How to stop procrastinating by making any kind of work interesting

[This is from my newsletter, The Magnet. Please subscribe. There's a free edition and a paid edition – Mark]

I'm a procrastinator. I have been my whole life. I can think of two reasons why. One is that it's hard for me to get started on something. The other is that I'm easily distracted. Maybe those two reasons are related.

An article from the Deprocrastination website called "How to be more productive without forcing yourself" argues that people procrastinate because they aren't bored enough. With so many easy ways to get a dopamine rush, it's hard to sit down and focus on something that isn't stimulating. "Not being bored enough" is another way of saying "easily distracted."

The authors recommend reducing "high-dopamine, low-effort" activities — drugs, candy, video games, etc. "Once your brain is not constantly hyper-stimulated, it's easier to find mundane activities like work or tidying more interesting."

I think in general this is good advice. But when I procrastinate, I happen to find a mundane activity like tidying fascinating and could do it for hours to avoid work. (Could it be that tidying releases dopamine?)

Once you cut back on "high-dopamine, low-effort" activities, the next step is to make yourself so bored that even the most mundane work seems interesting. The authors recommend staring at a wall for 15 minutes. "For the first few minutes, you might feel alright, thinking about your day. However, after 5 or 10 minutes, you'll be itching to do something, anything really. Suddenly, creating a website, writing an article, or drawing a picture sounds like more interesting, more fun."

I didn't have to sit and stare at a wall for 15 minutes to start writing this issue of The Magnet. I'm currently sitting outside the emergency room of a hospital while one of my relatives is being checked in [Note: since writing this, my relative is doing better]. Hospitals are extremely boring places, so after a few minutes, I was ready to do anything to alleviate my boredom. I pulled out my phone and started writing.

The author says the next step in beating procrastination is to take a deep dive into the topic you're supposed to be working on. This is a dangerous suggestion, at least for me. When I am researching an article, I often find myself researching too much, which is a form of procrastinating. Of course, it's important to research a topic thoroughly you're writing about — deep dives often lead to serendipitous connections or ideas that turn a so-so article into a terrific one. But for me, it's too tempting to fall into a YouTube trance or flip through scanned books on the Internet archive as a way to avoid doing real work.

The second half of the article includes some practical steps for launching into a task that you've been putting off for one reason or another. The first step is to define the next physical action you have to take to begin work. This is something the authors probably picked up from David Allen's book Getting Things Done. It's great advice because it can convert vagueness and confusion into a solid plan for starting something.

The second step is committing yourself to work on something for between 5 and 15 minutes. This can make a daunting lengthy project more inviting because it's easy to commit a few minutes to do something. And of course, once you get started on something it's easy to keep going because people have a tendency not to want to shift gears. A stopwatch or Pomodoro timer app comes in handy here.

The third and final step is to create a lousy first draft without worrying about how polished it is. This is something writer Anne Lamott recommends in her book Bird by Bird. She calls it writing a shitty first draft, and it's something I've done for many years. It's important to remember that the first draft of anything is usually going to be bad. I crank it out and revise it later.

Lamott wrote:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

I'm writing a shitty first draft now. I am talking into my iPhone using its speech-to-text dictation. When I finish the draft, I will allow it to sit for at least a few hours (overnight is even better) and then revise several times until I feel it's good enough to share.

I agree with the authors of this article that one of the most important skills a person can have is the ability to work on something for a long time without getting bored or distracted. With practice, we can all improve this skill. I also agree with the authors that getting started is the hardest part and that the best way to get started is by defining the appropriate physical action to take and committing to working for just five or ten minutes.

Here's the tl;dr: To beat procrastination, find a reason to do the work, and then get started immediately. Define the next physical action you need to take to begin work. Commit to working for at least five minutes. Create a lousy first draft without worrying about how polished it is.

If you have a better way to beat procrastination, describe it in the comments.

Speaking of Getting Things Done, over 10 years ago I downloaded and printed out Scott Moehring's cheat sheet and keep it in my top desk drawer. I pull it out and read it every once in a while to refresh my memory.