Stop procrastinating now – and make rapid progress on your most important goals

by Jack on October 2010

As I practice meditation more and more, I learn that it’s not about being perfect, or getting it right. After all, perfection is impossible, despite the dearest dreams of perfectionist people everywhere. Instead, meditation is about starting again and again. During meditation, your focus will probably get derailed lots of times during a single session. This is certainly true for me. I find while I’m generally able to concentrate for longer than I used to, I still frequently get distracted by some kind of daydream, or a sequence of thoughts, or a review of my calendar.

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When I’ve committed to sitting still and meditating for a period of time, the temptation to go and do something else often arises. Perhaps I want to check email or get started on some work. To do something useful, rather than just sitting here. The urge to do something different – something other than what I am doing – feels like I am struggling against handcuffs. Because I know with certainty that I won’t get up, I experience a sensation of powerlessness and suffering – feeling like the world shouldn’t be the way it is, and that I am not doing the right thing for me at that moment. Fortunately the sensation goes away immediately once I surrender to reality, and release any attachment to the desire to change what I am doing in that moment. Surrendering to reality as you perceive it – fully and completely – is a simple and very powerful spiritual practice that I recommend to all.

A lot of the time, however, we do give in to the urge to do something else – a thought, an action, or a sequence of thoughts and actions. It’s not realistic to assume that we can control our thoughts and actions perfectly, on a moment by moment level. (Think you can? OK, what’s your next thought going to be?) Fortunately, there are other ways to stay on track and counteract our tendency toward procrastination that actually work.

This situation is a lot like flying an aircraft from one place to another. Every plane is a little bit off course for most of its flight time. Because the navigation systems of the aircraft “know” this and correct its path, thousands of times a second, the aircraft ultimately goes where people want it to go. Imagine if an aircraft had to get from New York to London without ever knowing where it was or what its surroundings were. Everything would have to be scripted perfectly in advance – then we would blindly launch the aircraft in the right direction and hope that it got where we wanted it to go. This would not be very successful, because the wind and the other flight conditions would be unknown. Through the so-called “butterfly effect”, tiny imperfections in the path of the aircraft would grow and grow until it wound up completely off course.

The same thing is true of important creative pursuits like writing a novel, designing a great software application, or painting a great work of art. Checking in where you’re at, and then starting your work, over and over again, is the key to a successful outcome. Being “off track” is inevitable. Expecting that all your thoughts and actions will be the perfect ones that get your project over the finish line is absurd. You’re going to get distracted, derailed, and confused. Thinking that you can perfect your thoughts and actions is about as silly as thinking that you could send an aircraft from New York to London without ever checking its conditions and location mid-course. Some people actually try to do this, of course – they create overly elaborate plans that try to take into account every possible contingency. People who do this do wind up with well-developed plans, but often find it hard to progress beyond this point.

So the keys are (1) to know, with great clarity, where you actually are and (2) to start on your project, over and over, until it’s complete. When you’re aware you’re off track, then you can help yourself get back on track, and start again. Even within a 30 or 60 minute time block spent working on your project, you may need to “start” dozens of times, in response to small interruptions or distractions. You only give your power away to procrastination when you lie to yourself when answering the question “am I working?” or “am I off track?”

Some starts are bigger than others. A small start might be when you drift for fifteen seconds and wonder what you’re going to have for lunch that day, since it’s already 11:15, and you had breakfast early, and will you get a sandwich or a burrito…? Oops, back to work. A bigger start might be required when you check your email, follow a link that someone sent you, and end up web browsing for half an hour. In that case you might take a few minutes to get things back on track. The biggest kind of starts are the most challenging – actually getting yourself to your desk, or to your studio, instead of having one more cup of coffee or reacting to the epiphany that your underwear drawer reorganization now suddenly feels really, really important.

While it’s good to minimize distractions when doing work that needs significant concentration, it’s insane to pretend (or hope) that distractions can be eliminated if only you really focus, and try hard enough, and make yourself do it. Instead, it’s better to build assumptions into your workflow that distractions and interruptions will inevitably happen. When you do that, you empower yourself to learn to recognize when you’re distracted, and to recover from those distractions as quickly as possible. The key way to do this is to create a focus on starting.

When you create the habit and the practice of starting, repeatedly, it doesn’t matter that you’re off course a certain fraction of the time. The important thing is that you are able to recognize it and get back on course quickly.

So don’t worry about finishing. Starting matters more. Starting deals with things exactly as they are, instead of comparing the present moment unfavorably to some kind of hypothetical future where you’re “finished” with your project, whatever that means. People who have a problem with getting things finished, would do better to focus on starting more decisively, and more often. The more effectively you get started, over and over again, and the more effectively recover from distractions, the faster you ultimately finish.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Royale Scuderi October 30, 2010 at 10:27

Direct hit! Very insightful. I love that you make us think and ponder.

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Jack October 30, 2010 at 21:01

Thanks Royale, glad you’re getting value from these articles!

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Darby O'Connor November 4, 2010 at 18:33

Just starting a task is spot on! Many times we do not know how it will turn out, but the solutions come while we are moving to the end target. Your statement of perfection being untenable is interesting. My takeaway from Zen is that reality is perfect as it is, right in front of you, right now. You need to be fully present. Suffering occurs if one is not in alignment with this truth. What is perfection? What already is or what we want (our definition of perfection.) This is a very difficult concept for me to grasp indeed. But at the end of the day, just starting is the most important, regardless of your view of perfection! Keep up the great work!

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Jack November 5, 2010 at 08:43

Makes sense, Darby. You could compare the process to driving a car – you can’t turn the car unless you’re in motion, but when you’re moving, correcting your course is a lot easier.

I like what you say about Zen and I do agree with it. I think it’s a matter of distinguishing between “intrinsic” versus “measurable” perfection.

If we accept the Buddhist presupposition that reality is perfect as it is (which I personally seek to do), then we can love what is and there is no conflict.

In the case of progress toward some end goal in the physical world, however, we’re in the realm of measurable perfection and we can compare our path with the target to see if we’re on track. I think the internal conflict arises when we wish we were more on track, or closer to the end goal, or any of a million other ways that our monkey mind judges things.

As long as we recognize the (inevitable) measurable imperfection of our progress toward a goal as part of this greater, intrinsic perfection, I think we’re OK. When we place measurable perfection ahead of intrinsic perfection, then we begin to suffer.

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Marek March 1, 2016 at 04:57

great job

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roznoszenie ulotek March 1, 2016 at 05:02

great job

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