Have you ever set out with the best of intentions for tomorrow, believing that tomorrow you will feel better, you’ll have more energy, more drive, more clarity and more motivation than today? Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you will get things done. It will be the best day ever and all the things you’ve been putting off will finally be out of your hair. But that’s usually where it stops right? You think and think and think about it until there’s nothing left to do but take action. And that’s when we promise we’ll take that action tomorrow.
I used to procrastinate like that all the time. Big, things, little things, it didn’t really matter. I would put nearly everything off until the last minute. The more I didn’t really enjoy the process of doing a task, the more tomorrows would pass by with the task not being done. In fact I would begin to create all sorts of pictures in my mind about the task, and it felt like I was living it over and over and over and over again. Each time it was like my mind thought that the task got bigger and scarier and more challenging, frustrating and uncomfortable. Sound familiar?
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Back when I was a uni student, I really enjoyed what I was studying, and I was doing really well without even putting in 100%. A lot of the time I felt like I was just winging it, doing things at the very last minute. At first I was proud of myself, thinking that this was a sign that I was obviously a really smart person who didn’t need to study hard to get good grades. But over time I began to notice a pattern. I was putting off my assignments and studying for exams because in my mind it was just too much. Too stressful, too hard, too complex, too much effort. Part of this pattern was that I knew that since I could get good marks with little effort, I expected myself to get perfect marks with more effort. So I would begin to put so much pressure on myself to write the perfect assignment. But with each day, I would put off an assignment, the idea of starting became more and more overwhelming, until I was in a position where I felt like I didn’t have a choice anymore. If I wanted to pass, I had to do it.
Suddenly, it was as if I gave myself permission to drop all those high perfectionistic expectations of myself, because I’d given myself no other option. There I was, facing potential failure of the course. Amazingly, with the pressure of perfection gone, the only pressure left was a time crunch to get it done. I worked fast and would always hand it in just in time to make sure I could pass. When I got my grades back and saw how well I had done considering the situation that I had put myself in, the high expectations I’d had of myself began to creep back in. I started thinking things like “well imagine how great you can do next time if you just gave yourself an extra week.” or “If you can do that well under that pressure, what’s a little more? There’s no excuse next time. You are capable of getting a higher mark.” Inevitably I would end up repeating this pattern over and over and over again.
I was repeating a pattern
Later on in my career I still hadn’t figured out how to get myself out of this cycle. I used to even tell myself that “I work better under pressure” and so I would create that last minute pressure for myself. What I didn’t realise though, was that I was already putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect, that the “last minute” pressure I was applying to myself was really a release of pressure. It was a way to let the weight off my shoulders. A way to give myself permission to accept that I wasn’t perfect and work under less pressure.
Then one day I dropped the ball. I had said yes to doing too many things and the pressure I felt from my partner, my boss, my bank account and myself was enormous. I became so overwhelmed with trying to make everything work at a high standard that was never good enough for me, that I just stopped. I was on the verge of quitting my job, breaking up with my partner and joining an ashram to live out my days as a nun. I knew that something had to change so I stopped everything. I finalised my projects and took a week off work. I told my partner I needed some time alone and I took myself off to a secluded spot with beautiful hiking trails and beach walks.
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I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew that a week’s break would not solve my procrastination and perfection problems in the long term. I had wracked my brain but I just couldn’t figure out what I would do when I went home again and got back into the daily grind of life. So I called a friend who I’d known since my university days, and who now ran her own business very successfully, whilst still spending quality time with her kids and partner. I remembered that she had always been consistent in her approach to getting work done. At uni I used to even think that she wasn’t as clever as I was to do the work last minute like I could, but looking at our lives now, she was way ahead of me in so many areas and definitely smart enough! So I gave her a call and asked if I could pick her brain about how she gets over this procrastination and what I could do to move forward in my own life.
I found someone who had been there before
“The thing is” she said. “Most of us are really bad at predicting what our mood will be in the future. This is often where we fall short, because we’ll put things off until tomorrow with great expectations of how we’ll feel, and then we wake up and don’t feel that way. Sometimes unexpected things happen or the task still feels the same and we give in so that we can feel good in the moment and put that task off for another tomorrow. I say “we” because I do too, I just learned a system that helps me get around it.”
We talked daily for that week and she shared with me the strategies that she had learned as a student and that she uses to this day to keep her on track with her life and business. I went home feeling rejuvenated as I had filled up my energy cup by taking care of myself, relaxing and enjoying the beaches during my time away. But I was also feeling excited and ready to put into practise what I had learned from my friend. Like any new behaviour, it took me some time to implement consistently but eventually it became an automatic habit and now my life has reached new heights in every area.
Take responsibility for your pictures
Just like I had been using time by creating a last minute time crunch to take the pressure off of my perfectionist attitude, my friend had been using time to travel into the future to take control of all the mental pictures her brain would create about the task ahead. So what I mean by this is, often when a person is procrastinating, their brain is creating a bunch of images about the thing they’re procrastinating about. Our brains don’t necessarily know the difference between future pictures and present pictures so the brain will often interpret these pictures as if they are happening right now. That is why procrastination can feel so painful, because your brain is interpreting it as if you are actually doing that task that you’re picturing, over and over and over again. Not only that, but whilst you’re living those pictures like groundhog day, your brain is applying all the emotions and fears that you might dream up, reinforcing those negative feelings and thoughts, tying them to the picture you’re creating.
When my friend noticed this, she decided to try something different. She started to be more aware of, and notice the pictures she was creating. She would do this with the intention of representing the future rewards, as if they were happening in the present. For example, early in her career she had been procrastinating about saving money for the long term future. It seemed so far away, and the amount she felt she could save at the time seemed so small and insignificant, that it was difficult for her to picture the future goal, and to see her own progress along the way.
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It all felt like too much of a sacrifice in the moment, for a reward that was too far in the future for her to see so it felt like there was no reward at all. So she sat down and wrote a story of what she pictured a day in her life would look like when she was living on the money she’d saved or invested. She included as many details as possible, including an exact amount that she could see in her bank account, where she was, who she was with, what she was feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, saying to herself. She then closed her eyes and imagined this picture of her life, using her imagination to blow up the picture, make it big and bright and colourful and to jump into it, experiencing it with all her senses as if she was already there.
She did this exercise daily for a few minutes and soon the picture was so vivid that she could jump into it within seconds. She noticed that instead of feeling like she was sacrificing every time she put away an amount of money to save, it began to feel more like a reward and something she began to want to move towards doing more and more often. Suddenly motivation was no longer a question, because she could feel the future rewards immediately at any time she closed her eyes.
Manage your own expectations
For me, the learning that made the most difference and helped me to finally break my procrastination habit once and for all, was realising that I, like most humans, was not great at predicting the future. As my friend had mentioned earlier, we tend to put things off until tomorrow, with the idea that somehow tomorrow we will be more motivated. Sometimes it’s not even tomorrow, and it’s a story we tell ourselves about “when this happens, then I’ll finally do the thing.” For example, I used to tell myself things like “When I finish uni, then I’ll be more consistent with my work habits. When I lose weight, then I’ll focus on healthy habits and lifestyle. When I sort out my morning routine, then I’ll exercise daily. When I retire, then I’ll have fun. When I get my dream job, then I’ll be the best employee ever. When I start my own business, then I’ll save money. When my kids leave home, then I’ll start taking care of myself.” Notice a pattern?
The thing is, nothing in our patterns will be different “then” and we’ll still be waiting for a feeling or motivation to hit us in the face. The thing is, that feeling or motivation will not hit you in the face on a daily, consistent basis at the same time every day for the rest of your life, and our brains like to live in the moment and forget to remember that. So learning to accept that forecasting the future is one of our limitations can be helpful in these situations. It means we can not only accept that we might be inaccurate about how we will feel tomorrow or after the kids leave home, but we can even start to expect it.
Instead of having to make guesses about our future, we can simply go with what we know, which is that our guess about how motivated we will be in the future is probably not accurate, and make a plan based on that. Just like a Melbourne weather forecast, we can expect that it’s not going to be accurate and plan ahead by wearing layers and packing an umbrella and a pair of bathers. When it comes to motivation, we can prepare for the fact that maybe tomorrow we will not be as motivated as we think, and instead of leaving the entire project for tomorrow, we can get started on it today with baby steps.
Take consistent baby steps
This means that instead of skipping your morning workout and saying you’ll start tomorrow, you put on your gear and do five minutes, or just go for a walk, or do a 1 minute plank if that’s all you’ve got energy for. It doesn’t matter how small or how big you go, just getting started TODAY is what counts. It takes some of the pressure off for tomorrow, and helps your brain change the future picture.The way that I do this, is that I will often talk to myself in the moment that I notice myself saying “I’ll just do it tomorrow.” by saying “I know there’s a good chance I might feel the same tomorrow and that future me will not want to do this either. I can still take action right now, even if I don’t feel motivated.”
Melisa Grigg - Head Coach & Trainer
Melisa was stuck in sadness for 15 years, hated her job, was overweight and her relationship had just ended. Melisa inspires people with her story and now teaches how she sorted her life out. She worked out how to be happy and how to lose over 30kg of body weight. In simple steps she teaches how you can stop procrastinating, find confidence, stop being so sad and finally start to find true meaning and purpose in your life.
Then I break down the task ahead of me into small steps and ask myself what is the smallest step that I can do right now. Yes, the smallest step. So small that there’s no excuse not to do it. It could be as simple as putting on your running shoes or cutting up some veggies to prepare some healthy food. It might be that you just write one sentence of your assignment, or just write anything at all, to get the words flowing. It could be that you just ask someone what the time is instead of starting a whole conversation, or maybe it’s as simple as having a shower and getting ready to go out, even if you don’t feel like it. Then after that, all you do is focus on the very next smallest step. That’s it. No big steps. No perfection. No expectations. Just small actionable steps in the moment. Sometimes it’s as simple as just getting out of bed on time. Athletes do this every day. They get up and train whether they want to or not. Whether it’s raining, snowing, sunny, hot, cold, in another place and time.
The key for me was to remember that I can take action even if I’m not motivated in the moment, and that moods are transient in that I will not be in this state of emotion for ever. The cool thing is, as soon as I had started to take action, I didn’t focus so much on my mood and the momentum of each little step soon began to build. Before I knew it, I was enjoying a full hour workout or halfway through my first draft of a project. And the best part is, that I was feeling much more motivated than before. It’s almost as if it took action in order to feel motivated, and not the other way around.
These days I have built up so much momentum in my life that when I am feeling challenged with a task and thinking about putting it off for my future self, I immediately start to visualise my future and live the reward in my mind, before opening my eyes and asking myself what’s the smallest step I can take. Then I take it. Some days I still don’t feel motivated and I still feel challenged with the idea of putting things off, but I simply do the steps my friend taught me and I go from unmotivated to motivated much quicker than before. Now I’m proud to say, that like my friend, I’m happier, healthier, running a business where I get to enjoy loads of quality time with my friends, family and loved ones. All because I followed a few simple steps, consistently over time, and you can too 🙂
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