Taming your inner procrastinator: how to start a task you’ve been dreading

I’ve been a procrastinator for as long as I can remember. Literally: I have a clear memory of my parents informing an eight year old me that the bedtime delay tactics I was employing were known as ‘procrastination’.

When it comes to procrastinating, I’m an expert.

But procrastination is a pain and it stops things from getting done and moving forward. And since I’m a great fan of both of these, I’ve had to find ways to tame my inner procrastinator, particularly when it comes to doing things I’m not looking forward to.

So, in this blog post I’m going to share three techniques I’ve found which help me with starting tasks I’m dreading. Hopefully they’ll help you too!

1) Zooming out

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to build up tasks that I am dreading: somehow I package them up as huge, scary, untacklable beasts. What’s more, the more I think about things I’m not looking forward to doing, the bigger I allow the ‘beast’ to get.

So, what I try to do is zoom out.

When you’re looking at the ground from an aeroplane, things seem considerably smaller. And for me the same applies with intimidating tasks. When I zoom out and get some perspective – get some context around ‘the task’ – it suddenly seems much smaller. Thinking about what’s come before, the hurdles and tasks that I’ve overcome which once seemed insurmountable (GCSE maths is a prime example), it makes the beast less intimidating.

If that’s not enough, zooming out and looking at where the task sits in the context of my whole life, usually helps me to shrink the beast. And when the beast is smaller, I feel way more positive about attempting to tackle it.

2) Psyching up

I’m guessing that most of you have at some point swum in cold water, so you’ll know what I mean when I describe the pre-plunge moment. That moment when you’re at the water’s edge, maybe you’ve even dipped your toes in: boy, it’s freezing, and if you want to go for a swim, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

If you’re anything like me, the only way to go from toe- to whole-body-submersion is by psyching yourself up for it. (“Come on Sarah, it is going to be painfully freezing for a few moments, but the agony will be fleeting; it will be over soon because it always is. Then you’ll be fine”.)

I’ve found that often the same applies with intimidating tasks: the hardest and worst part is starting the task. I’ve also found that the cold-water-plunge tactic helps me commence something I’m dreading.

So, what I do is psych myself up for the plunge.

I don’t try to pretend it won’t be painful; on the contrary, I allow myself to acknowledge that beginning the task is going to be painful and is going to be unpleasant but that this is the worst part, the pain will be short-lived, and afterwards I’ll feel so much better.

3) Looking around

I wonder if this final tactic is less obvious. I’ve had to ponder a bit harder to realise what’s going on, but I’m convinced I’m not the only one who procrastinates for this reason.

You know, sometimes the reason I procrastinate with a task I’m dreading is because I’m not confident about it: it’s going to be a shaky start and, most importantly, I don’t want everyone to see me working out how to do it. It’s a subtle and powerful psychological block, but it’s actually often unfounded and silly.

Why unfounded and silly? Well, how many people are looking at your computer screen when you open a new MSWord document to start something? It’s usually just you, right? And how many people are sat behind you watching you hit the backspace and delete buttons over and over until you get something you’re happier with? Still just you, yeah?

As I recently realised, the fact is, no one saw the first or second or even third draft of the section of thesis I had been procrastinating about doing. No one saw me hit delete or backspace, and no one saw me stumble, look things up, re-do things, play around with things until I’d got something I was at least part happy with.

There’s a reason why they are called P(ersonal) C(omputer)s.

If this resonates with you (perhaps you hadn’t realised that this was what was going on), then give yourself a logical talking to and, next time you’re procrastinating for this reason, try this:

Look around: no one is watching your shaky start! You’re free to find your way: proceed!

So, to reduce this advice to some Dizzee Rascal-style lyrics: