There's no perfect time

The biggest procrastination myth we tell ourselves is that it would be better to wait for a more suitable time. A time when we have less on our plates, less on our minds, or when we’ll feel more capable.

Maybe the work itself will even be better if we do it later, we think, and it seems reasonable. The voice of procrastination always seems reasonable. But it’s not.

Life doesn’t work that way; at least, not if you want to actually do any of the things you want to do. You’ll be tired and anxious, and you’ll be feeling drained and uninspired. You won’t be in the mood, and the last thing you’ll want is to also feel you’re doing something without enthusiasm, or without making any real progress. Better to wait until the odds seem more in your favour, you’ll think. Then you’ll watch TV, or scroll through social media, or change your computer’s wallpaper, or rearrange your desk a bit.

You already know that it’s a trap. There’s no perfect time.

I fall into the trap regularly, in two different ways. I’ll procrastinate from doing the thing that I should — or would prefer to — be doing, such as writing, but then later I’ll also avoid doing enjoyable things like playing videogames because I’ll feel I haven’t earned it. That’s no way to live. You lose out twice.

The solution is the same in both situations: do the thing anyway, at the imperfect time. Do the thing when it occurs to you that you should, or could. Perfect times don’t exist, but feasible times are commonplace and plentiful. The total of all the feasible times will let you do so, so much more of the thing you want to do, than if you were to wait for only the almost-perfect times — and the actually-perfect times don’t exist in the first place.

Bargain with yourself. Decide to do the thing, but only for ten minutes, just to see how it goes. Or set a limit based on the particular activity. Write a hundred words. Vacuum just the hallway. Clean out only the top shelf of the fridge. Put together just five bullet points for the proposal or presentation. Write a single function. Try beating the end-of-level boss just once more.

Work out what your impulse threshold is, and use it to get just a tiny bit of the thing done. By all means set a reward for yourself once you’ve done it, too. Often, you’ll find that you actually do an extra five minutes, or an extra shelf, or you try beating the boss another once or twice, or you vacuum the living room too. That’s all good. That’s the whole idea.

The important part, though, is that at the end of your ten minutes — or twenty — you’ve done some of the thing. You’ve moved a bit closer to whatever finished looks like for you, and you’ve used this little chunk of time well, and you’re earned your reward. That’s the feeling to chase, and to compound whenever possible.

I’m sitting in my office with all the windows open. It’s a rainy Monday morning, but my toddler son isn’t at nursery because he has a mild fever. I was loading the washing machine at 07:30 this morning, and I was also loading it at 23:30 the other night when he threw up just as my wife and I were going to bed. My in-laws have dropped by to help us a bit today, but I’m essentially on parent duty instead of working. Life does this kind of thing all the time. It’s just how the world works.

But my son is content for now, playing with his grandparents, and I’ve unloaded the dryer and prepped some things for everyone’s lunch. I came upstairs to put the laundry away, and my office door was open so I could see my desk.

There’s no perfect time.

There are sick kids and chores and unexpected problems. There’s stress and annoyance and lost sleep. A lot of the time, I’m just not in the mood. But there are also a lot of little chunks of ten or twenty or thirty minutes, after the laundry has been put away. I could sit and scroll my phone, or chat about nothing, or blame myself or the universe for this state of affairs. Or I could sit down and write something, as I did just now. Even if I don’t accomplish much more today, I did this, and this is the thing that I want to do.

It wasn’t the perfect time. But I used it anyway.