I realized in my teens that I’m kind of a procrastinator.
I’m 61 years old and you’d think by now after decades of reading books and articles about this stuff I would have it licked. It’s like a bad habit, right? You just have to break it. Problem solved. But no. The procrastination is always there, lurking around the corner, waiting to pounce at the faintest wiff of a deadline.
As far as I can tell, if you’ve got it, you can’t really get rid of it. You can only work around it.
One of the best strategies for me is to just start. Do something, anything, to get the ball rolling.
It can be the smallest most insignificant thing. Like, with this article (which of course I waited until the last possible minute to start), just start typing. Pretty soon you have a sentence and then another one and then a paragraph and another, and eventually a whole article.
It’s easy and it works, but I frequently forget to do it. Because… procrastination. It just keeps coming back. And so instead of procrastinating about writing the article, I’m procrastinating about doing the clever trick that I know will help me overcome procrastination and start writing the article.
Nearly always I get to a point where I can’t take the pressure anymore, and I finally do just start. And I feel stupid for putting it off so long.
Part of my problem is that there is always something more interesting and/or easier to do.
Knowing this, I have another strategy that works sometimes: Find something less interesting and make it top priority. Something like paying the bills or doing the taxes. Then I tell myself, “Gee, I should really get going on those taxes… but maybe I’ll work on this article instead.” And pretty soon I’m typing away.
It doesn’t always work. Tricking yourself is tricky. It can backfire. Sometimes I really do need to get those taxes done.
A trap I’ve fallen into sometimes is adopting a fancy to-do-list system. There’s seemingly a whole industry devoted to this kind of thing. A recent one for me was GTD, or Getting Things Done™. Clearly, it works for some people, so I’m not going to knock it. And I’ve gotten a lot of insights from trying them out.
But for me, a system like this always turns into an elaborate way to procrastinate. I end up spending way to much time maintaining it. At some point I look up and realize that all I’ve done is given myself yet another thing to do. And it’s actually kind of more fun and interesting than the things I’m supposed to be doing, which are not getting done.
As far as to-do-list systems go, the one that has worked most reliably for me is the short-list-of-tasks-on-a-small-piece-of-paper-that-I-know-I-need-to-do-today. To Do Today, for short. Typically it’s five or six items. And the tasks can’t be too big, either. Things like Pay Bills, Go To Post Office, Get Haircut. Tasks like that sometimes only get done if I put them on a short list.
In general, the thing I try to do to overcome my tendancy to procrastinate is to break things down into simple, easy to manage pieces. If I think about something at too high a level, I’ll never start.
Another thing is persistence. Once you get going, you’ve got to keep going. Sooner or later you get to the end. And then it’s done. This works hand in hand with breaking things down into simple pieces.
I think part of the reason I like making fonts is that it lends itself to this strategy of breaking things down, and then doing one thing at a time in a persistent way.
If you look at a finished font, it looks incredibly complex and daunting. Hundreds, maybe thousands of characters and kerning pairs, metadata, layout rules, metrics, paths, nodes, and on and on. But it’s all built hierarchically, like a tree. You just start at the roots and, move up the trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, and eventually you’ve got a font.
Fonts feel different to me than other kinds of projects (like writing or drawing pictures). I think it’s partly because fonts are so abstract. Like Eric Gill once said, “A letter is a thing, not a picture of a thing.”
When I sit before a blank sheet of paper with the intention of drawing a picture, I often get stuck: What should I draw? My brain seizes up. But with a font, the alphabet is always there, ready. I don’t have to decide what to draw. Just start drawing letters, and eventually I’ve drawn them all.
Writing is so open ended. Much harder for a procrastinator like me.
So I have to remember to just start, focus on that next little step, keep going, and, eventually, I get to the end.