How to beat procrastination: 8 personal tips from a productivity coach
Last updated on: March 1, 2023
Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Katy Arrington, one of my favorite digital artists. Her vibrant, eye-catching art was what drew me to her Instagram page, but her productivity tips and infectious attitude towards success made me stay.
In this interview-turned-article, Katy shares the most common reasons for procrastination, and how she believes an improved relationship with failure leads to a more successful career and more satisfying life.
When an artist tackles productivity
Katy is an accomplished digital artist and productivity coach.
While she focuses on making art and earning impressive sums from it, she also offers coaching for those who feel stuck with their careers, mainly artists like herself. She has a very colorful and engaging Instagram page with motivational thoughts, a now-finished training program called “End Procrastination Training” on Facebook, a Youtube channel with life and career tips, and also her own podcast.
All with the goal of sharing her passion for self-improvement with as many people as possible.
Why we procrastinate and how to overcome it
Even though Katy shares advice on all aspects of one’s work life, I was most curious about her views on procrastination. After about an hour of discussing the topic, I have to admit, I’ve come out more optimistic and confident than I’ve been in a while.
Without further ado, here are Katy’s thoughts on procrastinations, what she’s seen in her clients, and the lessons she teaches them.
According to her, main causes of procrastination are:
- fear of failure,
- lack of motivation,
- demanding perfection from ourselves
- confusion about tasks, and
The main solutions for overcoming procrastination, in Katy’s opinion, are to:
- Get up close and personal with failure
- Let the unpleasant feeling pass
- Get used to imperfection
- Try the “idea download” method
- Being kind leads to being consistent
- Adopt the “good enough now” mantra
- Stop “beating yourself up”
- Fail faster to get to the solution quicker
Fear of failure
Most commonly, the reason for procrastination comes from our fear of failure. When we are not sure that we’ll perform as best as we can, or that the results of our work won’t be the best, we stall on even starting the work.
There is this subconscious logic that we can’t fail if we never start, right?
But as we put off starting on our tasks, the unpleasant feeling gets worse. There’s the dread of the deadlines closing in, the fear we will disappoint others, the shame of leaving a bad impression, etc. And when the unpleasant feeling weighs over us, instead of pushing us to do the work, we want to run away.
To Katy, art and all its ups and downs are a big playground, and you need to learn to ride out all the emotions that come with failure. You will fall down from the jungle gym, scrape your knees, get a face full of sand when your sandcastle gets knocked over… but to her, it’s all part of the experience. She treats those mishaps as a way to learn how to overcome obstacles, but also to learn to love herself more.
Some of the solutions to procrastination she has found are getting comfortable with failure, learning how to sit with the unpleasant feeling, getting used to imperfections, and using her “idea download” method.
Tip 1: Get up close and personal with failure
One of the funniest internet proverbs says:
For non-gamers out there – encountering enemies means you’re entering a new, unexplored area. In real life, the same goes for failures. Mistakes are just stepping stones in the right direction, towards our goal.
According to Katy: “Most people’s reaction is “I’ll never make it, I’m a failure, something is wrong with me” when the truth is, the most successful people on our planet are the biggest failures.” She claims, “Their success was built on piles and piles of failures. Failures they used to learn and grow. If you’re failing, you’re succeeding.”
Our knee-jerk reaction is to be ashamed of our failures, or see them as nothing more than our low points; whether in our careers or life in general. However, to really overcome the fear, you need to start accepting it as a learning tool.
A useful exercise is to take a piece of paper, and write out some situations in which you’ve “failed” or things didn’t go as planned. Then, you should think of different things you’ve learned as a result of those situations, which you probably couldn’t have otherwise.
|When I got a D on my science exam||1. I learned I couldn’t prepare science exams in the same way I do languages (which I prefer);
2. I got a tutor, which helped me realize I really like being one, too;
3. Retaking the test got me a B, and it felt amazing;
4. I learned to rely on myself.
|I missed an important online meeting because I was distracted with phone calls||1. My boss was fine with it, despite me fretting so much over what he would say;
2. I started setting alarms for the most important reminders through the day;
3. My phone was always turned to silent mode after that day.
Tip 2: Let the unpleasant feeling pass
Katy had a few simple tips on how to overcome her fear of sitting with the unpleasant feeling procrastination brings.
- “I sit with it, I really sit with it and let it wash over me.” The hardest part is to sit there with the unpleasantness, and not run away (to your phone, YouTube, Instagram, or other distraction).
- Have a few set phrases to help you through the feeling:
- This is here for me.
- There is learning (a lesson) in here somewhere.
- This is what I need to become the better version of myself.
- Look back to a time where you felt awful because of a failure, and then remind yourself of all the valuable lessons you learned from it. Practice seeing those learning opportunities in your failures
Thinking we’re unable to sit through the nagging feeling of impending deadlines, the fear we’re not good enough, or the guilt for betraying someone’s expectations is what leads us to procrastination. And when we escape, things only get worse.
Ultimately, we may get the project done, but in the long-term, our productivity hasn’t improved. It’ll just happen again, unless we learn how to sit with the feeling. Katy’s tips are a great 5-10 minute “ritual” whenever you begin to feel overwhelmed.
Tip 3: Get used to imperfection
I asked Katy whether powering through our tasks despite failure is a good way to improve our relationship with it.
“Instead of ‘powering through’ ” she starts, “I want to suggest embracing the discomfort of failure. When we power through it, I think we end up running past all the learning. When we embrace the discomfort and train our brain to think PAIN = GOOD, we make ourselves stronger. I went on a journey of allowing so much imperfection in my work.”
The interesting thing about this view is that it teaches us to celebrate failures, rather than demonize them. Aside from learning to sit with the unpleasantness, a great way to battle procrastination in the face of failure, is to embrace imperfection. For example:
- Start by realizing that when you spot mistakes and imperfections, you’re already better than you were when you made them. We often believe this growth doesn’t matter, because the end result is still not up to our standards. But there are still things we’ve learned along the way.
- Make a failure journal – write out the mistakes you find as you work, and either then, or later, add solutions to those mistakes.
- Stop focusing on an audience that isn’t there – we’ll often think about our supervisors, coworkers, parents, friends, whomever, like the silent judges looking over our shoulders. If you keep fretting over other people’s opinions, you will keep bringing up the negative emotions and associating them with imperfection and failure.
Tip 4: Try the “idea download” method
A neat little exercise I found on Katy’s Instagram was the “idea download”. It’s the name she gave to her practice of setting aside some time before bed to get all of her drawing ideas out on paper. Messy sketches, concepts, color schemes, anything.
It’s actually a very useful way to prevent procrastination because we can’t make the first step.
To Katy: “The idea behind the “idea download” is to not judge our ideas when we’re coming up with them. Like just get them out of your head and download them and leave the judgments to the side. The judgment slows us down SO much.”
So, emptying your mind in this way frees you of the judgment for when you start the actual work. The same kind of exercise can be done with mind maps, to-do lists, text drafts or even simple journaling about our day.
Lack of motivation
In one of her instagram stories, Katy talked about how she crafted this amazing calendar where every day was planned to a T. But, fairly soon she realized it wasn’t working for her, as those time boxes started slipping out of her grasp. She just couldn’t keep up with her planned out days so accurately. But instead of getting frustrated or giving up, Katy knew that her motivation wasn’t in the right place and promised to come back to it again after some time.
So I wanted to ask her how she knew she had made the right choice? More importantly, in a similar situation when presented with the choice of staying disciplined despite the failure or finding a new motivation in a different method, how do we choose?
“I think the key thing is that when you try out a method to not just keep trying it and hoping it will work one day. The key thing is to try and then evaluate specifically why it worked or didn’t work so you know what to work on. My suggestion is to commit to fail until you succeed with any method. That way, when you stick to one thing, then you level up your brain and you gain the belief that you can make anything work.”
Instead of pushing through, Katy recommends learning how to change our thoughts and perceptions of the task, so we can create an even better motivator.
To add to that, Katy believes that discipline is often misinterpreted as a character trait. According to her, discipline and motivation are the same thing – tools we use to get things done. And discipline is, as she says: “I do what I say I’m going to do, I just don’t negotiate with my brain” kind of attitude.
Tip 5: Being kind leads to being consistent
Another way to stave off procrastination that stems from lack of motivation is consistency, or… discipline, as we’ve mentioned. When asked about what helps her stay consistent and moving, she was quick to say:
“Not beating myself up when I don’t stick to my plans. I evaluate and learn and move on.”
And this made me realize how harsh we are with ourselves whenever we procrastinate. And how little trust we have that we’ll do better next time. It’s like saying “I’ll start dieting tomorrow”, knowing we won’t. So I was curious about building that trust; knowing we will keep our promise to work harder or be better.
“You do it by making mistakes (laughs) and practicing not beating yourself up, loving yourself, and evaluating it.” she was adamant, “When you trust that on the other side of ANYTHING (making art, doing a task, making a decision) you know you will be kind to yourself, you will be doing more in a day than you do in a week.”
In a way, consistency comes from learning to forgive ourselves even when we procrastinate. Slip-ups are okay, so long as we keep learning.
Demanding perfection from ourselves
Perfectionism, despite being seen as a good trait in the mainstream, is a modern disease. Studies show it leads to anxiety, avoidance, poor work performance, lower confidence, and more.
Because perfectionism sets often unrealistic standards, it comes with anxiety of the “what if this or that happens”, and “what if I am judged for this”. I talked to Katy about perfectionism, and wanted to see if she had any advice there as well.
Tip 6: Adopt the “good enough now” mantra
Katy is a big advocate of creating a better connection with your art by thinking “I’m good enough right now” instead of “I’ll be good enough when I do X or Y”. Here’s what she had to say:
“I’m a huge promoter on how negative motivation doesn’t work, doesn’t help, and only really leads to burnout. There are just so many studies out there that show that children, animals, adults all respond sooo much more to positive motivation.”
She then offered a simple exercise. To practice thinking, at this moment: “I’m good enough to make art (or do the presentation, or start the task).
“How does that make you feel? And when you feel that way, what does it make you wanna do? Probably draw. It’s a pretty motivating feeling,” she concludes.
Going into work with the attitude that we aren’t good enough now, but will be at some point in the future creates a fearful feeling, as she calls it. That our results won’t be good enough because we take action from that “not good enough” place. The emotion drains much more of our motivation and causes us to avoid and procrastinate.
Tip 7: Stop “beating yourself up”
One of the things we often do when the day is over, is berate ourselves for procrastinating. But “unexpectedly”, this kind of attitude doesn’t work, and we keep procrastinating. And since Katy mentioned how being kinder to yourself even if you procrastinate yields better results, I wanted to know how she got to that place.
“It requires practice, for sure, and to this day my brain still wants to offer: “Hey, let’s beat ourselves up about this or that”, but I’ve just gotten better at not indulging those thoughts. They might never go away but we can learn to take a slice of the pie instead of taking the whole cake. When I used to indulge those thoughts, it would lead me to days-long procrastination of just beating myself up over and over.“
The same method is something behavioral therapists advise when dealing with anxiety, and it’s a common tip for meditation: acknowledging the oncoming thoughts, but not acting upon them. Instead, we should bring our focus back to the task at hand.
Confusion about your tasks
I asked Katy what are some of the most common procrastination reasons she’s encountered with her clients.
“The first one is indulging in confusion. Confusion is really a fear of failure disguised as not knowing what to do next. Confusion is just the unwillingness to try things and fail at them until you find out what works. When you’re confused, you’re totally safe to not take any action.”
We’ve all known people (and sometimes been those people) who use confusion as an excuse to five into a complex task and figure out a solution. Because it just seems too demanding. However, there is the other situation:
“If you know what the next task is and there isn’t confusion, it could be just you feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps a task is way too big and you need to break it down so your brain can see the steps. In a way, that is confusion about where to start. And so the cure to confusion or overwhelm is making a decision about the smallest step and being willing to start.”
The second most common procrastination reason was, oddly, indecisiveness. It’s the moment we procrastinate because we aren’t sure which path to take, or which method, or tool to choose for our task. We know what we have to do, and want to do it, but are afraid of making the wrong choice. And so the indecisiveness causes us to waste time.
“Indecisiveness is a fear of failure. But really, ALL of this, ultimately comes down to feeling safe with yourself. If you trust that you will have your own back no matter what decision you make, you will have no problems making decisions. And you will make so many decisions that you find the “right” one so much more quickly than when we’re TRYING to find the right one.”
The best way to fight this way of procrastination is to fail faster.
Tip 8: Fail faster to get to the solution quicker
The goal here is to choose one method and stick to it. If it fails, go back again, and try another method. It comes back around to Katy’s earlier advice on “committing to fail until you succeed”. The more ideas and failed attempts you get out, the more productive you will be, as all those wrong choices will lead you to the right one.
Spending an hour trying to figure out which method to choose, or an hour trying out three and successfully eliminating them? Which would you say is better?
Social media isn’t to blame
It’s common for us to point fingers at social media and their clever design meant to rope us into spending hours on it. So we find apps that block certain websites and find ourselves needing to get off them like children off sugar. I asked Katy about her take on our obsession with social media, YouTube, and overall the instantly-gratifying distractions, when we should be working.
She says to imagine our brains as children wanting candy, while we are the parents. And to ask ourselves if we would give the candy to our child every time it tugged on our sleeve.
“I also want to point out that there is no “should”. (laughs) When we tell ourselves we “should” be working, it’s like we’re scolding a child, which is so perfect since you mentioned how I compare our brain to that of a toddler. It’s not the toddler’s fault that it will eat a whole bag of candy. It’s literally the way our brains are designed, to seek pleasure. And when we “should” ourselves, it makes our toddler brain want to rebel! (laughs)”
She then circles back to our previous discussion on motivation and discipline:“Even though our brains want to put off this task, instead we can remind ourselves why we WANT to do it. There is no rebelling when we WANT to do it.”
So, finding a motivator stronger than our desire for distraction works much better than slapping ourselves on the hand like a small child.
Finding a productivity coach
Lastly, I was interested in productivity coaches, since I never had one, but heard so much about them. Especially with Katy, there are dozens of happy clients whose lives and careers she turned around. What’s more, she herself often comes across as a “proud parent” when talking about them:
“I work with people who are hungry to reach their dreams and want to get out of their own way without their hand being held. But I am EXTREMELY proud of my clients, extremely. They are incredible people. “
Naturally, it made me eager to find out more about how productivity coaches help people with career issues, among which are productivity and procrastination.
Is a productivity coach someone who keeps you accountable?
“I specifically let people know on our consult calls that I am not an accountability coach,” Katy starts, right off the gate. “I teach you to be accountable to yourself so that you don’t need me.”
Coaches are meant to give you the tools needed to “survive” on your own, and mend any distorted attitudes you have towards your work or habits. She continues:
“Instead of being held accountable, it’s more about having someone in their life that deeply believes in them and sees them at their highest selves, sees them as already hitting their goals and successful, someone who loves them completely unconditionally. Which doesn’t mean coddling. Because I unconditionally love my client, I will give them tough coaching as well.”
When should you hire a life/productivity coach?
“I recommend it to anyone who wants to take their life to the next level, period. I think hiring a coach is going to be as normal to people as hiring a personal trainer or a gym to take their fitness and health to the next level.”
True enough, Katy herself has no reservations about having a coach herself. She will often shoutout life coaches that helped her get to where she is today, and the various podcasts she listens to.
Hiring someone to help you move forward in your career should be a long-term decision and not something out of desperation. It’s an investment in yourself and your career.
While we pretty much know all the causes for procrastination, the solutions for it can be wildly different. In this article, we’ve explored some roads less taken in combating procrastination, namely: learning to accept failures, finding lessons in imperfections, overcoming judgment, and most importantly – being kind to yourself even when you procrastinate.
Katy’s philosophy is all about improving your career and self through love. And it is infectious. And after this interview, something I noticed we’re sorely lacking in the modern workforce.
If you want to learn more about Katy and her work, you can find her here: