Lighting a Fire: How to Overcome Procrastination

Photo by ninahale.I like to say that I write well under pressure, and to a degree, it's true. Nevertheless, most writers would agree that writing is often an uncomfortable process filled with self-doubt. It's human nature to avoid pain and discomfort, and I know my fears are the underlying reason that I sometimes find myself furiously writing at the 11th hour.

Everyone can relate to the act of avoiding an unpleasant task, and we all know that hardest part is just getting started. Writing the first five words. Sorting the first load of laundry. Adding up your total debt.

Once I overcome inertia and actually pick up the proverbial pen, I find that words flow freely. Before I know it, I've written 1500 words, finished the laundry, and paid off the credit cards. When we light a fire in ourselves, we create momentum that propels us forward. Our fire, or zeal, keeps us disciplined and focused on the goal.

Lighting a fire
Some of us have to work harder to light the fire, but even the most focused people sometimes have one of those days when we waste hours on Facebook to avoid real work, eat 10 cookies when we swore we'd stop at two — or splurge on another winter coat even though we live in Texas.

When lethargy or ambivalence strike, it's helpful to think of yourself as an observer of your own actions. The part of yourself that knows what you should do can look (with compassion) at your actions, and maybe even find some humor in your habits. If you have a hard time being the compassionate observer, take a few moments to answer the following questions for yourself the next time you're procrastinating:

  • Are you conscious of what you are doing, thinking, or feeling right now?
  • Are you responding rationally to your circumstances?
  • How do your feelings relate to your actions in this moment?

Once you start to observe yourself, your habits are exposed and drop away. We usually know what we should be doing, but we rarely take time to identify the real reason why we aren't doing it. Instead, we give in to our immediate wants and feel guilty later, or we resist temptation and feel deprived.

Stoking the flames
The good news is that once you get moving, you generate more and more momentum, so that each subsequent action is less difficult than the one before. This is similar to starting a camp fire. In the beginning you burn tinder and kindling, careful to shield it from the wind and blowing softly at the base to produce flames. As the fire grows you gradually increase the size of the kindling until the fire is established. Once the fire is blazing, you only need to add larger pieces of wood every now and then to keep it alive.

There are many ways to keep your own fire burning, such as:

  • Spending time with a friend or family member who naturally has a lot of discipline and/or gusto.
  • Reading an inspiring story about someone who accomplished something similar to your goal
  • Taking an informal class.
  • Practicing positive self-talk.
  • Committing to a positive action for five minutes (i.e. write just 100 words). It's likely you'll be inspired to do even more.

Why bother?
There are some obvious reasons to overcome procrastination. We want to lose weight. Or to get a promotion. Or to pay off our credit card debt.

But there's a deeper psychological gain to discipline, as well. Discipline is a word with some negative connotations. It sounds hard. Boring. It brings to mind punishment. No wonder we avoid it! But when we aren't disciplined, we create a cycle of suffering for ourselves. Psychologists often cite procrastination as a coping mechanism for anxiety. It becomes a vicious cycle when procrastination results in stress, guilt, and disapproval for not fulfilling commitments — feelings that often result in further procrastination.

Avoidance may make you feel good in the short term, but it creates unhappiness on a deeper level. We know we aren't being true to ourselves. We know that we're capable of more.

Ani Pema Chödrön, author of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times, writes, “What we discipline is not our ‘badness' or our ‘wrongness.' What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality.” When we look at it in that light, discipline isn't punishment at all, but rather a way to steer ourselves toward a fulfilled life. When we practice discipline, we make choices that are true to our goals and ambitions.

Discipline enriches life
A personal example of this that comes to mind is travel. Going to Italy a few years ago was eye-opening for me. I learned that I feel alive and adventurous in a foreign country. I enjoy trying to speak with the locals, and I'm curious to know where they work, what they eat, and what they do for recreation. I even loved the inconveniences — such as when our bus, already packed with passengers, stopped for a nun, and we somehow made more room (getting to know our fellow passengers intimately).

Truth be told, I couldn't afford that trip at the time. It went on a credit card. But it was the first time a little voice in my head started to question my spending habits. I knew, just knew, that I had to see more of the world. And to do that, I'd have to clean up my financial act. Discipline was the way to let the unimportant stuff fall away so that I would be able to do the things that would make my life more pleasurable. I realized I actually didn't care about buying new clothes with every paycheck. It had simply been a way to mindlessly pass the time.

Of course it wasn't like flipping a switch. I had a lot to learn and a lot to let go of to get to where I was consistently saving for travel every month. But it's a good example of how discipline has enriched my life, where I used to think it would be a burden.

There will still be times when I buy something and realize later that it's not anything I truly need or want. Perfection shouldn't be the goal — we'll only drive ourselves mad trying to reach it. Life is more enjoyable when we strive for self-awareness and self-compassion instead.

J.D.'s note: I believe that learning to overcome procrastination is vital for success in all areas of life, not just personal finance. I've written about the subject several times before: “How to beat the procrastination habit“, “How to build confidence and destroy fear” (procrastination often stems from lack of confidence), and “Procrastination can cost you money“. Follow April's advice: Practice discipline to pursue a better life.

Photo by Nina Hale.

More about...Psychology

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Gordie Rogers
Gordie Rogers
10 years ago

I think it’s really important for people who want to achieve great things, to update their knowledge of how the human brain works. So, much has been discovered in the last ten years shattering previously held conceptions about the brain. Learning how the brain works can help you a lot to develop motivation and focus to levels people seldom thought possible.

I would recommend people read “The Answer” by John Assaraf and Murray Smith. Thanks for the post. 🙂

Tristan Lee
Tristan Lee
10 years ago

Hey April. Thanks for this great post. Procrastination on the surface may seem like we’re just delaying our work, but there is a deeper psychological level to it like a feeling of escaping any type of emotion that doesn’t feel good for us. Writing can be hard when you’re staring a blank document for ten minutes and this feeling can be very overwhelming for many people. I agree with you that if you can just get a couple of words on paper, you’ll start to have momentum which then turn into a larger piece of work. But it all starts… Read more »

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren
10 years ago

It takes some effort to light the fire and gain momentum, but I’ve realized (at least in my own situation) that it takes some effort to maintain the momentum as well. If I come to a road block, it’s easy for me to simply give up and go do something easier if I leave plenty of distractions around to divert my attention. I’ve found that in order to maintain momentum while working on something I find difficult, the most important thing to do is eliminate distractions like TV, the internet, books, friends. Perhaps its just me, but I need nearly… Read more »

Roman
Roman
10 years ago

The thing that has worked best for me is called “Dont break the chain”
I have a large calendar on my wall and for every day that I work on my website I make a big red cross.
Eventually it will lead to a chain of red crosses and since you don’t want to see a gap between red crosses you are willing to take the extra step.
For some reason this rather stupid approach is working for me better than any other!

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

I agree that discipline is one of those qualities that had to be worked on and improved. It seems that many of us aren’t inherently disciplined, it’s something that we learn to do and takes time. Also, I agree with you about momentum, I’ve found that once I get motivated and get moving, I’m on a roll. But, it takes discipline to get me there!

thanks for the post-
Little House

JimmyV
JimmyV
10 years ago

Another source of guidance might just be the Bible or the Catechism or Morgan Freeman films. There is a reason sloth is a deadly sin. It eats away at our most precious commodity, time.

Now, I better quit stalling and get back to work. Thanks for the reminder.

Shane
Shane
10 years ago

I procrastinate a lot. Even though this says the hardest part is getting started, the hardest part for me is getting things finished. I tend to not follow through with my projects, and I think it’s because of my poor planning. Once I’m three quarters through my project, it becomes too unorganized, and I lose the drive to finish it.

Alexandra
Alexandra
10 years ago

My own trick for myself is to write all the things I need to get done as a list on a sheet of paper. I write even small things that are easily accomplished. I start witht he smam, easy tasks. Once I finish a task, it gets crossed off the list. As I start to see more and more things getting crossed off that list, I get more and more motivated to cross the next item off.

It’s kind of a head game I am playing with myself, but it seems to work.

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

Like Tyler, for me it’s often sustaining my discipline and making it a regular practice that can be hardest. It’s relatively easy for me to feel initially motivated to save money, lose weight, etc. But the struggle really has been in maintaining that initial enthusiasm through the daily slog of making it happen. Your analogy of the fire was quite good. I think that I often anticipate that after lighting the kindling I’ll have a bonfire going – it’s in establishing a good base of coals and heat against unforseen gusts of wind or rain that I am probably getting… Read more »

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
10 years ago

Thanks for the article. Just wondering, how do you guys start a fire for someone who is already making a lot of money and living a comfortable life? If we can all live comfortably off of $100,000/yr for example, how do you motivate the guy who is making $500,000/yr etc and who doesn’t need the money?

There’s only so much one needs, so how do we motivate?

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

As I said in the intro, I had my own post (about store brands vs. name brands) ready to run this morning, but when April submitted this, I knew I had to post it instead. It really spoke to me. I’ve written before about my lack of confidence in the things I do. This most often manifests itself as procrastination. Believe it or not, I often lack confidence writing for this site. Strange but true. But more than that, I lack confidence when doing public media appearances, etc. Lately my lack of confidence — and my procrastination — has manifested… Read more »

Dustin
Dustin
10 years ago

Thank you for this article! I often struggle with procrastination, and there is no doubt that it adds undue stress on my life. It seemed like procrastination was more of a fun challenge back in my college days when pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper was pretty common. I would always “pull it off” and sort of wear my actions as a badge of honor. Now that I am so busy with life in the “real world”, I can see the real danger behind procrastination and the vital need to be proactive in all areas of life. In particular,… Read more »

Ann
Ann
10 years ago

April, where were you and this post 12 months ago? An editor I admire asked me to submit a manuscript to her over a year ago. I was scared and excited and scared and flattered and SCARED. In the last year, I wrote over 100k words and discarded more than 80k of them. In the last three months, I’ve written less than 2k words because my confidence nose-dived as I kept editing and thinking everything I wrote sucked. I know my procrastination is because of this heavy, writhing ball of fear in the pit of my stomach. What if I… Read more »

April
April
10 years ago

@Roman–I really like the “don’t break the chain” idea. Great visual motivator.

@Ann–“I was scared and excited and scared and flattered and SCARED.” That is how I feel every, single time I write. Print, online, it doesn’t matter. I’m psyched to get a new assignment, and then I just want to crawl under a rock.

(I swear I won’t do that, J.D.)

I told someone I’d be writing all weekend, and he said, “Great, writing with passion!” And I said, “Uh, more like writing with self-doubt.”

beforewisdom
beforewisdom
10 years ago

I have done battle with prolonged bouts of procrastination. There is no one book with “everything” in it, but I think the single best one is “The Now Habit” by Dr. Neil Fiore. It has been out for a while. You can be frugal and read it from your library. I can write *pages* about what I learned but the two most valuable lessons I learned are: 1. Procrastination is a response to a fear. Get help and deal with the fear. 2. If you want to succeed at ANYTHING sooner or later you will have to do things when… Read more »

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

I love the term “creative avoidance”, because it describes how we invent ways to avoid doing those really important but not terribly urgent tasks that might actually make a real difference.

We need to ask ourselves ‘how much trouble will I avoid later by doing this task now?’.

I think the problem with accomplishment is that it doesn’t usually feel good until after it’s done. In the meantime we look for little, stressfree ways to enjoy that feeling of completion without actually completing anything.

So much of life is deeply rooted in the psyche!

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

Steven Pressfield wrote a terrific book called The War of Art, in which he names procastination “Resistance” with a capital “R”. It’s a quick and funny read.

Procrastination is also linked to perfectionism, which can stop me in my tracks whether it’s writing or cleaning the bathroom. Just thinking about the end result I want and then being fully aware of the gap between my ambition and actual talent/skill sucks the life (and all creative energy) right out of me. Blah.

Reg
Reg
10 years ago

Thanks for this article. A perfect read for a Monday morning!! I’ve been struggling with procrastination and lack of focus at work ever since my husband died. There are days I come in and literally spend 7 out of 8 hours of the day playing some sort of mindless card game. But lately I’ve realized that something has to light a fire under my a** or it’s very possible I could also lose my job. I’m going to print this article out and hang it on my wall (hopefully my boss doesn’t see it and make conclusions about what I’ve… Read more »

David@DINKS Finance
10 years ago

I’m the kind of person who makes lists. For everything. Every night I make a list of stuff I have to get done the next day. It’s just natural for me to do this. Problem is, making the list is easy but actually doing it is tough. You might not believe me, but crossing something off a list can be fulfilling and motivating. When I tear through the list and get a lot done in a short amount of time I am motivated to get the rest done. I am a fairly disciplined person, but sometimes I can be lazy.… Read more »

Foxie@CarsxGirl
10 years ago

Procrastination is me + homework assignments, ugh. I tend to wait until the last possible free time I have to do something. Sadly, it’s thus far proven to give me the incentive to do a good job… Rushed, not really, but I haven’t yet screwed up anything major by waiting. All the “positive” reinforcement is really hard to overcome.

Ellen
Ellen
10 years ago

This is a motivating article. Just reading about overcoming procrastination can make you feel like doing it! I think that a major issue of procrastination is that it takes a lot of energy and willpower to get yourself going on something that you don’t want to do. Though, more often than not, once you get started, you find that it really isn’t as bad as you built it up to be in your head (at least that is what I find). Baby steps are also important if the task is especially daunting. My father had a friend who built a… Read more »

Charity
Charity
10 years ago

Awesome! This might be the best piece on procrastination and goal-setting I’ve EVER read. Thank you, April, and thank you, JD, for choosing April!

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

Just a hunch, but I think that part of the reason we procrastinate is because of what it is we’re procrastinating about. When we hesitate to do something, even something with the real potential for big payoffs, we do it because there’s also pressure attached to it. We’re afraid of failing, afraid of something going wrong, or of an unexpectedly negative event. At some level, the promise of what we’ll do (someday) is so much more satisfying than actually doing it and coming face to face with it not working as we hope. It’s as if the procrastinated thing in… Read more »

chiefcaba
chiefcaba
10 years ago

I procrastinate most when I feel overwhelmed. If I let work pile up for a couple days all of a sudden it becomes really hard to do any of the tasks even if some of them are very simple. If I’m unsure how to start a homework assignment I’ll stop doing my daily 30 mins per class and forgo ALL the work for that class until that assignment is over which usually means a week or two of readings backlogging themselves. What finally worked for me was a mixture of Tyler’s method and the list method that various people have… Read more »

Jack @ Master Your Card
Jack @ Master Your Card
10 years ago

Great guide – and you know what, it’s kind of inspired me to keep the fire burning, too. As someone who is self-employed, procrastination is my worst enemy – keeping goals in mind is key to pressing forward through the mundane stuff.

Morgan
Morgan
10 years ago

I appreciate that you bolded the sentence about having compassion for yourself. Overcoming procrastination is tough work and without self-compassion, you’re likely to feel like a complete failure every time you put a task off. This makes procrastination even worse the next time around. I smiled when I saw Chodron’s quote – I have yet to read one of her books but I hear they are fantastic. Buddhist authors have helped me so much in this area. Great post.

Dotty
Dotty
10 years ago

Randy Pausch knew all about procrastination, and how time is our most precious gift:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTugjssqOT0&feature=PlayList&p=B8AC26B89F511983&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=2

LinearChaos
LinearChaos
10 years ago

Reality hits when we read this post.

Procrastination is probably the most significant road block for most people in many different areas. I know I tend to procrastinate in a multitude of areas.

Regarding finances it’s those things that sit on the to do list for months or years, the “Oh, I need to do that” list.

Things like retirement savings, wills and trusts, medical directives, investments, etc.

Great article!

Joe
Joe
10 years ago

This is a great article. Procrastination affects not only lawyers, but anyone who provides a service rather than a product. When you’re basically billing for your time, it’s hard to wrap your mind around what to do when you’re bored, unmotivated or lacking in direction.

No Mortgage No Rent
No Mortgage No Rent
10 years ago

I am using the reading of this articla as a procrastination tool right now 😉

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Small steps in the right direction is progress in the right direction – says I. For things like daily exercise, I count all forms, taking the stairs over the elevator, walking downtown to return my library books, etc. Same with debt, when we were paying off our debt, small progress, snowflaking, helped us keep us moving in the right direction.

Kristia
Kristia
10 years ago

I believe there’s a little procrastination in all of us because there’s little to no accountability; and it’s so easy to do. Because I tend to “analyze until I paralyze”, I sometimes find myself on Procrastination Blvd. also. Love the article.

George @ Debt Consolidation
George @ Debt Consolidation
10 years ago

Great ideas on how to fight procrastination. Setting goals is one highly effective way to become focused on something so you can gain proper prospective and stay on track for the long run. Another way I think helps a lot, is to give one self breaks in order to refresh one’s mind and to break the “work streak” for a while.

Janet
Janet
10 years ago

Lots of helpful ideas in this post, but I disagree with the assertion that the hardest part is getting started. Depending on the amount of anxiety involved, even after getting started it can take a *long* time to get momentum going. I’ve been blogging about this very phenomenon (and ways around it, such as sneaking up on the early phases of a project) the past few weeks.

Great point that procrastination is an anxiety management strategy (even if not so effective long-term). And so true that awareness, self-compassion and sheltering the kindling are key. Thanks for the good read!

mitigated_disaster
mitigated_disaster
10 years ago

Ironically I came over to GRS right now to procrastinate on writing something hard, that I lack confidence in doing, that I worry when I submit will be ridiculed by my peers. Thanks for the reminder!

And I second the recommendation of The Now Habit by Neil Fiore – although I do still procrastinate, it’s MUCH improved, and I’m only backsliding now because my recent promotion has me lacking confidence all over again.

Attagirl
Attagirl
10 years ago

One thing that really works for me is to pretend that I’m doing someone else’s work. I’ve noticed that if I take over someone else’s work for them, it doesn’t matter how old it is or what’s wrong with it – I can just jump in and do it. I finally realized that I could do that for my own delayed work/plans. I think to myself, what would I do with this if it weren’t mine? And it’s amazing how fast you can go when you aren’t bogged down with shame over having let things get to such a point.

yourfinances101
yourfinances101
10 years ago

I know this kind of echoes the author’s remarks, but the way I motivate myself can be explained in two words–get started. I always like to compare it to exercising. I look at it this way–when I try to start exercising, it is quite difficult to start. However, once I start, the second day, it is just a little bit easier to go and exercise. The third day a little easier and so on. Fianlly, it becomes a habit and there is no motivation needed. So, for me, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I already know that it only takes… Read more »

Jeremy M
Jeremy M
10 years ago

On ‘creative avoidance’, back in college, my roommate and I had (very roughly and jokingly) come up with Homework Avoidance Modes A through Z, where A was doing other (less immediate but still necessary) homework, E was housecleaning, and Z was running barefoot through your girlfriend’s dorm… On topic, it seems to me that discipline is a tool, and a rough one. We need it when want and need aren’t in line. If you love what you are doing, why do you need to be disciplined? It only arises when what you want to do now and what you need… Read more »

Vas
Vas
10 years ago

Procrastination basically can determine whether you succeed in life or not. I do not just mean in your career or how much money you make, it relates to everything. It’s such an important thing to overcome if you want to live life to it’s fullest. I find reading books and mags on successful people an inspiration to push on. Have a goal that you really want to achieve and know that if you procrastinate you will not reach this goal. An inspirational song gets me going as well from time to time.

Great Post. Cheers.

DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
10 years ago

Great post!

Procrastination is a personal challenge everyday! However, I find that once I get started– it feels so good to GET IT DONE!

Billy_McSkintos
Billy_McSkintos
10 years ago

I can’t be bothered to read this post, i’ll get to it later.

mewithoutdebt
mewithoutdebt
10 years ago

Nice article. I also just wrote about procrastination and debt in my blog at http://www.mewithoutdebt.com/2009/09/procrastination-and-debt.html

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

This is one of the best posts I have read. I think it really targets how people can take control of their lives and what steps they need to take to move forward. Great Post!

Free Your Mind
Free Your Mind
10 years ago

Overcoming Procrastination is one of the most important things that a person can do (as it relates to finance and life in general).

When it comes down to it, MOST people KNOW what they should do, but they just never get around to it. And THIS ends up causing years of pain and anguish.

Marsha Egan
Marsha Egan
10 years ago

Sometimes the reason for inaction is fear. Not always, but win you are taking deep in the self awareness category, you might want to ask yourself, “what am I REALLY afraid of?”

I like to tell my executive coaching clients, “Don’t should on yourself.” When you think or say that you SHOULD do something, it has a tendency to create feelings of guilt. Better to either do it, or let it go and put it on the list for later.

Wonen in belgie
Wonen in belgie
10 years ago

“Another source of guidance might just be the Bible or the Catechism or Morgan Freeman film.”

Haha, its true 🙂

Jeff
Jeff
10 years ago

This is a great article. I often find that although quite easy when writing, beginning to write is one of the most difficult things.

Michael - The Fat Loss Authority
Michael - The Fat Loss Authority
10 years ago

Great post…
I’ll even suggest a complete 180 on the strategy of spending time with someone who does have discipline.

Back when I was working in an office with a couple of loafers around, it added fuel to my fire to be better and more productive. Different strokes for different folks I guess:)

Mike

LifeSpace Community
LifeSpace Community
10 years ago

Great stuff, not only did we really enjoy this, but we pushed it out to our members at http://blog.lifespace.com. This was a popular link on Monday in the LifeSpace Community. Thanks!

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