How to ditch your worst excuse and start getting things done

Procrastination by Amy Loves Yah on Flickr

Image by Amy Loves Yah, via Flickr

Do you have a hard time getting things done, or even started? Do you give yourself a lot of excuses for why?

I do. It’s come to my attention that I have a lot of excuses for why I don’t/ won’t/ didn’t get something done, and they all come down to “I can’t.” I can’t concentrate, I can’t code, I can’t read, I can’t write, I can’t function in the morning, I think I have ADD. The sad thing is, as long as I’m trying to get out of doing something, I really believe these things are true.

In the past two weeks, I’ve caught myself in two biggies: I was putting off editing a user guide, and after accomplishing nothing on it for almost two weeks, I caught myself thinking “I just can’t do this word stuff.” How bogus is that? The whole time I was avoiding the user guide, I was writing all these blog posts, reading books about how to become a better writer, and blabbing about how much I love writing and want to be a writer!

Similarly, two mornings in a row I had to get up at 6:00 and go to work early. Such complaining ensued, and it came down to, “I’m just not a morning person.” Yet, this morning, a Sunday, I woke up at 6 with a sinus headache and an overflow of ideas to write about. Got up, took some ibuprofen, and started thinking, researching, and writing. I was having such a blast, I caught myself thinking “Mornings really are the best time of the day.”

So what is my problem? I can do anything, if only I don’t have to.

With me, I think there are actually two things going on here: I’m afraid of the work, and I have a lot of other things I’d rather be doing. Let’s face it: it’s much more fun to read blogs than user guides, and you can’t fail at it.

What to do about it

This is a little tricky, because I think it’s important to be gentle with myself and not beat myself up if I fail, including failing to accomplish anything, but by buying my lame excuses, I’ve let myself get away with laziness and doing way less than my abilities.

I’ve been working on this for about two years now, and I still have a long way to go, but I’ve gotten a lot better. Here are some things that help:

  • Remember how crappy you feel when you don’t accomplish anything. Use it to motivate yourself to get to work.
  • If you’re intimidated, it’s probably because you don’t have a good grasp on what you’re going to do. Break the task down into smaller and smaller steps until each one seems doable, even if it means some of those steps are “find out what X means” and “research methods of Y.”
  • Don’t even think about finishing the whole daunting project, just think of one thing you can do to get started, the simpler the better. Look at your list of small doable steps and do the easiest one. The feeling of success you’ll get from accomplishing that one will help you face the next.
  • Don’t try to do a marathon. Tell yourself you’ll just work on it for 20 minutes to begin with, and then you can take a break. Then stick with it! If you find yourself tempted by distractions, check the clock, tell yourself “Only X minutes left, and then I can take a break,” and direct your attention back to the task at hand. This may seem like torture at first, but as you practice, it gets easier. Concentrating on your task is crucial for accomplishing things.
  • Don’t try to make up for all the time you’ve already lost. You can’t go back and unprocrastinate, and you can’t do all those days’ work and today’s today. It’s impossible, and the more you think about it, the more you’ll psych yourself out. Just let it go and start from today.
  • Don’t be afraid to do imperfect work. Your work won’t be perfect the first time, and that’s ok. If you just get something down, you can improve it later. It’s much easier to take something mediocre and make it good than to take nothing and make something.
  • Whenever you catch yourself claiming you can’t do entire categories of tasks, disprove the statement by finding times when you have done those things, and done them well.
  • Make yourself accountable to someone. Each week, I report to my boss with what I’ve accomplished that week. Some weeks, I hate it, because I’m scrambling on Friday to get something accomplished so I have something to report. Some weeks I have nothing and embarrassedly sugar coat this fact. But it’s made me way more productive—knowing I will have to report in spurs me to try to finish something every week.

A wise friend once told me that no matter who’s paying you, you’re always working for yourself. Ultimately, you are the one you have to satisfy. I think that’s true, and it can also be flipped around: if you work for yourself, you have a choice as to whether you do any of these tasks or not. Just because your boss assigns you a user guide to edit or a piece of code to write, doesn’t mean you actually have to do it. It’s your choice. You can do a great job, you can do a so-so job, you can act like you did it but really not do it, or you can just refuse to do it. Some of these possibilities may get you bad reviews or eventually fired, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice. If you do the task, it’s because you’re choosing to do it, even if only because it’s better than getting fired. That’s a powerful thing to remember. Choose to do things, or choose not to do them, and know that’s what you’re doing. Then refuse to let your excuses stop you.

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6 Responses to How to ditch your worst excuse and start getting things done

  1. Lucas says:

    Very nice article! Looks like you’re writing about my daily struggle to get somewhere… 😉
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Kevin says:

    Nice job! It seems to me that sometimes just having something pointed out and or noticed can be a stepping stone to dealing with the issue or problem.

    • Cara says:

      I agree. Sometimes even the most basic advice, which I’ve heard a million times before, will pop up on the million-and-first time and be exactly what I need.

  3. emjayandthem says:

    This rang true with me: “I can do anything if only I don’t have to.” Ooh so true. On “scheduled” days I find I am less productive than I am on the “unscheduled” days …. because -for me – it’s all about choice. Powerful stuff!

    • Cara says:

      Thanks, glad it spoke to you! You hit it exactly about choice. I’ve noticed for myself that I can write for hours and get tons done on my own stuff, but give me the same time for something I “have to” do for work, and I accomplish way less. If I could just convince myself that I want to do the stuff for work, I’d be golden! 😉

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