One Graph That Will Make You Stop Procrastinating

June 3, 2015

8:00 am

Working at a startup or being self-employed brings freedom, but it also means no one is looking over your shoulder – and for procrastinators, that can be a problem.

David Cain, the creator of the Raptitude blog, has coped with the combination of procrastination and self-employment for two years. Recently, he had an insight that helped him cut through the mental clutter and get himself to act.

That insight came in the form of a graph, which tracks the lifecycle of any given task we have to do:

Procrastination graph

Some crucial points to note:

Anxiety always goes up the longer we put off a task. This may seem obvious, but somehow we feel we can forget about things we’re not working on. “Nothing else happens in this phase, except for your own suffering and aging,” writes Cain.

Although starting the task will boost our anxiety even further (the jagged lines), that stress is temporary. This seems to be part of the reason why we procrastinate: the prospect of starting is inordinately painful. Cain elaborates: “The faulty assumption that underlies procrastination is that things can only really go wrong if you start working on them. The reality is the opposite: things are already going wrong, and there’s only one way to make them go right.”

Soon after starting, anxiety starts decreasing and continues decreasing. During that stressful initial phase, we are figuring out what the task requires and planning smaller steps and goals. We start to see the task for what it really is, which is something manageable, and we gain confidence that we can complete it. “Work itself is made of concrete, small things like phone calls, forms, conversations, reading sessions, and writing sessions. The anxiety associated with the work is made of abstract, big-picture emotional concerns, about reputation, legacy, anxiety for the future, self-esteem, comparisons to others,” Cain writes. Guess which is more painful?

Cain actually produced two other graphs, which show how this lifecycle differs for a procrastinator. Unsurprisingly, it’s worse! The stress when we actually start is even higher, because it’s been increasing ever since we started procrastinating. And when procrastinators have multiple tasks going at once, they are in a state of near-constant stress (when the stress for one task begins to subside, the stress for another task inches up).

Cain’s advice? Focus on one task at a time – the single graph above – and realize that the only way to reduce anxiety is to act.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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