Following on from yesterday’s post about getting stuff done I want to address what I think is the hardest part about it: getting started.
That may sound obvious, so let me explain.
Starting is Hard
Based on my observations, I’m more likely to sit down and work on a side project or blog post if I’ve already got something to work on. That’s either something that I started previously, or just an idea that’s been bouncing around my head long enough for me to want to act on it.
I’m also typically unlikely to cut my work short once I’ve started it. Programming is a flow activity and, unlike say doing your taxes, once you get started it’s rare to feel like stopping after 10 minutes.
That means if you’re like me, the hardest part is the initial hurdle. Getting started.
Why Starting is Hard
There are a few reasons why it takes considerable effort to sit down and start.
Fear of Wasting Time
This ties in with the point about it being easier to continue working on something than starting something completely new. I often worry about how productively I’m spending my free time. If I start working on Project X, that will mean I’m not progressing with Project Y and working on Project Z would also be a good use of my time.
All this does is stop me from working on any of them.
“I Don’t Have Any Free Time”
The biggest lie we tell ourselves.
There are obviously days or weeks when it’s true, but isn’t it funny how I can always find time for another Netflix episode?
Too Many Ideas
A variant of previous points, but it’s worth mentioning that sometimes you just can’t decide which of your ideas to work on, only to give up working on any of them. Yes it sounds like a laughable excuse, but we’re all great at fooling ourselves.
In one of my favourite posts on the topic of procrastination, David Cain talks about perfectionism.
For a procrastinator of my kind, perfection (or something negligibly close to it) thereby becomes the only result that allows one to be comfortable with himself. A procrastinator becomes disproportionately motivated by the pain of failure.
This is especially true of work that you will inevitably share somehow, be it on a blog or Github, or just by showing it to your friends. If you’re a certain kind of person, this can be a very powerful deterrent indeed.
Related to the above. If you are too concerned with how good your work is compared to everyone else’s (especially that of experts in the field) you can end up convincing yourself that there’s no point even starting.
Tips on Getting Started
So I realise that all sounds insurmountable. I’ve found that the key is to use these mind games to your advantage and effectively try to trick yourself into starting.
Based on my own experience I have some suggestions.
In some cases, pressure can be a good thing. With side projects, there’s rarely any pressure to get things done, so creating an artificial deadline for yourself is a good way to focus.
That begs the question of how you avoid procrastinating over this new artificial deadline.
My suggestion for that is to externalise the pressure.
Tell a friend that you’re working on Project X and you’d like to show it to them next Tuesday. Or tweet about it, saying a blog post is coming on Friday. It’s critical that you set a specific time for this, otherwise you can keep pushing it back.
By doing this, you’re making yourself accountable to other people. Sure there’s probably no consequence if you miss the deadline, but it might still be enough to help you push through the first step.
You’re also putting your future self in a situation where not doing stuff is the worse outcome, because you’d have to go through the shame of going back on your word.
A cheap trick, but it works.
It might sound odd, but actually aiming higher than what you think is reasonable could help get started.
Let me explain.
I’ve been putting off writing on my blog for months. Then one evening I thought “I know, I’ll write 30 blog posts in 30 days”. Bear in mind that previously I’d barely written one every 2-3 months! It was a hugely ambitious mini-project considering my track record.
Suddenly it was clear that to make this work I’d have to ensure I have enough time every day to write a blog post. That’s on average an hour a day I’d have to commit to this.
Interestingly though, it gave me a focus I never had when I was just casually contemplating writing my next post. There was no time to second guess myself because I had no more than an hour a day to get something done.
It was almost easy to sit down and get cracking because there was literally no time to waste.
I also made use of my other trick of external pressure by immediately tweeting about it. Then there was no going back, and I’m already halfway through a content-creating marathon.
Thanks for that, Past Me.
A Rousing Speech
You know how in films there’s often a point where a character says a rousing speech and everyone around them just goes “yeah, let’s do this!”?
Sometimes you need it.
In my case, it was this one: 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person
If you ever feel you’re struggling with getting stuff done, read that. Maybe it will make you go “yeah, let’s do stuff!”.
Like I said at the end of my previous post, it’s important not to take failure too seriously.
We don’t have to be productive all the time. In fact, we’re probably too obsessed with it. I know I can be.
If you take it too seriously, procrastination can cause a lot of distress and productivity becomes a burden.
So sometimes, choose not to do stuff.
Just make sure it’s a choice you’re actively making, not an excuse to procrastinate.
Footnote: This is the 16th entry in my 30 day blog challenge.