Getting out of severe procrastination and a lack of motivation

Procrastination is a form of incompetence. You try doing a specific, hard task. Instinctively, you know that this task will require your full attention and brain capacity; you’ve been there before. You feel that right now is not your best moment (your brain is not up to it) so you postpone it. You fill the now free time with other meaningless things. You procrastinate.

In order to get out of procrastination you need to keep your brain in a healthy state. Just like a athlete will follow specific rituals to keep his muscles in the best shape before a race, you too need to take care of your mind health, so you could be in your best shape when you attack those hard tasks that you need to do. You can do this mostly with good sleep and a  little time management.

In order to get out of procrastination you need to
exercise so you would
sleep well so you could
work well.

The goal is to work well but you will not be able to do that if you did not sleep well. Just as a manual labor worker will under perform if he starts already physically tired, you will not be able to think if your sleep was not restful enough. A manual labor worker rests by not moving, your brain rests mostly during sleep. So you need to be able to sleep well constantly.

People tend to ignore sleep and a bad sleep means less brain power the next day and now you will not be able to do those hard tasks. Manual labor workers do not have this problem, they sleep very well. You too need to get some exercise (almost) everyday. This will guaranty you a good sleep and next day you will be in top (brain) shape.


How to get out of procrastination in practice

If you didn’t exercise for a long time it will feel very hard at the beginning. Start in the morning after rolling out of bed. You need this so you would properly wake-up, no matter how hard it sounds. Use a little willpower.

Start with something simple like arms rotations for warm-up. With your arms extended laterally, start rotating them backwards in big circles. Make the circles smaller and smaller every few rotations and increase the speed. Then do the same but rotate the arms forward. This exercise helps your back which is useful if you sit all day on a chair.

The main exercise are squats (no weights). Do 20. I rest my hands on the side of the bed so I don’t loose balance. After the squats you should feel your hearth pumping very hard. This is the kind of exercise that will help you with your sleep. Walking or other low effort exercises will not help.

Exercise every day for at least two weeks. You can use a computer. After some days you will feel that you want to exercise more, so use some weights and add more exercises to your routine.

Do not say you will go to gym, you will skip a lot of days because of the distance and effort to get there. Instead, buy some basic weights; they are cheap and come with a little flier that shows all kinds of exercises that you can make with those simple weights. If you use the weights you will finish your exercises before you could get to a gym (20-30 min). Use about 80% from the maximum weight you can lift and about 7-10 lifts. The goal is to make your heart pump really hard and the effect on your brain is amazing: you will feel that you are ready to live life and do a lot of things.

If you skip a day don’t worry, just do some exercises when you remember. The goal is not to check every day, you are not training for Olympics. You just need to pump fresh blood in your brain so you will sleep better. Be warned, the first few days you will actually sleep worse. Somehow your brain will become agitated from all those exercises. In time this will go away and you will be able to sleep very deep.

After the two weeks you can exercise every other day (Monday, Wednesday  and Friday) and rest in weekend. Muscles need time to recover and again, you are not training for Olympics.

Go to sleep at 10 pm every evening. This realistically means that you will be sleeping at 11 pm. The next day you will wake up quite early by yourself. Some people say „I’m not a morning person”. There is no such thing. If you did the required physical work during the day your body will ask for rest every evening. „I’m not a morning person” means „I did so little effort today that I don’t need to rest at 10 pm and so I stay up late, and so I wake up late and grumpy and then I can’t concentrate… and the cycle repeats.”

The first few days you will not be able to sleep soon or wake up early. That’s OK. Just do your exercises.

Also, sleeping from 11 pm to 7 – 9 am means that you sleep when the city is quieter, another requirement for a good sleep.

After the first two weeks you will actually feel that you have to do some hard, challenging mental task. This means your mind is in the best shape and you will no longer procrastinate.  However, you do need to maintain what you have gained so far, so use the following routine.


Everyday routine

Wake up, exercise and rest a little after.

Skip breakfast or eat fruits or have some light breakfast. You will be much more motivated if a little(!) hungry (you had a proper meal in the evening, right?). Hunger triggers a survivor mentality and that means that you will be able to concentrate very well.

In any case, do not eat heavily. You will be sitting on a chair, thinking, so you don’t need that much food. And if you do have a big breakfast you will feel sleepy afterwards, not helpful when you want to concentrate.

After breakfast rest somewhere while thinking at what you have to do today. Choose to do your most challenging task, first thing in the morning. The reason for this is that now you have the most brain power so you can finish that hard task. If you do it later during the day you brain will already be tired and you will not feel that you could finish that hard task. So you will procrastinate, diminishing your brain power even further. Reading all those forums, playing games will drain your brain just like work would. The only difference is that nobody will come and ask you to explain what you understood from what you’ve read or to ask you to finish x levels each day. That’s why it feels good to procrastinate: you have no real responsibility.

If you still don’t feel like attacking that hard task, do not start your computer. This will only lead to all kinds of distractions that will drain your brain power. Instead just space out or do some physical work around the house. Start your PC only when you are ready to work.

When you start working disable all notifications (instant messenger, email etc), do not start music, do not check email, stay invisible on instant messenger, no distractions. Actually you know what to do from when you where in school: every time you had to learn for some exam you would only have your stuff in front of you and you would retreat somewhere quiet, letting everybody know that you need to learn so they would not disturb you. You have to do the same.

While working you will advance more and more on your task until you will feel that you can no more. Just turn away from PC, go lay down somewhere, stare at the ceiling and get ready to go back when ready. You will have all kinds of thoughts during this period and a lot of times you will find unusual solutions to your tasks problems.  Usually at this point people start music, check email or do some other stuff. Don’t do it! your brain just got a little bit tired and you need to let it rest a little. Just like a manual labor worker rests from time to time so you should too. Reading, gaming will not allow your brain to rest and soon you will feel the task is too hard for your current brain power. Manual labor workers just rest when they rest: they don’t start to play football or other non-work activities.

As lunch approaches you will almost finish your hard task, or at least make a big advance. The positive feeling that it generates is amazing. You already did a hard task today and its just time for lunch. You have almost one full day to do some other, easier things or whatever. But go and have a big lunch first. The day is just starting.

For the rest of the day you should complete easier tasks, and after 5 pm read forums, play games or go outside.


Other thoughts

You should approach mental work just like you approached learning for exams in school. It’s the same thing. The difference between mental work in real life vs. school is that in real life everything takes longer than expected and nobody divided the work in equally sized chunks (exams) like they did in school. Besides that it’s the same: you need sleep, silence and some food.

Create a sense of urgency about what you want to accomplish. This will help you finish what you are working on. In school this is created by exams, if you are employed you have deadlines. In you are on your own you have to create your own sense of urgency (deadlines might not work, because a lot of times you do things for the first time and so you can’t know how long they will take).

Willpower is just a measure of your current brain capacity. A lot of willpower means a well rested brain, ready for action. No willpower means your brain is tired and you will automatically postpone hard tasks.

As people grow up and parents don’t tell them what to do anymore, they think that they can do whatever they want (go to sleep whenever they want, eat whatever they want). If you (would) have a child would you let him do whatever he wants (sleep, eat whenever). Probably not. And why is that? because it’s not good for him. Well, it is no better for you either. You have to do the same for you. You have to be your own parent. In fact, an adolescent probably could cope better with a hectic sleep schedule than a 20+ years old because of all the hormones he produces. As you age, things change, and your only chance is to respect your body and it’s biology. Proper food and sleep are mandatory so you can concentrate next day.

Mental work is not the same as physical work. If you do physical work, say split wood with an ax, you can stop whenever you want: the wood already split will remain split and you can continue from where you left. Mental work is not the same. As you work, you have to fit in your brain all this knowledge and then act on it. If you are interrupted before you finish you will have to start all over again! So you can work in chunks just like in physical work, but unlike physical work if you are stopped at the wrong moment you will have to start all over again.

Disable all notifications. They just interrupt you at random times preventing you from working. If you have trouble getting the willpower to disable all notifications, just follow all those notifications. Afterwards, try to make a summary of what you have learned or gained from that. You will see that not that much. That email was spam, that article that you just had to read (because of the title) had no substance etc. They are just time wasters but they also waste brain power. Choose a time latter in the day when you want to „catch up” and do it only then.

When you procrastinate, you will read articles, play games and waste time with all kinds of activities. The perfect moment to end it is when you just finished one activity. Then you instinctively will search for some other activity to waste time with. Recognize this moment, remember that you will gain nothing from such activities, and just push the power button on your computer and go to sleep or just walk away from your PC. This is the weak spot of procrastination.

After you are done wasting time (reading articles, browsing the web etc.) just make a habit to stop for a second and analyze what you have gained from what you just did. Did you learn anything from those 20 tabs that you had opened or did you had a good time? are you more relaxed? Not likely. This will create a Pavlov reflex next time you feel that you want to waste time. You will just know from before you start wasting time that you will gain nothing from that activity. This will make it easier to skip it altogether.

Daily and weekly breaks are important because they let your brain rest. Respect them and you will have more willpower to finish your stuff.

After you were born your parents told you what to do. You went to school and teachers told you what to do. You got a job, other people told you what to do. If you are on your own, nobody will tell you what to do. You have to decide that all by yourself. This should not be hard but it’s a skill that no one taught you, and definitely no one let you practice it. And now you are 20+ and you are missing this crucial skill. Recognize this and start practicing.

The overall motivator could be this: do whatever you want to do because all this will be over soon. You will die. Everybody dies. 7 billion people in the world and in about 100 years all will be dead. Even the ones that were born yesterday. Do what you have to do now. (idea taken from Steve Jobs)

A „catch all” advice: just try to analyze yourself in order to determine what works for you and what not. For example when you wake up not rested. Try to go back and see what you did before and try to find the culprit for the lack of rest. Look at what you ate, what you did, what time you went to bed, when was the last time you did vigorous physical effort and so on. Just finding the culprit is at least half the battle.

Another example: you feel drained out after reading a lot of articles because they seemed interesting. Just go back and try to remember what was so interesting in them. You will see that most of the time the article presented nothing new or it was just spam and the only interesting part was the title. Try to remember this when you will see another interesting title. Just imagine how empty the article must be. This will help you to skip reading it.

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