This post was written by Leo Babauta, originally for Zen Habits. Republished here with permission.
We all procrastinate. The question is how (or even whether) we overcome the tendency to procrastinate, and if we can find focus. This matters — our lives are brief and limited, and while we don’t need to be productivity robots, running in fear of difficult tasks to distractions and comfort is not the best way to spend our lives. Here’s a guide to overcoming procrastination and finding focus.
A Guide to Overcoming Procrastination & Finding Focus
We can face these fears. We can learn to deal with them mindfully. And in doing so, we can develop an ability to return with courage to the work that matters the most to us, to create something important, something that helps the world at least in a small way.
Distraction and running aren’t useful habits. Let’s learn to overcome them and find focus to create.
The Procrastination Fears
Why do we run from hard tasks? Because of fears:
- That we don’t know what we’re doing
- That we’re gonna mess up and look bad
- That we’ll succeed and then have to face a scarier situation
- That the task will be difficult and uncomfortable
Basically, we fear discomfort and uncertainty. We want comfort and certainty, and distractions like email and social media and reading news and blogs are easy and we know how to do them. Very well. Distractions are always much more tempting than difficult work, much more comforting than facing fears.
We all have fears, but our habit is to run from them. Avoid even thinking about them. Our minds are very good at this.
We get distracted and then forget completely about what we were supposed to be doing. Our minds are good at forgetting and getting lost.
We try to focus, but then immediately we have an urge to switch to something else, because staying is uncomfortable. Our minds love comfort, hate discomfort, and will run to comfort every time, if we let them.
So that’s why we procrastinate … but how do we overcome this?
Our minds are very good at running from discomfort, and most of the time we don’t even realize it’s happening. We just have an urge to switch, and follow the urge immediately.
The trick then, is to catch ourselves when we’re about to switch. When the urge comes up to switch, we have to notice.
Then we have to pause, and deal mindfully instead of mindlessly with the urge.
- Create a practice space. Do an Unprocrastination Session once a day to practice. Pick an important task (any will do — one you’ve been procrastinating on is a good choice). Set a timer for 5 minutes, or 10 if you feel ambitious. Commit to doing nothing but your important task for that 5 minutes.
- Don’t let yourself switch. Clear distractions and have nothing that you can do except this one task. You’re single-tasking. When you get the urge to switch (when, not if), notice this! And don’t act on the urge. We can feel an urge and not act on it. How liberating!
- Stay with the urge. Instead of acting on the urge, instead of ignoring the urge … just stay with it. Sit still and feel how it feels. Notice the fear of this task that you’re facing. Notice discomfort. Boredom, dread, feeling intimidated or overwhelmed or confused or incompetent. Just stay with it and be curious about the physical feeling. What does the energy in your body feel like?
- Return to the task. After sitting for a minute with the urge and the discomfort, they’ll probably die down. Simply return your focus to your task. You didn’t scratch the itch, and the itch wasn’t that big of a deal.
By working on this once a day, you can begin to develop trust that you’ll be OK if you don’t scratch the itch, that you’ll be able to handle the urge without acting on it, that you’ll be fine if you deal with the discomfort of a difficult task. This is quite an accomplishment!
Focusing on one thing is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Whether you want to focus on writing a report or a book chapter, focus on drawing or practicing music, focus on reading or meditating on your breath… your mind is in the habit of switching to something else.
Focusing, then, is a matter of practicing staying.
In the Unprocrastination Sessions I described above, we talked about how to practice staying. In addition, I’d like to offer a few more practical tips:
- Have a deeper motivation. The thing you are focusing on shouldn’t just be “nice to do,” but should really feel meaningful to you.
- Remember your motivation as you get started. This task doesn’t just have fear in it … there’s a great deal of love as well. Let the love drive you past the fear.
- Use external motivation if needed. While love is the best motivator, sometimes you just aren’t feeling up to it. So use external deadlines and accountability. Promise to email something to a friend or colleague by a deadline or you have to do something embarrassing. Put your reputation on the line. Join an accountability group. Don’t let yourself off the hook.
- Allow yourself to get into Flow. This is the state of mind where you are lost in the task. It’s easy to only be halfway into a task, with your mind flitting around and wanting to do something else. But if you can get fully into a task, you’ll truly love doing it. That means clearing all distractions, and really putting your mind into the task. I find it helpful to have a challenging task, and one that requires me to visualize. For example, if I’m writing a story, I should be imagining how the story is going, visually, not just thinking about the words.
Focus isn’t a magical quality that you can just acquire. It is a skill that takes daily practice, and you get better at it but never completely master it. You’ll slip up and get discouraged, but you can just practice some more.
In the end, all the practice will be worth it, because you’ll learn to focus on things that truly matter. And that is a life worth living, in my experience.