns with my core values of abundance, positivity, and joy.
If I could stop procrastinating or – more realistically – if I could create a healthier workflow, it would allow me to bring the ease and levity that I want to characterize my work.
2) What was the old story I was telling myself?
I used to believe that I needed frenetic energy and deadlines to get things done. There was also an underlying tension that there just wasn’t enough time or that I’d take too long on things if I allowed myself to start sooner.
The research on procrastination links it to perfectionism, which felt familiar – if I don’t give myself enough time to do something, it won’t be my fault if it isn’t perfect or my best work. There was comfort in being forced to just get it done, rather than obsessing about getting it just right.
3) What was the new story or intention I wanted to develop?
There were three intentions I found myself reflecting on as we brainstormed.
- I can trust myself to get things done.
- I can create work structures that encourage safety, calm, and levity.
- Working more intentionally throughout the project will generate more time, a more enjoyable process, and a better outcome.
My new mantra became joyful responsibility. I reminded myself that I like feeling responsible and that a lot of the projects that evoke procrastination are ones that I enjoy doing...once I’m actually doing them.
4) What supportive systems can I put in place to help foster this new approach?
I needed a few strong and consistent mechanisms to build the new habit of joyful responsibility.
Recognize habits that aren’t serving me.
As a justification to linger in bed for longer, I’d been starting my day reading email on my phone. Someone once told me, “When you start your day with your inbox, your day is determined by what other people need from you, rather than what you want and need.” I’d get up distracted, having already lost my focus before I brushed my teeth.
By charging my phone in the bathroom rather than next to my bed I’ve safeguarded against an email malaise first thing in the morning.
- Start the day with intention setting.
I often use the Five Minute Journal as a way to start my day. Each morning, I write three things I’m grateful for, three ways that “I’m going to make my day great,” and an affirmation.
In my new process, I identify and commit to completing a “challenge project”, a difficult and likely-to-evoke-procrastination project or activity. I write, “I’m going to make my day great by completing today’s challenge project: ______” and fill in the blank.
For my affirmation, I write, “I can trust myself to get things done. My intention is joyful responsibility”.
- Do the hardest thing first.
Research indicates that our self-control deteriorates over the course of the day, so we’re most likely to get a difficult or dreaded task done first thing in the morning.
If I start my day with a meeting, this model isn’t always realistic, but the pattern still works if I dedicate my first block of working or computer time to my challenge project.
- Divide projects into smaller bites.
For example, I record short videos about some of the articles I write. Prior to my coaching call with Aced-Molina, I’d sit myself in front of the camera to workshop video content for three to five articles. It was torture and made me dread the entire process.
Now, the first day’s challenge project can be to develop outlines of what I want to share in the videos, and the second day’s challenge project can be to actually start recording.
Even if it’s just 20-minutes dedicated to my challenge project, I’m going to consider that a win.
Aced-Molina reminded that I need to build trust within myself that I can sustain this practice, so I need to demonstrate consistency. I don’t want to get frustrated with myself or give up because I take on too much right out the gate.
While well into my thirties, I’m still motivated by stickers. I’ve made myself a chart of my work days and will give myself a sticker to celebrate each day I complete my challenge project. I’ll also include my challenge project under “Joyful Responsibility” in my daily and weekly Ta-Da lists, which I share with a friend and accountability buddy.
After having spent decades using deadlines for motivation, I’m not going to immediately kick my patterns of procrastination. As my grandmother says, “I didn’t get into this mess overnight, and I’m not going to get out of it overnight.”
What I can do is set my intention of joyful responsibility and build in strategies to support my new desired patterns of behavior. I’m curious and a little excited about the prospect.