The Don't Quit Podcast

Mastering the Art of Starting

Some of the most daunting things in life are staring at a blank page. Sure, you have the freedom to do what you want, but the possibilities can be overwhelming when you're looking at starting.

The mental energy it’ll take is the hardest part in any task. That’s what getting started is about: overcoming the mental, physical, or emotional obstacles before diving in.

Psychologist Joseph Ferrari tells the American Psychological Association “Procrastination isn’t doing, it’s delaying. It’s essentially the choice of not doing. Procrastinating is helpful to gather the necessary information required to do the task, but when the gathering becomes excessive, that’s when procrastinating is negative.”

So what’s causing that push to getting started and overcoming that problem? Our brains are quite prone to how procrastination starts.

We all have our flaws. Perfectionism, stress, impulsivity, disorganization. The research in neuropschology says delaying action isn’t caused by one factor. It’s from any of the nine aspects in our brain that’s not in sync.

“Procrastination is increasingly recognized as involving a failure in self-regulation such that procrastinators, relative to non-procrastinators, may have a reduced ability to resist social temptations, pleasurable activities, and immediate rewards when the . . . benefits of preparation are distant,” write the researchers in their 2012 examination of college students’ study habits.

This means impulsivity, self-monitoring, planning, activity, task initiation, task monitoring, emotional control, working memory, or orderliness can stop you from starting your task.

In other words, what’s stoping yourself is different from everyone else. So conscientiousness is a big factor for Tim, but it could be perfectionism for Tom, says the researchers.

Thinking critically about the actual problem of what’s stopping you from starting will help you find the solution.

Dreaming too big can actually backfire

“If you can dream it you can do it” said by Walt Disney. While dreaming big worked for creating Mickey Mouse, there was actual work involved. Research says that over thinking the idea can hold us back from starting it.

Psychologist Jeremy Dean in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, says “The theory goes that if we can picture our future success, then this will motivate us.” While I’ve said in the past thinking positively as its benefits, but Dean says this can create a ‘positive fantasy’ about what your future success looks like could backfire.

“The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here-and-now. However, they don’t alert us to the problems we are likely to face along the way and can leave us with less motivation.”

Dreaming big isn’t inherently bad though, it’s how you go about it. Dean says “As opposed to fantasizing, a more effective way of visualizing the future. This let's us think about the processes that are involved in reaching a goal, rather than just the end state of achieving it”.

That said, write these steps down and read it yourself. If you’re familiar with the One Step Journal, this all about breaking them your goals into actionable steps right now.

Avoid the busy work

Our brains love busy work. It feels good to scroll our Facebook feeds, getting to inbox zero, or organizing all your desktop folders. This is because it makes us feel like we accomplished something. But this is just filler to what the real work needs to be done (not saying some of these fillers aren’t important though).

Productivity coach Michael Bungay Stanier says it best “It’s not a measure of success to check off forty-seven ‘to-dos’ in a day if you haven’t actually accomplished what matters most. Define the three high-impact actions you want to take each day, and list them as ‘all-day tasks’ on your calendar so you remember what they are.”

Learn to forgive

Another problem we face is ‘It’s too late for me to start so why start at all?’ It’s true you may be behind the competition or whoever you’re comparing yourself to, but there’s acceptance in doing your best that helps us get started in the first place.

Psychologist Tim Pychyl and his research team at Carlton University’s Department of Psychology studied how task initiation connects to being more forgiving by looking at how university students study. They found the students who were more forgiving to themselves about their performance on their last exam to put more effort in their second exam.

To quote one of the researchers: “Forgiving oneself for procrastinating is likely to be an essential step in effecting motivational change.”

We’re all human who makes mistakes. While you may be hard on yourself for not doing something when you should have, remember there’s never really a ‘right’ time to start. It’s all about how you finish.


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