Getting stuff done is easy when you’re on a roll. You know the plan and you’re typing furiously on a mission to execute. Productivity is glorious. When you’re stuck in perfectionism and procrastination, however, it can be a tough loop to escape. One thing grabs your attention and then you spiral down the rabbit hole of distraction. The trick is not letting yourself slip in the first place.
Ali Abdaal knows about getting stuff done. As a doctor, YouTuber and podcaster, he explores the strategies and tools that help his audience live happier, healthier and more productive lives. His YouTube channel includes study and revision techniques and ways in which students and professionals can get more done and enjoy the journey. His YouTube channel has over 3 million subscribers and his Sunday Snippets newsletter goes to 160,000 readers.
I interviewed Abdaal about the 5 mistakes procrastinators make, and how to avoid them.
1. Confusing procrastination with prioritization
“Real procrastination and fake procrastination are different,” explains Abdaal. “Fake procrastination is where we are simply prioritising something else.” Perhaps you’re not going to the gym because you’re busy with work or family. In that way, you’re simply prioritizing in a certain way, but it’s not necessarily procrastination. Reprioritizing is fine, but work out what it’s telling you. Then put blocks in your calendar that represent your true priorities.
Abdaal added, “It doesn’t count as procrastination unless you have a block in your calendar for the thing you want to do.” If he has the gym blocked in his calendar between 6 and 7pm and then chooses to do something else, “that counts as real procrastination” and that is what to avoid. Start by adding the blocks to your calendar. If you still can’t get them done, you could be falling for another mistake.
2. Beating ourselves up
“Being hard on ourselves is an evolutionary useful mechanism,” explained Abdaal. Procrastination “means we’re not doing something that will be in our long-term interests in favour of our short-term interests.” In caveman times, we had to optimize for being in the present and avoiding clear dangers such as sabre-tooth tigers and other predators. Procrastination conserves the energy required for survival.
“When I feel myself procrastinating, I know it’s just what my evolutionary past has designed me to do,” said Abdaal. He knows he can then choose to “exert higher control over that by creating systems and frameworks for doing the work,” but he doesn’t need to be hard on himself for succumbing to procrastination. Realizing it’s how we are wired and choosing to act differently is a more productive way of framing it.
3. Pressing the ‘try harder’ button
If you know you are procrastinating, your solution might be to simply try harder. “We put the onus on ourselves to find the effort to do the thing,” said Abdaal. If he’s procrastinating from writing his book, and finds himself saying, “I just need to…” he knows it’s not going to work. “If your solution to a problem is that you just need to try harder, it’s not a sustainable way to live.”
So what’s the real solution? “Think in terms of systems.” Abdaal believes we should think of ourselves as systems and machines instead of humans. Let go of the need to simply try harder and seek an alternative way of operating instead. Have processes and defaults instead of case-by-case decisions and emotions, as explained in the next point.
4. Thinking as a human instead of a system
“When we think of ourselves as humans, we think we can just put in more time or effort or be more disciplined,” he said. “We put expectations on ourselves to do more of the thing.” Thinking in terms of systems or machines, however, means framing procrastination differently. “You can’t just make a computer work twice as fast without changing the programme it’s using or the system it’s operating within.”
When Abdaal is struggling with procrastination, say with a two-hour block in which he planned to go to the gym, he asks, “what is the system I can design around this to make it more likely that I’m going to do it?” This leads to interventions such as finding a closer gym, finding a gym he likes, finding a personal trainer or fan accountability buddy or using an app to track his workouts. “These are all systems you can put in place that help reduce procrastination rather than relying on simply trying harder.”
5. Trying to push the boulder up the hill
“If we are trying to do something that we don’t fundamentally want to do, in that it’s not energising, enjoyable, fun, interesting or meaningful, but we think we should do it anyway, it’s like pushing a boulder up the hill.” Persevering with doing these things and believing that sometimes work is just intrinsically boring or uninspiring, is not a source of sustainable motivation or productivity.
Whenever Abdaal finds himself thinking, “this thing is really boring but I just need to do it,” he asks, “What can I tweak about my approach that will help give me energy and make it enjoyable?” He enlists the help of gamification in order to do this, which involves, “remembering the wider purpose, incorporating short term wins, and shortening the feedback loop.” Essentially, splitting the boring task into a series of smaller tasks that each come with rewards or wins of some sort.
Don’t confuse procrastination with prioritization, beat yourself up or resolve to simply try harder. It’s not the way to get stuff done. Instead, think as a system instead of a human, time block like a pro and incorporate gamification into what you’re trying to do. Get curious with understanding when procrastination creeps in to overcome your evolutionary wiring and find a way forward. It’s very possible.