Hacking Procrastination

I hate starting from a blank page on a new project. Some people find it liberating, but I find it tedious. I’m prone to delaying a new start until the last possible moment.

This is a problem for someone who prides themselves on being entrepreneurial and creative. I want to be good at starting new things! So procrastination is not an option.

It’s not that I get writer’s block. It’s that a blank page is daunting. It causes me to procrastinate. Whether it’s writing an article like this one, drafting product requirements, or sketching a UI, I find starting is the hardest part because it is simply tedious and involves zero creativity. It’s just about getting the paper, sharpening the pencils, and finding the right frame of mind.

 

Tedious tasks get in the way of starting a project.

This year I intend to publish one post a week on the Kromatic blog, as well as finish three books on innovation boards, Product / Market Fit, and innovation ecosystems. That’s quite a lot, so I need to write every day.

To help myself get going, I’ve become an expert at hacking my own procrastination circuit. So here’s what I do.

Identify Friction

When starting a new project, there is a lot of friction. A lot of things need to happen before I can type the first word or sketch the first line.

The first thing I have to do is get my workspace in order. This used to be as simple as getting out the pencils, but of course now my labor-saving computer requires…more labor. (Some people think this is actually part of the creative process. Those are not my people.)

 

Before you write, you have to get past the tedious tasks like sharpening pencils or setting up your laptop.

For writing a blog post like this, I have to:

  • Close out distracting applications
  • Duplicate a template
  • List the topic in our publishing calendar
  • Compile my research notes into a document
  • Contact any potential collaborators
  • Create a rough outline

Only after all that can I start writing.

This might not sound like a lot of work — and honestly it isn’t — but I don’t enjoy actually doing any of the above. None of it is creative or satisfying. Closed applications will have to be reopened later. Duplicating templates and filing documents is busy-work that stands between me and the creative part. It’s all friction.

These small pieces of friction stop me dead. Why? Because I don’t have enough time.

Allocate Time

Most of these creative tasks take a substantial amount of time. The fastest I can write a blog post is one hour. But sketching a UI might need a four-hour block of time.

If I have an hour to write and I need to spend 15 minutes of that time setting up my workspace, I’m not going to finish the post. I know I have zero chance of finishing the post in the remaining 45 minutes, so I don’t even bother starting.

There’s an old saying about doing the big rocks first. If you have to fit a bunch of sand and a big rock into a glass jar, there’s only one way to do it. If you put the sand in first, there is no room for the rock. But if you put the big rock in first, the sand will flow around it and find the space.

We’ve also heard this called “Eat the frog first.” Start every day by doing the big, nasty thing you need to do but don’t want to. Click To Tweet

 

Start every project by doing the thing your most don't want to do, what we call "eating the frog."

So those small bits of friction at the beginning of my workflow are becoming a big problem.

Break the Task

I enjoy cooking a good meal (preferably without a frog in it). But it’s a lot of work, and it can’t be rushed. Sometimes it takes me an hour to cook a meal from my “30 minute cookbook,” and time is the thing I have the least of, so I spend far too many evenings warming up a pizza in the oven.

Just like writing, there’s so much prep involved in making a meal that I can’t bear to start. Before the butter starts sizzling on the pan, I have to:

  • Set the table
  • Get out the cooking implements
  • Find the ingredients
  • Purchase or substitute ingredients I don’t have
  • Chop the veggies
  • Preheat the oven
  • Hand-wash the silverware because I forgot to turn on the dishwasher last night
  • Spend 20 minutes searching for the spatula before realizing it was the first thing I pulled out and is sitting in the pan

You get the point. Most of the time I cook with my partner, so we divide up the tasks and it’s pretty easy. But if I’m cooking by myself (a 5am breakfast), then it feels like quite a lot of work just to get into my day.

The solution for economic cooking and economic writing is the same: break each task into small, easily accomplished chunks that don’t intimidate you.

Instead of cooking, I’ll just lay out the dishes. Instead of writing, I’ll just set up the template. Instead of sketching, I’ll just open up Figma and close my other apps.

These small tasks aren’t daunting. They only take a few minutes to complete, and they can all be done well in advance.

Space the Tasks Out

Breaking the task into smaller chunks doesn’t do me any good if I do them one after another. That doesn’t fool my brain at all. It’s just as intimidating, and it won’t solve my time-allocation problem. Instead, I space them out.

If I want to write at 5 am, I set up the workspace the night before with the template prepped, the topic listed on top, and everything else closed. All I have to do is sit down and write.

If I want to cook, I’ll lay out all the bowls, set the table, and pull out the instructions. I’ll even take the ingredients out of the fridge long before I want to start cooking. (Pro-tip: You should salt and marinate your meat 24 hours in advance if possible.)

 

Get a head start on a creative task by preparing in advance.

Now when it comes time to cook or write, I can get into the right mindset very quickly. I don’t need to use my organization-brain to start, and then switch to the creative side. I can just dive right in.

Choose the Right Time

Shockingly, I am a morning person.

I don’t know when this happened. I am most productive in the morning. Since I live in San Francisco and most of my work is on the East Coast or in Europe, a lot of my morning calls are between 5am and 8am. So there’s a pretty narrow window for me to get something creative done just after waking.

Occasionally I can force myself to be productive in the afternoon, but it’s unusual. By that time my working memory is overloaded with tasks that need doing — it’s not a great time to be creative.

I need the free space of a well-rested brain. If I’m going to write three books, it has to be from 5-6 am, and I can’t dilly-dally in bed reading the news.

The Routine (Night-Before Prep)

To counter all of these known friction points, I created a rough routine that starts at the end of the work day:

  • Review tomorrow’s calendar and set my alarm.
  • Create separate workspaces on my Mac for my different meetings so I can easily swipe to get to the next note-taking template or application I need.
  • Review my writing topics and pick one to begin the next day.
  • Load the writing topic up on my iPad — a completely different workspace without any distracting notifications.
  • Organize anything I need for breakfast if I plan to cook.

All this allows me to get from bed to doing something creative within minutes and in the right mind space to just start typing. I still have to do a quick email check in the morning to make sure my European colleagues haven’t surprised me with an emergency meeting, but aside from that, I’m writing first thing every day.

Preparing a creative task the night before helps you leap out of bed and start working.

 

Lessons Learned

Will this work for you? Maybe not. I’ve read a lot of productivity tips, but really it comes down to each person finding the hacks that work for them. So if you really want to accomplish something big, you’ll need to figure it out for yourself. Pick something, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Hack your procrastination circuit however you can.

  • Identify friction.
  • Allocate the right time for you to have a clear and creative mindset.
  • Break the task into smaller pieces.
  • Space the small pieces out and do them in advance.
  • Experiment (it’s not just for your business model!).

What do you do to hack your procrastination circuit? Write it in the comments below.

Special thanks to Megan Kennedy for reviewing and giving feedback on this post.