Psychologist and author Neil Fiore, PhD, on how to make meaningful progress on your incomplete projects.
Expert Source: Neil Fiore, PhD, psychologist, executive coach, and author of The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play (Tarcher, 2007). Fiore’s no-blame book outlines methods for overcoming procrastination and tackling seemingly overwhelming or tedious projects.
There’s that guitar you never quite learned to play gathering dust in the family room. There’s the exercise bike that’s morphed into a clothes rack in the basement. There’s the smattering of materials left over from that abandoned bathroom remodel.
If only those unfinished projects would pick themselves up and quietly leave by the back door. They never do.
Aside from messing up your home, incomplete endeavors can leave an unwelcome mark on the psyche. They can sap self-confidence, perhaps convincing you that you just can’t stick with anything, or that you don’t really know what you want to do. Whatever feelings your abandoned ventures might inspire, they’re not likely to be positive. And, as other projects pile up, they can make completing anything harder — as you get harder on yourself.
You can override shame and procrastination, though, with concrete, reasonable plans, and by using action as a source of inspiration. Psychologist Neil Fiore offers simple prescriptions for increasing follow-through that focus on choosing limited and achievable objectives.
Barriers to Overcome
- Nerves. If you’re putting off pursuing a project that really matters to you, says Fiore, it’s often because of a fear of failure — or fear of success. Procrastinating is an attempt to relieve that anxiety, one that may succeed in the short term but fails miserably later as the project gathers dust and haunts you.
- A focus on the outcome. Ambitious goals are fine, but when we define our efforts in relation to the finished task — fluency in French, playing “The Wind Cries Mary” on the guitar — we create an intimidating gulf between where we are and where we want to be.
- Perfectionism. One major source of project paralysis is the feeling that whatever effort you expend, it won’t be enough to achieve perfection. So why bother trying?
- “I should . . .” or “I have to . . .” When you use these phrases, says Fiore, “you create a kind of negative hypnosis that tells your brain ‘They’re making me do this.’ ‘I should’ or ‘I have to do this’ actually means you don’t want to, and that’s the message your brain gets, increasing the resistance and rebellion.”
- Distraction. When you keep checking Facebook or scrubbing an already-clean sink instead of tackling your project, Fiore says, “it’s a good indication that you’re trying to avoid a task you define as more painful, boring, or fraught with the potential for shame and criticism.”
- Vagueness about commitment. One guaranteed obstacle to completion is a lack of clarity about what part you’ll tackle first, and when.
- Superperson syndrome. According to Fiore, we often give up on projects because we’re simply involved in too many at once — and believe we are supposed to be able to complete them all.
Strategies for Success
- Know that you can’t do it all. “Accept the simple fact that you’re a human being, that your time and energy are limited,” says Fiore. “You must choose what to focus on and what to let go.”
- Don’t wait for motivation. Anxiety and resistance to starting a task are normal and inevitable, according to Fiore. So if you’re waiting to “feel good” about starting, or about yourself, you may be in for a long wait. Action brings inspiration. Fiore recommends choosing to get started “even when your ego lacks motivation.”
- Use the calendar. “The brain needs specificity about what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it,” Fiore says. “Rather than ‘I’ll give it a lot of time next week,’ try ‘I’ll put in 15 minutes next Tuesday at 9 a.m.’ That reduces anxiety and helps your brain and body get into doing mode. It also keeps you from feeling overwhelmed by the size of your final goal because it focuses your energy on a specific task and window of time.”
- Pay your project a mental visit. “Facing your resistance and devoting even 10 to 30 seconds of thinking to your goal is enough to tell the brain that you no longer want to use the avoidance response,” explains Fiore. “Your brain will switch into its higher problem-solving function and it will lower the stress response — and then you can continue.” Fiore describes this process as akin to a “fear-inoculation shot.”
- Watch for your “no” moment. Observe yourself when you think about starting on your project, says Fiore. What do you tell yourself that keeps you from picking up the instrument, the art project, the book? Note resistant thoughts with curiosity rather than judgment, and pay attention when you choose to start in spite of fear or doubt.
- Breathe deeply. If you’re starting on your project and a distracting impulse comes, Fiore suggests taking a series of deep breaths. “Believe it or not, in five seconds or so, your mind will present you with something else, and the original distraction will usually be gone.”
- Execute in small segments. “I’ve written seven books and a doctoral dissertation,” says Fiore, “and never once did I say to myself, ‘I have to finish writing the book today.’ Instead, I face the resistance I feel, choose to get over it, and then write for 15 to 30 minutes. Then something comes to me and I go from not knowing to knowing, surprised at how much I’ve accomplished.”
- Get training. Sometimes we shy away from a pursuit because we lack key knowledge about how to move forward. There are workshops, classes, and courses that will teach you almost anything. Where appropriate, take advantage.
- Let go of what’s really too hard. “If you’re hopeless with numbers, learning bookkeeping is going to be too much of a challenge,” Fiore says. “Every pursuit takes effort, but if your pursuit is so hard that it’s a painful struggle, find another way to accomplish your larger goal.”
- Let go of what you don’t really love. Sometimes we lose interest in former fascinations. If something no longer stirs your passion, let it go. Free up the space it’s been taking up on your to do list, and reclaim the energy it’s been demanding from your heart and mind. Saying an enlightened “no” is often the very best way to get to an inspired “yes!
Illustration by Keith Negley