I may not be a psychologist, but I’ve done more than enough research to know we procrastinate for many reasons. Some of us are bored with work. Some of us attach external importance to what we do and let our egos prevent us from starting a task. Others are just intimidated.
Regardless of the cause, every freelancer should be familiar with the Zeigarnik effect: It suggests once we start a task and leave it unfinished, we remember it clearer and more frequently than completed tasks. So the challenge then becomes learning how to get started on something so we can clear it from our mental docket. Fortunately, there are a few helpful solutions.
1. Dash into starting
Productivity guru Merlin Mann wrote about his favorite remedy to procrastination—which he calls a dash—on his blog 43Folders. He defined it as “a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute.”
The point is to get the ball rolling, which allows you to use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage. Mann explored three types of dashes:
Time-based dash: “Most jobs lend themselves to a time-based dash, so pick up a kitchen timer at your local drugstore. Choose an amount of time that gives you enough room to do something but that’s brief enough to seem completely unintimidating. For some reason, eight minutes seems to work well for most of my own dashes.”
Unit-based dash: “Alternatively, depending on the tasks you’ve been avoiding, you could go with a unit-based dash, during which you agree to plow through an arbitrary number of pieces associated with your project (such as pages to read, words to write, glasses to wash, etc.).”
Combination dash: “In many cases, the best solution is a combination dash, in which you get to stop the hated work whenever you reach either the time or unit goal first.”
I’ve found the time-based dash to be the most useful. A unit-based dash requires you to break larger projects down into smaller units, which is what troubles in the first place. Kitchen timers, as recommended by Mann, are doubly useful because they operate independently from computers and mobile devices. Whenever I feel an impulse to indulge in distractions, I watch the timer count down. Work becomes easier to endure.
Bestselling author Tim Ferriss similarly uses small quotas to remain productive, like accounting for two crappy pages per day. When I interviewed Ferriss for Techvibes, he cited IBM as an example of a company that used low quotas to increase sales. “They didn’t feel like their objective was so daunting that they couldn’t take that first step,” he said.
2. The five-second rule
In a TEDxSF talk, radio host and life coach Mel Robbins spoke about executing ideas. She also mentioned that whenever you are struck by inspiration or an impulse, you have to act on it in a short amount of time. Here’s why:
“If you have one of those impulses that are pulling you—if you don’t marry it with an action within five seconds, you pull the emergency brake and kill the idea. If you have the impulse to come dance when the band is playing, if you don’t stand up in five seconds, you’re going to pull the emergency brake.”
While this countdown could be used for many other purposes (e.g., Redditor Draconax uses it to perform tasks requiring courage or willpower), the five-second rule can help us overcome seemingly immovable forces, such as procrastination. Robbins took her own advice and used the rule to create a video that launched her blog.
3. Intentionally stop in the middle
It’s much easier to work on something you’ve already started than to begin with a blank slate.
Journalist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow wrote for Locus about the importance of ending a task right in the middle: “When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. … Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day—they call it the ‘hint.’ Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night—it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.”
By leaving yourself a bit of room to get started, you’ll also make it easier to continue your work the next day.