You’d think being forced to stay home is the ideal time to develop a deep, consistent mindfulness practice. It’s good for well-being, and it’s good for focus at work, with clients and while working from home.
So why do I *not* meditate? Why do I keep putting it off?
When I stop and pay attention to the resistance, I find the reason. I am a bit on edge, and it feels difficult to go from something stressful (the news) or demanding (a rewarding but intense conversation with a client) or exciting (watching my favourite show) directly to meditation – the sudden shift is uncomfortable for reasons I don’t understand. But if I don’t understand it, I can still accept it.
And as I’ve accepted it, I can respond to it, choosing a way to transition into meditation. Such as:
Find a much less stressful activity to do first, e.g. 15 minutes of tidying. (Tidying papers is fine. Actually doing paperwork, we can talk about another time!)
Mindfully savour a hot drink (here’s the one I made just now). This can be a prelude to the meditation, or it can be the meditation itself.
Listen to some very chill music. (My go-to is the “Robot Heart” yoga playlist from Burning Man – you can find it on Spotify or Soundcloud.) And you can combine this with one of the other strategies.
If you know what you want to do, but you feel stuck and are not getting started, this post is for you.
Perfectionism is the action killer. Do something badly a first time, then do it the second time, and a third, and you’ll be far ahead of where you are now. So far ahead of the person waiting vainly to be “ready”.
You’re not good yet, and that’s okay. If it matters to you, keep going.
It’s okay to be afraid to start. Just don’t let fear stop you.
Words of wisdom from someone who started badly, and from there gone on to very big things:
You don’t run into people who say, “I’ve written 7,000 blog posts and none of them are any good. Can you help make me make my writing better?” What they say is, “I’m blocked.” Well, actually you’re not. Because you can talk. You can speak. You’re just not writing down what you’re saying because you’re afraid.
And improving your work is a hundred times easier than getting a guarantee that your work will be fine.
So, do bad work. Do it often, do it generously, and then work to improve it. That’s how you learned how to walk. It’s how you learned how to talk.
It’s how you learn how to do everything that matters to you. But now suddenly you’re waiting for a guarantee. It doesn’t work that way.
It’s so easy now to blog every day. So easy now to put up a video. So easy now to put your work into the world. And if you’re willing to do it poorly, then you could probably learn how to do it better. – Seth Godin (emphasis added)
What regrets will you have on your deathbed? It almost certainly won’t be “I wish I’d caught the last two seasons of Brooklyn 99!” If you have goals that don’t involve sitting on the couch watching endless television and films, limiting your Netflix time is important.
This post has a bunch of obvious suggestions like that – and oftentimes the message we need is the obvious message. If you’re managing your viewing habits just fine, move along to the next article.
Decide that it’s okay to watch part of a movie or show. If you find yourself thinking “Ugh, I shouldn’t have started, but I’m already 5 minutes in so I have to finish”, don’t believe your thoughts. You don’t have to do anything. Netflix will keep your place.
Act in the moment – if you have the impulse to get up, follow that impulse.
Set a simple “implementation intention” for the end of the episode, to help transition. (For me it might be “Make a cup of peppermint tea.”)
Use the 10 minute rule. If you have the impulse to watch another episode, wait 10 minutes. Use the time to exercise or do a household chore. After that, decide whether you actually want to watch – but either way, you’ve strengthened part of your prefrontal cortex in your brain that’s associated with willpower, given yourself more control over your own life, and done something constructive during those 10 minutes.
Or go deeper. How much do you care about your actual goal – the thing you want but keep procrastinating on? Your book, your side hustle, your reading or online course. Given the choice, would you achieve your goal rather than watching a bunch of television?
To go to the next level, don’t start watching in the first place. There are few great shows in the world, and they’ll be here next week or next year. And there are very few that compare to actually achieving the thing you want. So let’s get specific:
Put the remote in another room. In a drawer. With the batteries removed. Use whatever degree of barrier you need to avoid habitual “let’s see what’s on” behaviour.
Decide never to watch a show unless it’s been recommended to you by multiple people. This means no time wasted searching through an index of shows.
Pull out the plug. To watch the TV you’ve got to physically plug it in again.
Pack the TV away. Turn it to face the wall, put it against the corner in your spare room. These last two depend on others that you live with.
Turn a sofa away from the TV and place your reading material next to it. That’s now your chair. You or the person watching the television can use headphones as needed.
The “pull out the plug” strategy worked for me in my last years of high school in 1987-88. It worked because I was living with my father, who rarely watched television. I would walk into the lounge room, flick the TV on out of habit, and when nothing happened, I would (a) remember why I’d unplugged it, and (b) ask myself whether there was anything on that I really wanted to watch, or if it was just a habit. The impulse weakened as I refused to reward it, meaning my brain was rewiring, and the changed habit has served me well to this day.
I hadn’t heard back from a client in several weeks, so I sent another message.
When they responded a short while later, they let me know that my messages had been encouraging and helpful in a busy time. And I got to thinking that many of you, the readers of this blog, are in similar circumstances and in need of encouragement. So this message is for you, dear reader. It’s a gentle check-in and a nudge towards the change they (you) want to create – even in the midst of busy, demanding life. It is an obvious message, perhaps, but the magic is in actually acting on the suggestion.
Here it is. (Only the greeting has been changed.)
Dear reader, hope you’re doing well. I don’t know your exact circumstances and this may or may not be relevant to you, but I just wanted to suggest that even in a busy time it’s helpful to take time out, take stock, and decide what the most important 2 or 3 things are that you need to make progress on in the coming week. Then focus on getting those done before other things. It’s a weight off the mind to get those done, and it’s a great way to find clarity amidst chaos.
I have spent much of my life with a sense of having so much to do, so much that I want to do, but little sense of what to do next.
And this is fundamental. Dreams, plans and todo lists are only effective when they direct our actual actions at a specific point in time. To turn something from a hope or general intention into a reality, it must translate to an actual physical action, something that I do in the world.
You may be different from me. Knowing what you’re doing and when comes naturally to some – to the sort of person who isn’t likely to be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder. And that’s great. To me that’s like a superpower, so use your superpower and do great things.
For those of us who don’t do this naturally (and this could include your child, partner or colleague), be patient and understand that we need a good strategy rather than judgement, supportive reminders rather than impatience, and affordable questions to identify our true priorities, rather than words like “just try harder”.
And a good strategy is key for people like us. At the core of that strategy, for me at least and for many clients seeking anti-procrastination coaching, is this:
Know what comes next.
Put down your next few actions (or otherwise reminding yourself) in a way that you’ll definitely see. For me that can be achieved several ways.
Writing my next 3 tasks on a sticky note, ideally a coloured sticky note with a felt tip pen for boldness. Or…
Having them in a short list that’s super easy to access on my phone (not buried in a notes app, but accessible on one tap). Or…
Putting a physical reminder in my way. E.g. if I need to take something with me when I leave the house, I put it on my “launch pad” by the door that I’ve learnt to always check. (My first version of a launch pad was the doorway of my bedroom – I just knew that it worked for me, long before I had any concept of ADD/ADHD.) Or…
For a simple sequence of actions, deciding on the next three items and committing them to memory. This only works for me when the actions are straightforward and each can be represented by a short word or two.
One or more of those might work for you. Maybe they’re all terrible for you. Doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
When you want to get things done, decide what you’re doing next and make sure you have a way to stay focused on it.
Here’s a video I made a while back about learning, which is a passion for me. (Now, I’m more skilled in study technique than in making videos, so please excuse the video quality, and send me constructive feedback!)
I talk about the value of self-testing, of increasing the challenge to the right level, and weird mnemonic visualisations for language learning. Particular techniques mentioned include spaced repetition (e.g. Anki, but I first did it in 1995 with vocab lists on strips of paper) and interleaving (incorporating older material with your newer study content in order to strengthen those memories).
The main thing to remember is this: Keep your brain engaged and exercise your memories by testing them, and you’ll get better results.
When we ask ourselves why we procrastinate, a couple of reasons come easily to mind: That we are lazy, and that we suck at time management. The first is actively unhelpful. The time management explanation is also a distraction.
Time management skills are important, don’t get me wrong. Planning, timeboxing, project tracking and to-do lists are all valuable, but you can have all of those things and still be a world-class procrastinator.
Because to not procrastinate means to do the thing that really matters. And the thing that really matters is usually highly emotionally significant. There is a lot at stake, including our beliefs about ourselves. Ironically, a lot of strategies to beat procrastination involve recrimination and punishment – perhaps something we first experience from our early caregivers, and later inflict on ourselves. For that reason, one of the first things I discuss with clients in tackling procrastination is self compassion, with patience and persistence.
Does this mean letting yourself off the hook? No! Have high expectations of yourself. Aim to be a better person, have a better life and have a greater positive impact on those you come in contact with.
But let go of the self-blame and be strategic instead.
You develop a good habit of meditating for 3 minutes a day. Moving up to 5 minutes a day, you start to feel like there is a benefit from it. Reducing anxiety, improving focus, this is really worth the time! So you decide, “I’m going to do 15 minutes every day.”
And maybe that will work and maybe it won’t, depending on what is in your life already and what habits of mind and action you’ve already developed.
It may be that you find yourself putting off the meditation, leaving it until later and then not actually getting back to it. Intending to do it tomorrow, but never finding it compelling enough to do today.
This is a helpful frame. Anything that helps me get started for a matter of minutes, even seconds, or that makes starting just a little more pleasant, gives me a chance of continuing and possibly finding flow.
(I’ll be posting more on this topic, including micro-pomodoros, preparing the workspace and first physical actions, and you’ll find these with the getting started tag.)
People sometimes ask me whether I got into anti-procrastination coaching because I’m a super-effective and productive person who could help other people be like me, or because I had problems with procrastination myself.
Let me assure you, I am not the pinnacle of productive, focused work. I chose this path because I had massive problems with procrastination and didn’t understand why, and then slowly began to find strategies and ways of thinking that helped.
(Photo by me)
I’m still my own first client – I work to improve and support myself before (and in order that) I can work for and support my paying clients. I have my struggles and dysfunctions, and I work on them daily. I also have my own coach who I talk with weekly, which helps me stay on track, get back on track, and deal with the challenges that inevitably come up.
I have successes, I have frequent failures, and I learn from all of them. That’s what progress looks like.
It’s both funny and humbling when I look at my testimonials page and see kind, appreciative words from people who I know are better organised and more focused than me. But I have also learnt not to beat myself up about it, because we have different sets of challenges. I’ve had my issues with physical and mental health which have made motivation and focus extremely hard. Another person finds themselves in a difficult, unsupportive family situation.
It’s okay. By some miracle I was born, I am alive, and right now I’m sitting in the sun beneath a clear sky. And when I stumble, I begin again now, where I am.
I have work to do, but constant low-grade pain from a shoulder strain is killing my concentration and will to work these last 24 hours. I’ve distracted myself with social media and I’m letting people down because of it. If only I knew an anti-procrastination coach.
Okay, here’s my self-prescription:
5 minutes of work by the timer (because I can bear almost anything for 5 minutes, even in this state). Of course I can do more, but I permit myself to break anytime after 5 minutes (and definitely before 15 minutes, because of the shoulder).
Then 5 minutes of something nice for my shoulder – a spiky ball on the scapula, gentle range-of-motion exercises, some tense-and-release or a pain meditation. (I’ve found all of these things helpful in the past, but neglected them in favour of short-term distraction.)
Repeat for one hour, then reassess.
I’ve used this many times, and it works for me.
You may notice that there is no time allocated for social media. That is not an oversight.
I saw them frequently beginning in my first year at university, 1989, while hurrying between lectures. Two lines of verse spray-painted on the rear of the University of Sydney’s chemistry building.
They stimulated my imagination (though not enough to think about transferring from engineering to literature). Whose words were they? (This was before the world wide web.) And how should I understand their grappling with time and mortality?
Looking back, I can see why those lines grabbed the attention of my younger self. Time passed, and I had no clear sense of it. I knew that time was coming for me like a bony knife (flowing relentlessly, like a hundred yachts), yet it seemed unreal, outside my world, like a monster from a scary story. I’d not yet lost a loved one, and had no intuitive sense of time bringing death and decay.
Many years later, after the words had been removed, recited the words to a friend, who said “That’s Kenneth Slessor.” And so it is, from the poem Out Of Time, which contains the later lines:
Time leaves the lovely moment at his back,
Eager to quench and ripen, kiss or kill
Further on, absorbed in the beauty of a moment, the poet declares:
The moment’s world it was; and I was part,
Fleshless and ageless, changeless and made free.
‘Fool, would you leave this country?’ cried my heart,
But I was taken by the suck of sea.
The gulls go down, the body dies and rots,
And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts.
Most of the work that I do – with myself and with clients – comes down to moments. In particular, being to some degree present and engaged with this moment, rather than swept along by time. And while my approach involves awareness, techniques and exercises (to help clients stop procrastinating and begin acting), Slessor uses the beauty of language to make vivid our relationship with time.
Perhaps over time my coaching work will include more poetry.
Kenneth Slessor (1901 – 1971) was an Australian poet, journalist and official war correspondent in World War II. – Wikipedia
Getting organized (or establishing new habits) is like following your breath when learning to meditate. We are taught that, when you notice your mind wandering off and straying from the intention of following the breath, you simply notice having done so, without judgment, and return to following your breath. What if we could apply the same technique to habits, following routines and using strategies? What if the habit was not the new desired behavior, but the habit was returning to the desired behavior without judgment? If you solidify the habit of return, you will worry less about leaving the path. You will always have a way back.
– A listener’s letter to an ADHD-themed podcast. Link.
Thrilling? Definitely. Terrifying? Probably. At least they’re not doing it for fundraising.
A common theme for many of my clients is wanting to make a positive difference in the world, and being held back by a lack of focus or procrastination. So we’re going on a slight tangent here: If you want to make difference through earning and giving (a perfectly valid way to do good), here are some angles to consider.
First, consider the big picture and make sure you’re doing overall good! Consider sponsored skydiving for charity in the UK: 1,500 people went skydiving for charity and raised £45,000 (after more than 60% of donations were used to pay for the diving), according to 80,000 Hours (an Effective Altruism charity). 163 injuries from the jumps cost the National Health Service around £610,000. So for every £1 raised for the charities, the health service spent roughly £13.
Ironically, many of the charities supported focused on health-related matters.
How about volunteering? Not always as impactful as you’d like, and you don’t want to push a project that appeals to outsiders but ignores the needs of locals, so proceed thoughtfully and listen carefully and continually to those you aim to help.
Many times in my life I’ve felt disconnected, lacking the friendships I desire. At a distance from old friends, geographically and emotionally. It hasn’t been simply bad luck, or dastardly actions by others. (And if I focused on those things, what could I do about them? Very little.)
Speaking for myself, disconnection has followed from my neglecting of relationships, of the people I’ve cared about and who have cared about me. It has resumed from unclear or misguided priorities. Allowing distractions to govern my time. Lack of social awareness. Lack of conscious, planned commitment to guarding and maintaining friendships. Unwillingness to be vulnerable and own up to my desire for friendship. Fear of taking initiative in making new friends. Low energy due to bad habits and poor management of my health, meaning a lack of spare energy for social activities.
Those things allow friendships to escape, and as time flows on, an untended friendship will escape.
Planning time for friends, keeping in touch over the years and willingness to be vulnerable: these bring friendship closer.
Spending energy creates energy. A short run and I’m more alert. A slightly harder run and (once I recover) I have energy for days. I take a push-up break from the computer instead of a cookie break, and I feel more energised. And the same seems to apply to most of us.
Physics still applies: there are no perpetual motion machines and the laws of thermodynamics remain unbroken.
But we are enormously complex machines made of mechanical systems that grow and change and run on hormones, directed by neurotransmitters. Inputting energy in the form of a processed snack has many effects beyond the extra blood sugar. Moving my muscles and joints and starting to strain my cardiovascular system has impacts far beyond using up some of that blood sugar and some of that energy.
I seek to be an empiricist – one who deals with the reality of the world even when it disagrees with ideology – and when I exercise I feel more awake and alive. Times when I’ve taken up effortful exercise after a long break, the benefits have been dramatic.
Your mileage may vary, of course – if you’re already working out hard, if you’re not getting a full restful sleep each night, if you have chronic fatigue or are recovering from illness, then collect your data and observe your body’s needs with kindness.
For many of us (and for the typical reader of this blog) our default response to lethargy and tiredness is to sit or lounge and reduce our energy output. The result is less energy, in a self-reinforcing cycle.