How to Stop Procrastinating on Design Work

The most common myth of procrastinating is that people work better when they are in a time pressured situation having procrastinated previously. This is a very egotistical thing we have told ourself to make our brains feel better.

From personal experience, I’ve faced procrastination less than a handful of times during the academic year throughout my undergraduate degree. Often faced with a blank page, I found myself out of ideas, feeling like I whatever I was going to do needed to be perfect. But where does procrastination come from?

🐵 Instant Gratification Monkey

As Tim Urban describes in his TED Talk ‘Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator’, the rational decision maker inside our brains can often get overtaken by the Instant Gratification Monkey during procrastination. At this point, every sensible decision goes out the window and the Gratification Monkey takes over.

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate — Wait But Why
from Wait but Why by Tim Urban

The Monkey wants things that are easy and fun. But there is a good balance between finding the line between enjoying what you are doing and still being able to manage your responsibilities in life.

One of the reasons why we procrastinate is because subconsciously, we find the work too overwhelming for us. Breaking it down into little parts and then focusing on one thing at a time. If you still feel swamped, then break it down even further. After doing so, your task will be so simple that you will be thinking “I might as well just do it now and cross it off my list!”.

Deconstructing a Task

When or if a task feels too vague or overburdening, all you have to do is deconstruct it piece by piece until you get a collection of tasks that are easily achievable in under an hour.

e.g. Finish Pages for Crit

This can be divided into 3 sections. First, what does ‘finish’ mean exactly? It means completing a task you have already started – so have you really started it?

  • Think about the deadline of the task, how much time you have and realistically how much of that time will be spent working (account for eating and getting proper sleep)
  • Then if you realise you haven’t actually started anything, rephrase to ‘Start…’

The next one is ‘pages’. This is obviously too vague for a portfolio. Think about the minimum viable submission for this task. What are the absolute essentials you must need in order to not fail? List these out in order of priority.

  • Now you can rephrase according to your timeline. Start page X on XX date / time

Repeat this process for the rest of the pages, being completely realistic of the contents and time taken to complete. If one page is going to take more than an hour, split it into 2 chunks instead, labelling one as start and one as finish.

🔨 Action Trumps Everything

The most common advice I end up giving to students and young designers is to just get started with whatever your goals and aims in life are. Many people want to start a blog or a side hustle but get too bogged down with the bigger details which in turn, delays the action itself. Then, they end up procrastinating.

It’s quite similar when thinking about smaller tasks and day-to-day activities. You might hear of procrastination going hand in hand with motivation. In a video titled ‘The Drawing Advice that Changed my Life’, Cam Walker describes inspiration as a direct result of action. In fact, he also suggests that ‘Action comes before motivation, not the other way round’.

When thinking of action as the catalyst, trigger or initial stepping stone, you can start to understand that in order to actually find your inner creativity, inspiration or motivation, you first need to start doing the thing.

For architecture students, this can be as simple as starting to draw or sketch a building in order to understand the way it works or its architectural style. This small action can then start to trigger a set of responses and ideas which then breaks your so-called procrastination and lets you get started.

Thinking can be used as a form of procrastination. Thinking about stuff is not equivalent to doing it, it’s the complete opposite of it.

Low Value Work

The next hurdle when thinking about procrastination is whether the action you are taking is meaningful. Doing low-value work or work that isn’t a priority and won’t give you any long-term benefits might also be seen as a form of procrastination. There really isn’t any credit in completing smaller tasks that are easier if you’re putting off the bigger tasks that have weight.

Overcoming this can be pretty difficult (but not impossible). I like to use a system called the Eisenhower Matrix (as pictured below). The Eisenhower Matrix is a simple system that helps you sort and organise your tasks and complete them according to its level of priority. Seems easy right?

[image]

However, when organising tasks, we can sometimes subconciously overestimate or underestimate a task. In which case, keeping the number of tasks to a limit of 10 per day can help to not overburden yourself.

With the Eisenhower Matrix, you can clearly identify the tasks that are important and urgent. In order to stop yourself from slipping into the low value work i.e. the important but not urgent or the urgent but not important, try to get some friction in between yourself and those tasks so you don’t default to them when you start getting bored.

Changing your environment

It’s inevitable that after a couple of hours or pomodoro blocks, you start to get bored or your energy dissipates slowly. Unless you’re studying for an exam or you’ve got a deadline coming up soon, deep work doesn’t need to be an everyday thing.

I find that as soon as I start getting distracted or my work slows down, I need a break and a change of environment. Luckily, I can just take my laptop or switch to my iPad and sit on the sofa instead which isn’t as formal and demanding as sitting on a desk. If you’re doing design work, you could just switch it up and do some drawing for a while. This allows you to keep going rather than totally giving up and procrastinating for the rest of the day.

The wrong kind of action can lead to low-value work

Breaks

Speaking of changing environments, don’t forget about taking breaks! A break (no matter how short or long) is so underrated. For some, they may be percieved as a weakness or waste of time but there is literal scientific evidence that you simple don’t do your best work when you’re tired, stressed and physically exhausted. This is also why doing all-nighters really isn’t the glorified, cultural activity that determines how dedicated you are to the craft.

So what if you’re not a morning person? There is no rule that you have to make yourself stay up late just to do work. If you’re better suited to rest throughout the day and then get to work during later hours, go for it. Just don’t get pressured into situations that can be avoided with a little bit of careful planning.

If you don’t have breaks, your brain will find the reason to rebel against the system.

The Monthly Method

The reality is that no amount of scheduling, time-blocking or forced work will actually stop you from procrastinating. However, figuring out what works for you and then forming habits and routines as a result, may in fact lead you to surprising and beneficial results.

Think about it this way. If all you do is work, design or create, your brain barely has any shut off time to actually take a moment to recharge and do nothing. Treating our minds as a machine, something that will need a break so as to not overload, or a pause in the amount of use, will allow for rejuvenated energy to take over once you are ready.

The skill in taking breaks is to do it consistently enough so that you don’t get too tired and therefore start making excuses – which of course leads to procrastination. But it’s also not to take breaks so often that you neglect the stuff you really need to do.

In architecture school this can be hard because you don’t necessarily have the option to take a break with weekly tutorials, deadlines and submissions in the space of a few days. Instead, try to break down your week to allocate specific days to design work. Doing this can train your brain to associate different times with different tasks and will help you spice things up so that you’r enot constantly doing the same things over and over. Repetitiveness can lead to extreme boredom, trust me, I’ve been there.

Despite there being a huge array of digital tools to help us manage our tasks, founders of a to-do app soon realised that only half of their users would complete a task within a minute – mostly as a ‘psychological boost’. It’s likely that the rest of the time, we end up procrastinating over stuff we have to do because it’s too far away, not important or urgent or just too vague.

When you take a break, make sure to take it properly. Checking emails or finishing off bits and pieces will blur the lines between work and rest.

Parting Advice on Procrastinating

Procrastination happens to everyone at some point. There’s no shame in it and it doesn’t mean you’re running behind. Being patient is tricky but it is your best chance at getting through it. I think it’s important to try multiple solutions to see which fits the situation best. Maybe all you need is a coffee break or maybe you need to go cold-turkey on your design work for an entire day. Whatever it is, just know that procrastination is not permenent.

Having an internal reset will help you overcome this setback. Make sure you’re taking breaks, thinknig carefully about your actions and where your energy is flowing as well as recognising the low-value tasks that might seem enticing but are actually pretty useless.

Try keep something in front of you at all times, physically or digitally such as a quote or a part of your project that set the gears in motion. A source of inspiration that is visual will help you to stay on track with your design work. Otherwise, under the pressure you might end up compromising on your creativity which rarely works out for most people. Don’t treat procrastination like a bad thing either, maybe it’s a sign that you just need a break.

Most important, prioritise yourself above everything else.

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