Getting things done is easy when you’re doing it right. You know the plan and type furiously on a mission to carry out. Productivity is glorious. However, if you’re stuck in perfectionism and procrastination, it can be a difficult loop to escape. One thing grabs your attention and then you whirl 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. A doctor, YouTuber, and podcaster, he explores the strategies and tools that help his audience live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. His YouTube channel features study and revision techniques and ways for students and professionals to get more done and enjoy the journey. To be Youtube Channel has over 3 million subscribers and its Sunday Snippets newsletter goes to 160,000 readers.
I interviewed Abdaal about the 5 mistakes procrastinators make and how to avoid them.
1. Confusing procrastination with prioritizing
“Real procrastination and fake procrastination are different,” explains Abdaal. “Fake procrastination is where we just prioritize something else.” Maybe you don’t go to the gym because you are busy with work or family. That way you’re just prioritizing in a way, but it’s not necessarily procrastination. Reprioritising is fine, but find out what it tells you. Then put blocks in your agenda that represent your real priorities.
Abdaal added: “It doesn’t count as procrastination unless you have a block in your calendar for what you want to do.” If he’s blocked the gym from his schedule between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM and then chooses to do something else, that “counts as real procrastination” and that’s what to avoid. Start adding the blocks to your calendar. If you still can’t get them done, you may fall for another mistake.
2. Beat ourselves up
“Being hard on ourselves is an evolutionarily useful mechanism,” explains Abdaal. Procrastination “means that we are 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 obvious dangers like saber-toothed tigers and other predators. Procrastination conserves the energy needed to survive.
“When I feel like I’m putting things off, I know that’s exactly what my evolutionary past designed me to do,” Abdaal said. He knows that he can then choose to ‘be more in control of this by creating systems and frameworks to do the job’, but he doesn’t have to be hard on himself to succumb to procrastination. Realizing that we are wired that way 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 may be to simply try harder. “We put the responsibility on ourselves for making the effort to do it,” Abdaal said. If he puts off writing his book and finds himself saying, “I just have to…”, then he knows it’s not going to work. “If your solution to a problem is just trying harder, that’s not a sustainable way of living.”
So what’s the real solution? “Think in systems.” Abdaal believes that we should see 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. Provide processes and defaults rather than decisions and emotions on a case-by-case basis, as explained in the next point.
4. Thinking as a person instead of a system
“If we think of ourselves as people, we think we can just put in more time or effort or be more disciplined,” he said. “We’ve set ourselves expectations to do more.” However, thinking in terms of systems or machines means that procrastination is framed differently. “You can’t just make a computer run twice as fast without changing the program it uses or the system it works in.”
When Abdaal struggles with procrastination, for example with a two-hour block in which he planned to go to the gym, he asks, “What is the system I can design around this to make it more likely that I will do it?” ?” This leads to interventions such as finding a nearby gym, finding a gym he likes, finding a personal trainer or fan accountability buddy, or using an app to track his workouts.” all systems you can set up that help reduce procrastination rather than relying on just trying harder.”
5. Trying to push the rock up the hill
“If we try to do something that we fundamentally don’t want to do, in the sense that it’s not energetic, enjoyable, fun, interesting or meaningful, but we think we have to do it anyway, it’s like climbing a boulder up the hill. Push. Persisting in doing these things and believing that work is sometimes just intrinsically boring or uninspired is not a source of lasting motivation or productivity.
Whenever Abdaal finds himself thinking, “This thing is really boring, but I just have to do it,” he asks, “What can I adapt to my approach that gives me energy and makes it fun?” He enlists the help of gamification to do this, which involves “remembering the broader goal, incorporating short-term gains, and shortening the feedback loop.” Essentially, breaking down the boring task into a series of smaller tasks that each come with rewards or wins of some sort.
Don’t confuse procrastination with prioritizing, kick yourself, or just decide to try harder. It’s not the way to get things done. Instead, think like a system instead of a human, time block like a pro and incorporate gamification into what you’re trying to do. Get curious with understanding when procrastination creeps in to overcome your evolutionary wiring and find a way forward. It is very possible.