I think I have some reasonably good ideas pertaining to understanding and working with parts of self. In fact, I have an ongoing project that I am undertaking around this topic which fulfills me intellectually and spiritually and that I hope will help both my patients and myself. During the course of any given day, I might have insights and ideas pertaining to this project that I will jot down into one of my many composition books, or if one is not within arms reach, a random slip of paper. For some reason, in bed at night I tend have the most profound ideas, and often I can even muster the discipline to turn on the light grab my comp book and make a note.
Yet, when I am ready to sit down and write, to pull it all together, one of my parts emerges with a vengeance and dominates my personality. It is Procrastination. When under the spell of Procrastination, have a sudden urge to do anything but work. In fact in between this sentence and the last, one of my parts, Ms. Procrastination, compelled me to spend 17 minutes scrolling Facebook. So what is it about the task of having to write that is so damn painful that I have to distract myself with something mindless, and how to I switch out of this state?
It is as if the sensation of this part is physically holding you back from what you know to be the greater good, that it is dead-set on keeping you away from what you are doing and attending to it. Most of us know that Procrastination is a member of our internal family, and it may seem a more formidable sub-personality in people trying to produce creative content. In me Procrastination is characterized by a daunting feeling of futility that sets in when I get the idea to start the project, as well as a desire for instant gratification. It’s as if she’s telling me that the hard work I am considering embarking on won’t result in anything and why not just enjoy myself?
I also think also many of us who want to be create content, start businesses, or produce art are daunted by the sheer productivity of famous people who really are doing so. A best-selling author recently said that he gets up early, and works non-stop “as hard as I can” for 16 hours. Elon Musk, arguably the most productive person on the planet, also works continually and needs less sleep than the average person – 6 hours or so. I have heard tell of some insanely productive people are blessed with the need for as little as 3-4 hours a night.
But most of us don’t live this super-productive paradigm. This admission is realistic, as is the notion that most of us will never be Elon Musk. However that doesn’t mean we can’t be productive and create content of significance or beauty in it’s own right, and maybe even that will improve the world. But to do this, however, means to overcome the negative state of mind that besets us when we embark on something that requires us to be actively involved in the difficulty of creating something, rather than engaging in the vicarious thrill of passively experiencing the inner world of Elon in this Joe Rogan interview.
So, we need a plan to gently put Procrastination aside for a period of time. And in the spirit of us all contributing to the self-and-world improvement project I will share some strategies.
1. Schedule a Block of Time
This is something that everyone who gives productivity advice tells you. You need to schedule writing time. And there is a reason for this. Because it works. The first step in convincing yourself to work is to schedule it as necessary – as if it is part of your job.
Graham Green, one of the 20th century’s most notable authors would work religiously from 8-12, then take the rest of the day off. Naturally, as I often do, I must mention Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who rose in the middle of the night to work on his great autobiographical novel before going to his job in the morning. Herman Melville, EB White and many of the greats had a set routine for writing.
No question a routine is necessary, which for practical purposes can manifest as a set block of time. But how much time? It has been demonstrated that approximately 3 hours in a day is the maximum amount of time you can fully concentrate on anything and still remain productive. This is heartening, because it means you can relieve yourself of the notion that of devoting excessive amounts of time to your project will make you more virtuous.
So, why not have 1 hour a day that you devote to your creative endeavor. Most of us can manage this. Then, perhaps try those 3 optimal hours of production on the weekend. Think of these slots as necessary parts of your day, and schedule them on your calendar
2. Turn Off the internet
I could go into detail as to why this is a non-negotiable step in the process of avoiding procrastination, but I think we all know the reasoning behind this critical of steps. You can access all manner of data and scientific evidence of the detrimental impact of excessive interaction with your phone.
Let’s make no bones about it. The internet, and social media in particular is the biggest time suck there is. And it’s extremely addictive. Listen to these giants of tech expound on the problematic nature of social media:
So, enough said about this step. It is necessary.
3. Use Active Imagination
The great psychologist Carl Jung forced himself to sit alone in his office for 2 hours a day, and allow his imagination to run wild. The result of many years of this regular practice was his masterpiece, “The Red Book”. His dedication to this block of time to just be with his unconscious resulted, after several years, in a work of profound psychological depth and beauty.
Sit there in front of your screen or notebook, and rather that becoming frustrated with lack of creativity. Just sit with your mind and let your unconscious take over. Keep the project in mind, but don’t distress if your mind wanders a bit. If you have the goal in mind, have faith that the unconscious will help you if you give it some leeway.
4. Have a Related Side Project
Say you are really stuck. Your frustration or blankness is simply too impenetrable. A good antidote to pursue a fairly rote or even mindless task that has to be done pertaining to your project so the aggravation of having to produce ideas from the blue is temporarily assuaged.
A good strategy for me to use during my scheduled time is making notes from a book that I need to read and digest for the project anyway. Some other examples of segueing into a related project if, say, you are working on something artistic, would be to sketch out related images, or practicing scales or a song you are otherwise trying to master, if working on something musical. Or your could organize your paperwork, review your notes or again, if writing or doing videography, just do a little fine tuning or editing of what you have so far.
This approach solves 2 problems: 1. You aren’t faced with a blank sheet, blank surface and a blank mind, you actually are using your scheduled time and it does not require any exceptional creativity to make notes. 2. It keeps you away from filling that gap with those oh-so-familiar distractions you rationalize as “productive”, such as pairing your socks, doing the dishes, or cleaning the dust bunnies from under your couch.
5. Sub-Schedule a Break
Depending how long you plan to work, schedule a mid-way break. If you are working longer than an hour, schedule quarterly breaks. For example, every 45 minutes, give yourself 5 minutes to unwind, do a few reps with hand weights or run up and down the stairs, play with your cat, make a short personal call…again anything but getting on the internet!! Don’t go down that Rabbit Hole! But do give yourself a chance to regroup and then return at least partially refreshed.
“Give yourself a reward engages our basic instincts for something pleasurable at the end of a period of difficulty.
Graham Green, who I previously mentioned, would finish his work at 12pm, then go for daiquiris before lunch and spend the afternoon lunching with friends. Now, remember Green was writing in the middle part of the 20th century, where views of alcohol consumption were quite different. Think Mad Men. So obviously, I don’t recommend alcohol as a reward, but I do recommend scheduling a fun event, a romantic interlude, taking a walk in the park, a healthy snack like a Keto fat bomb, or if you have a regular practice – a meditation session. Which brings me to…
Yes, I know I continually recommend meditation, but there’s a reason. This is a practice that will both decrease the occurrence of negative emotion bubbling to the surface (including that depressive feeling of futility) and increase your capacity for concentration. All creative souls should have a meditation practice of some sort. So get in the habit of this – start with 5 minutes, use an app like Headspace, or a wonderful personal neurofeedback device called Muse.
While you can incorporate meditation in the breaks or as a reward (if you are so inclined), it is really an ongoing support of your project. It is also a method to care for the mind and the soul that has demonstrated with robust evidence as to it’s positive benefit across all domains of life.
It is also important to be aware of your capacity for distraction and for the characteristic negative feelings toward difficult creative tasks from your Procrastination part that prevent you from working. With meditation comes the increased skill of mindfulness that we can use to notice Procrastination and gently ask her to let us be for now, that we will get to her needs for more passive entertainments when we are through.
So there you have it. 7 ways to tackle this substantial and mostly universal state called Procrastination. Surely there are countless additions to this list, but these tend to work for me so far. And remember, the state of Procrastination is one that most of us have in our cast of inner characters. Like any of our troublesome parts, she needs to be respected and worked with, not against. If we malign any of our states and try to get rid of them; to suppress them, they will furtively find a way to undermine us…like those 17 minutes of Facebook, because I “somehow” forgot to put the iPad on airplane mode!!