Getting things done is easy when you’re on the move. You know the plan and feverishly guess at a mission to be carried out. Productivity is glorious. However, when you get stuck in perfectionism and procrastination, it can be difficult to escape. One thing grabs your attention and then you twirl down the rabbit hole of distraction. The trick is not to let yourself slip in the first place.
Ali Abdaal knows how to get things done. As a doctor, YouTuber, and podcaster, he explores the strategies and tools that help his audience lead happier, healthier, and more productive lives. His YouTube channel includes study and review techniques and ways for students and professionals to get more done and enjoy the journey. His YouTube channel has over 3 million subscribers and his Sunday Snippets newsletter reaches 160,000 readers.
I interviewed Abdaal on the 5 mistakes procrastinators make and how to avoid them.
1. Confusing procrastination with prioritization
“Real procrastination and false procrastination are different,” explains Abdaal. “By procrastinating incorrectly, we’re just prioritizing something else.” Maybe you’re not going to the gym because you’re busy with work or family. That way you’re just prioritizing a certain way, but it’s not necessarily procrastination. Reprioritization is fine, but work on what it tells you. Then put blocks on your calendar that represent your real priorities.
Abdaal added: “It doesn’t count as a reprieve unless you have a block on your calendar for what you want to do.” If he has the gym blocked on his calendar between 6pm and 7pm and then commit to something decides otherwise, “that counts as true procrastination” and that’s what should be avoided. Start adding the blocks to your calendar. If you still can’t finish them, you might fall for another mistake.
2. Beat ourselves up
“Being hard on ourselves is an evolutionarily useful mechanism,” Abdaal explained. Procrastination “means not doing something that is in our long-term interest in favor of our short-term interest.” In caveman times, we had to optimize to be in the present and avoid clear-cut dangers like saber-toothed tigers and other predators. Procrastination conserves the energy needed to survive.
“When I feel like I’m hesitating, I know it’s exactly what my evolutionary past destined me to be,” Abdaal said. He knows he can then choose to “exercise greater control by creating systems and frameworks for getting the work done,” but he doesn’t need to be hard on himself if he succumbs to the delay. Recognizing how we are wired and choosing to act differently is a more productive way to frame it.
3. Press the Try Harder button.
If you know you’re procrastinating, your solution might be to just try harder. “We put the burden on ourselves to put in the effort to do the thing,” Abdaal said. When he hesitates about writing his book and catches himself saying, “I just have to…” he knows it won’t work. “If your solution to a problem is just to try harder, that’s not a sustainable way of living.”
So what is the real solution? “Think in systems.” Abdaal believes we should think of ourselves as systems and machines rather than people. Let go of the need to just try harder and instead look for an alternative way of working. Have processes and guidelines instead of individual decisions and emotions, as explained in the next point.
4. Think as a person instead of as a system
“If we look at ourselves as people, we think we can just put in more time or effort or be more disciplined,” he said. “We set expectations of ourselves to do more of the thing.” However, thinking in terms of systems or machines means rephrasing procrastination. “You can’t just make a computer work twice as fast without changing the program you’re using or the system it’s working in.”
When Abdaal struggles with procrastination, say with a two-hour block where he was going to hit the gym, he asks, “What system can I design around this problem to make it more likely that I will?” This leads to interventions like finding a gym closer, finding a gym they like, finding a personal trainer or fan accountability buddy, or using an app to track their workouts. “These are all systems you can put in place to reduce procrastination rather than just relying on trying harder.”
5. Try to push the boulder up the hill
“When we try to do something that we fundamentally don’t want to do because it’s not stimulating, entertaining, funny, interesting, or meaningful, but we think we should do it anyway, it’s like hitting a boulder slide up hill. ” Persevering through these things and believing that sometimes work is just plain boring or uninspiring is not a source of sustained motivation or productivity.
Whenever Abdaal thinks, “This thing is really boring, but I just have to do it,” he asks, “What can I tweak about my approach so that it energizes me and makes it fun?” He enlists the help of gamification entitlement, meaning to “remember the broader purpose of incorporating short-term gains and shortening the feedback loop.” Essentially, breaking down the boring task into a series of smaller tasks, each with some kind of reward or win attached.
Don’t confuse procrastination with prioritization, don’t beat yourself up, or just make a commitment to try harder. It’s not the way to get things done. Instead, think as a system rather than a human, set blocks of time like a pro, and incorporate gamification into what you’re trying to do. Become curious and understand when procrastination creeps in to overcome your evolutionary wiring and find a way forward. It’s very possible.