A Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Stuff Done

18 September 2017 | 36 Comments

“I’d love to read ways that you have dealt with procrastination, wanting to give up, productivity tips, what held you back from making your first commercial board game or writing an novel until you were in your 30’s.” –Anthony G. in the comments of this blog entry

This comment hit home with me because I’m a lifelong procrastinator. From elementary school through college I would wait until the last minute to study for a test or write a paper. In my three careers I’ve delayed dreaded tasks over and over again. My car is currently 2000 miles overdue for an oil change.

Perhaps most of all, for the longest time I considered my two big lifelong goals–to write a novel and publish a board game–to be things I’d do “someday” instead of “today.”

Let’s talk about the novel first. Why did I wait so long to write it, and what changed?

I always thought that novelists needed big blocks of uninterrupted time–months or even years–to write a book. No distractions, no responsibilities…just long days of writing, perhaps in some cabin up in the mountains.

This misconception put the idea of writing a novel solidly in the “someday” category. I’ve always either been in school or at a job, so for a long time I simply looked forward to the day when I’d saved up enough money to do nothing but write.

But then I started to follow and chat with novelists on Twitter. No one famous, just passionate authors. Mostly women (I had crushes on many of them). And the amazing thing to me was how much they wrote. They were completing novels every few months! Writing was a hobby for them, not a job–they all had full-time jobs, and some were single moms.

This completely changed my frame of reference, and I realized that there was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t write a novel. I just had to make it a priority.

So I did. Over the course of 2 months in the spring of 2012, I spent 2-3 hours each night writing a chapter. I’d write a chapter and then jot down notes for the next section (this was really helpful, as it gave me something to look forward to and ensured that I could jump right into the writing the next night).

At the end of the 2-month period, I had my novel. It was incredibly gratifying to finish. Of course, it was just a first draft, and I haven’t done much more than a few beta reads since then, but I’m fine with that (for now).

Board games were a different story. I’ve designed games ever since I was a kid, but I never considered sending one to a publisher. I had the misconception that publishers already had a slew of in-house designers to choose from.

The procrastination went beyond that, though, because I really didn’t design games in my 20s. I had several long-term relationships followed by an online dating spree that never went anywhere–I think my priorities were very different then.

But then along came my new love, Kickstarter. Eminent Domain, Alien Frontiers, Rise, and others made me realize that it was a viable funding platform for tabletop games. That was the push I needed to actually do something about my dream, and I set out to design Viticulture in 2011.

Even then, it’s quite possible that the idea may have fizzled out were it not for the interest of a friend, Alan, who playtested the game with his wife in the fall of 2011. He offered to partner up for the project, which gave me a consistent playtester and someone to be accountable.

I still procrastinate all the time. I have something on my to-do list that’s been there for over a month. I frequently choose to respond to e-mails or check BGG for the 20th time instead of focusing on a big-picture task. There are elements of game design I enjoy; there are others for which I’ll really drag my feet.

But I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that help me, and maybe they’ll help you too. Some of them tie to the stories above; others are new:

  • I stopped saying that I didn’t have enough time and started viewing life as a series of priorities. I’m still learning about this frame of reference, but it’s been incredibly helpful when I’ve applied it to the novel and to my first published board game. It’s not a coincidence that both of those things came to fruition in the same 12-month window, because I didn’t have a girlfriend and for once wasn’t looking for one. I realized that my happiest days were those when I spent time creating something instead of courting someone. This isn’t a commentary on dating; rather, it’s a matter of looking at how you spend your time and deciding if that’s really how you want to spend your time.
  • I considered the scariest reason I wasn’t actively working towards my goal. A while ago I met with someone who wanted to write children’s books. They wanted advice on how they could pursue that dream, and instead I asked them a question, “Why weren’t they already doing it?” There’s literally no barrier preventing someone from writing a book. So isn’t it a bit of a red flag that they weren’t already doing it? I think sometimes we fall in love with the idea of doing something, but really we have no true desire to actually do it. This is something I’ll continue to ask myself as long as I run Stonemaier Games. Just because I love to design and develop games now doesn’t mean I’ll always enjoy doing it. [Update: This entire point applies to things that you are physically and mentally able to do, as different people have different limitations–perhaps even those that may prevent someone from expressing themselves in words or pictures.]
  • I’ll pay someone else to do it. This has been one of the hardest tips for me to adapt, as I’m frugal, and in general I love to work. But sometimes there’s a task that I never want to do and I’m not even good at it when I do it. Early on at my company this was mailing stuff. As much as I like to receive mail, I loathe the disruption mailing stuff to other people. So I hired fulfillment centers to mail batches of stuff and individual orders, and found helpers to mail replacement parts.
  • I found a business partner. As I mentioned earlier, it’s incredibly helpful for me to have someone who else who believes in Stonemaier Games, is personally invested in the success of the company, and can hold me accountable. We meet almost every week, and it makes me feel like I need to actually produce something to show at that meeting. For those same reasons, I’ve also started to work more with co-designers, like on the second and third Scythe expansions.
  • I learned a to-do list trick for procrastinators. My ongoing to-do list is kept on a sticky note on my desk. Sometimes if there’s something on the list that I really need to do but don’t want to (Item A), I’ll add something else to the list that I want to do even less (Item B). Relative to Item B, Item A doesn’t seem so bad, so it’s much easier then for me to dive into it.

I still have a lot to learn as a procrastinator, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you a procrastinator? If so, how have you learned to get things done?

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36 Comments on “A Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Stuff Done

  1. There are some good comments on social media that I don’t want readers to miss out on:

    “Turn off social media, create a list, disregard list when inspired, take micro breaks, change scenery, and green tea. Lots of tea.”

    “1. Create deadlines. 2. Create routines for productivity. Routines are tougher to break. 3. Finish early to taste the joys of extra time.”

    1. Routines are so important. I actually found that my most productive time for designing was between 9:30 and 11:00 at night after my wife had gone to bed. I’m a night person and really am not any good at anything before about lunch time. So finding the right time was important to me.

      It’s funny actually, I’ve got a novel written (I wrote the first draft and a half) because it was one of my life goals. It was actually meeting my (now) wife that stopped that entirely. All the hormones of the time totally killed my ability to write the story I wanted to write.

      And now I’m sitting in that dreadful twilight between the completion of a game (and trying to find a publisher for it) and none of my other ideas being anything more than ideas. This week though I’ve got a plan to get a prototype for another idea printed so that it can be played.

      The key to beating procrastination is simply to do. Having kids and a wife is not an excuse. I’m more productive on my creative endeavours now that I’m married with two small children than I was when I was single.

      1. Stephen you might find Daniel Pink’s lattest book quite helpful. It’s called “When” and the author says it is not a “how to” book but a “when to” one. Just like you, i feel that the right time has a strong impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of my efforts.

    2. I agree, the microbreaks concept is a winning one, and to taste the joys of life. From a workaholics perspective it is really good to know that taking free time, and experiencing joy is a really keeping your productivity levels up.

      Also it helps to kick into gear on the little annoying things you need to do, if you are anticipating a little break time after.

      Work slightly fewer hours, get more done, and have the extended benefit to keeping on track of the big picture things you need to do.

  2. I’m kind of a lifelong procrastinator myself. There are a few things that I’ve found help me:

    – “Don’t Break the Chain”: you get a calendar. On it, you write down a task you want to do daily. Practice guitar, for example. Poor the calendar somewhere that you’ll see it every day. Then you get a big red marker (or whatever is the most satisfying to use). For each day you do the task, mark an X on the calendar. As you build up the habit, you start to get this nice big chain going on the calendar. And, seeing that chain, you’ll want to continue doing it, because if you miss a day your chain will break.

    – you mentioned this in your post, but being accountable to somebody else is huge. There are times when I start to believe I’m not a real designer, or a real publisher, and that I should just stop. But then I remember, a bunch of people gave me money and are expecting a game. I can’t stop, because I can’t let them down. Or then I have game stores that may be interested in stocking the game. I can’t drop the ball on them. Or an upcoming Unpub event or tabletop showcase. I can’t be a no-show. It’s not about me, it’s about my responsibility to others. And that means I have to keep going. And that’s a motivator that is stronger than how I feel at any given moment.

    1. Paul: Thank you for sharing these ideas! I really like the idea of breaking big tasks into baby steps (and tracking progress along the way). And I certainly can relate to that feeling of being accountable to a lot of people. :)

  3. While I’m still working on implementing many of the suggestions, I’ve found the book Deep Work by Cal Newport really helpful in terms of providing insights into how to prioritize aspects of ones working environment to best promote efficiencies to tackle those “someday” responsibilities/goals.

      1. Mainly that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to achieving deep work, and that executing deep work is a skill that must be practiced. For some people it works for them to disconnect and hide away for weeks in order to focus and achieve their goals. Others make deep work a part of their daily routine where they schedule a couple of hours a few days a week to solely focus on specific projects that require focused mental investment. Either way it is important to create a space that is conducive to allowing you to achieve that level of focus (i.e., I have started not trying to write in my office where other people are around but go to a quite library on campus) and to prioritize that time. With the shorter bouts of deep work, as you get into the routine of it, you should become more efficient at getting in the zone. I still have a long way to go on that.

  4. Started reading a book about efficiency as a business owner.
    The best advice I’ve found so far in the book is this:

    Don’t just make a to-do list. Make a to do list that has 3 columns.
    Column 1: The thing you’d usually write on a todo list ie: “Call mom”. Add 2 more columns.
    Column 2: What’s the thing’s end-game goal?
    Column 3: What’s the singular & specific first actual action you need to do to move toward the goal?

    Examples:
    “Follow up with Jamey” “Jamey knows I appreciate him” “Write Jamey a thank you email from gmail account.”

    “Mail prototype to client” “Partnership is struck” “Create/Print the mailing label” (today’s literal example)

    “Fix the complex rule in my new game design” (overwhelming nebulous idea) “Game is more fun for younger players” “Erase the current numbers, and re-stat the cards” (#NOToverwhelminganymore)

    Once you know WHERE you’re going, and HOW to start the journey, the journey becomes much more manageable.
    Otherwise you end up think OF your tasks (all the time), instead of thinking ABOUT your tasks (only when it’s time to do them).

    Has helped me in the last 4 days since I got the book. #onpage20. Hope it helps you.

    John

    1. I really like your to-do list ideas. What is the book called that you are reading? I know a lot of research says procrastination is about self-doubt, and this strategy seems like it tackles that one head first.

    2. John: I really love the idea of not just writing down the usual to-do item, but also looking at the overall goal and how to start moving towards it. I’ve experienced how important that first step is (that’s one of the reasons why I’d end each writing session of my novel with some notes about the next chapter).

  5. I am a procrastinator. I mostly see my procrastination as good but sometimes it gets a bit too much. Sitting on BGG is a typical case. For me what works is tasks with deadlines and formulate goals that are fun and matter for me. Which is of more importance I believe.

    A good tip to find purpose meaningfull activities or goals is the 100 list. Open your phone or on a piece of papper write down 100 things that you would want to do/experience/see/eat etc. No boundaries, just riff, what you wanna do, like really want to.

    I would recommend you do this first and then read the following instruction.

    When you’re done with those now prioritize and choose 30 of those that you would want to have accomplished within 5 years from today. Of those choose 5 you want to do within the coming year, choose 1 of these 5 you want to within a month. Now take these 5 activities and the other 25 and create a rough 5 year plan (month is enouh) spreading the activities evenly. If you map these out on a calender or A3 paper you now have goals, deadlines of activities that are important to you.

    I have found that this excercise helps. Sure i haven’t done all the activities but I have done a lot of them. Even cooler. I have done them by not really forcing myself. They just happen. As if my subconscious stores them and kind of directs my energy towards completing them.

    This was inspiring post Jamey I will take some of your tips.

    1. Stop trying to plan out so much – Perfect Inaction vs Imperfect Action. Don’t wait until you have it all together. You probably never will. When it comes to regular tasks — accountability and “making it painful” are key. Make sure you have a penalty associated with not getting it done (“No Ice Cream, Young Man!!!”) or even have a reward if you get it done. Motivation is key! =)

      1. Jason: I like the reward system! I use that for shorter tasks (like, I can watch a funny YouTube video after I finish working on task X). I find that doesn’t work as well for tasks that span long periods of time, though maybe I just haven’t explored it that way.

  6. I’ve realized that what keeps me from starting a task is the daunting idea of finishing it. I’m too tired for a full 30-minute workout. I don’t have time to design a whole new set of cards for my game, etc. But I’ve also learned that once I get started on something, I can usually accomplish more than I first thought.

    So my mental trick is this: “Just 5 minutes.” Meaning, I start my working thinking, “I’ll just do 5 minutes today.” And usually by the time I’m 5 minutes in, I have enough momentum to do another 5. And then another, and another.

    It’s the same with game design. I tell myself, “Just 1 card.” Meaning, I’ll just take a bit of time to design one card for my game. And by the time I get that done it’s almost automatic to go on to the next one. Pretty soon, it’s way past my bedtime and the cards are almost done. :)

    1. Nate: I really like that mental trick! Finishing something is daunting to me too, especially when it’s a big, long task or project. So I like your idea of using a mental trick of 5 minutes. 5 minutes is feasible. Then another.

  7. Great article! It made me realize something for the first time. Something that was there as all along, in the subconscious. The ultimate, most potent ingredient. It’s the project partner. Very powerful. I’ve remembered that If some else is involved, a person or a company/client, I’m like an unstoppable productivity terminator. I’m the driving force. No tricks needed. Thanks for that!

    For personal solo projects I use the following 3 tricks:

    1. FutureSelf: Imagine yourself later that night or the next day. How will your FutureSelf feel if this task had not been done or started on? Then imagine how good your FutureSelf will feel if it’s done or truly started on. Now decide which way you want your FutureSelf to feel.

    2. When you are deciding whether or not to do it repeat the following numerous times, “Just do it!”. If other thoughts pop into your head then cut them off. “Maybe this afternoon would be a better…”, “JUST DO IT!”.

    3. Allow yourself to do it wrong. Save a backup if you can. Just do it and don’t mind if it’s wrong. You will either do it right and be delighted or end up with it mostly done and understanding how to easily finish it off better. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong first. Don’t let perfectionism paralyze you.

  8. Anthony: Thanks for sharing these tricks! I particularly like the FutureSelf visioning concept and giving yourself permission to do it wrong. That’s one of the reasons I love blogging–I like the combination of the instant gratification of publishing something combined with the ability to easily edit that content later.

  9. This is a really good collection of advice and discussion here – bookmarked! I agree that self-doubt and confidence have a lot to do with intended and unfinished targets…

    I was taught by my dad to keep ‘short accounts’ in my financial life – ie to pay bills directly, resolve invoices immediately etc. The worry of knowing there is a big bill to pay can stop you enjoying your money while you have it… A few years ago I started realising that in writing lots of intentions for my life without getting into the habit of fulfilling them, I was creating myself a guilt burden: I’d consider my dreams and instead of feeling excited, I was feeling guilty that I hadn’t completed them.

    Round the same time I read Marie Kondo’s The Joy of Tidiness, which is essentially about being mentaly/emotionally/spiritually trapped by our possessions…

    So I began throwing out plans in the same way I have learnt to get rid of possessions. I’m also much more careful now about verbally or mentally forming an intention: if it’s not something that I can see myself completing within a reasonable period of time, when I already have big life goals, why should I add another to the mix?

    Perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to take this advice as a younger man. But I’m keen to help my kids, when I have them, live by short accounts in their plans and intentions.

  10. Martin: I really, really like this epiphany: “I’d consider my dreams and instead of feeling excited, I was feeling guilty that I hadn’t completed them.” I’m going to have to think about that one, as I’m sure it applies to me in some way.

  11. Jamey,

    I’m a lifelong procrastinator, so I laughed when I read ” I have something on my to-do list that’s been there for over a month. I frequently choose to respond to e-mails or check BGG for the 20th time instead of focusing on a big-picture task.” Several years ago, when my daughter visited my office she saw my “To Do” List on my desk…and noting that I hadn’t crossed too many things off the list, she said, “Daddy, shouldn’t it be called ‘Things I might do’ list.”

    Unfortunately, my home life is not much different. In addition to the domestic chores (laundry, cleaning, and dishes), I do like to stay in touch with folks (Linked-In, Facebook); play games (in-person at Meet-Ups or on-line via BoardGameArena or Boite-A-Jeux); or perform some design work on my next game or expansion or development work for another designer, but it’s amazing how quickly a day can be consumed with only a few activities.

    I’m still a procrastinator, but I find that if I plan “fun” (and I realize that sounds peculiar), I’m more apt to get things done in a more timely fashion. So, if I have to review a set of rules and rule writing for anyone who has created or published knows…it’s a painful process, I reward myself with playing a game. While it may extend the period of time in which I’m reviewing the rules, but I’m also not dedicating a 5-hour block to the enterprise.

    In short…reward yourself to get things done.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  12. Jamey, thanks for sharing this and being so honest. I, too, am a lifelong procrastinator. As a writer, I’m just trying to discipline myself to the “few hours a day” model. For a number of years, I found I could just burn all my vacation time at the end of the year, and get a lot of good writing done, but as I get older and my work schedule grows ever more demanding, that’s harder to achieve. But, I can always choose to write a bit in the evening instead of watching TV or playing a computer game. Those are fun, but indulging my passions is more fulfilling and more restful in the end. :)

  13. My problem is that I am now using your “KS Lessons Full List” as procrastination, when I should be writing.

    So I am avoiding something I should be doing, by doing something else I should be doing!

  14. Procrastinator could be my middle name ;).. I tend to struggle with two phases: first, prioritization -what to do and what not to do ( Eisenhower matriz is a good mind frameworks for me for making decisions). Then, how to get it done – creating a small habit that then grows over time is a good way for me to gain some self discipline and even trick myself into doing what i have to ;)

  15. A bit of a procrastinator here. I guess what I find most difficult is the balance. I am new to this, my game is no where near finished, but I recognise there is lots of work to be done that has nothing to do with the game creation itself (stuff like learning this, social media, building a fanbase/community around the game, etc). Sometimes I can get a little too focused on one aspect, and forsake the other. But definitely working on it.

    I guess how I console myself is that as long as I am working on something to progress my goals of the ultimate success of the game, and as long as I don’t set myself an unrealistic artificial deadline to go to Kickstarter (I am looking at anywhere between 8 and 12 months) I should be fine.

  16. Jamey, thanks for your honesty and sharing this post. Your tips are very helpful. I, at times, can be a huge procrastinator. It took years for me to figure out that I often procrastinate via perfectionism. I often have to be careful that I don’t try to perfect one goal or aspect of a project just to neglect others that I really should be working on from my list.

    Or sometimes I procrastinate by cleaning haha, I will clean and feel like I am getting something important done instead of actually doing the one or two things I don’t want or like to do (does anyone else have that problem?).

    Often times, the most important trick I have learned is that I just need to START. Almost no matter what it is, once I start it is not too bad. The starting is the tricky and important part.

    Other helpful tips: I will do two or three super easy and quick tasks before my difficult or undesirable task(s). That way I get a few easy and quick wins and boost my confidence.

    Lastly, I have found that it is essential (for me) to work in a completely clean and orderly environment. I personally get easily distracted if my environment or desk is messy or full of other projects or papers.

    Hope those tips are also helpful!

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