Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker is the founder of The Happy PharmD, which helps pharmacists create an inspiring career, break free from the mundane “pill-flipping” life. He is a Full-time Pharmacist, Media Company founder, franchise owner, Business Coach, Speaker, and Author. He's also the Founder of Pharmacy School HQ, which helps students get into pharmacy school and become residents.

Overcoming Obstacles of Procrastination

MARCH 02, 2017
 We live in a harsh world where perfectionism and being number 1 reign supreme.
 
Children are often taught that if they’re anything less than in first place, it's not even worth trying. Don't believe me? The simple fact that 80% of Americans, according to the New York Times, want to write a book and fewer than 1% actually do is a telling indication of our culture’s obsession with perfectionism.
 
People believe that if they're not going to be number 1, and if they're not going to be great at what they do, then they might as well not try at all.
 
Harsh criticism develops habits that cause people to avoid certain kinds of work. If a boss doesn't give you any praise for the good things that you do and only gives you harsh feedback on what you need to do better, you will start to avoid the work for which you receive negative feedback. Parents who don't give praise to their kids for their good grades in certain subjects and only berate them for the subjects they do poorly can cause children to avoid the subjects that are difficult for them.
 
We are brought up on threats. Over time, these threats just don’t work. They don't motivate us to take action because we're only afraid of the additional threats that may come.
 
In this series, my goal is to provide you with different, positive solutions to help you overcome procrastination.
 
Here’s a good example about how procrastination can hurt in the work world: A rising star comes into your company. You know that this employee has so much bubbling talent and could easily go into business for themselves, but they're scared to move out on their own because they're scared to make mistakes. This person doesn't want to risk failure. They don't want to risk being second best. They don't want to take the risk of being someone who's different—and they let their talent go to waste for fear of trying.
 
I think every pharmacist is taught to believe that making a mistake is one of the worst things that can happen. But you're human, and you were born to make mistakes. No one is perfect. How can you expect your work to be perfect all the time? If it is, then you would probably not be reading this article. You would probably be running a country somewhere.
 
If you branch off and try to move in your own direction, you risk making a mistake. But, you also sacrifice the possibility of achieving excellence. So why is it that can't we seem to change? Why can't we seem to do the things that we want to do?
 
A big reason for this fear of failure is because we threaten ourselves with negative self-talk, which only leads to anxiety. That anxiety leads to stress and, of course, too much stress over time causes us to look for a way out or a way to escape. As a result, we procrastinate on whatever goals we set for ourselves.
 
Overcoming Barriers to Action
 
There are 3 main roadblocks to action:  (1) overwhelm, (2) fear of failure, and (3) the fear of not finishing. I’m going to give you a few tools to overcome these barriers to action that I learned from Neil Foire, who coined the term “3D thinking."
 
1.     Think in “3D.”
 
If I'm in a crowd of pharmacists, especially if they're clinical pharmacists, and I ask who's overwhelmed at work, hands often go up. It is so easy to become overwhelmed in our jobs. There are always more patients, there's always the next task, there's always the next thing that we have to do and there's no end to our work. It's easy to get overwhelmed, especially when you believe that we have to get all of these things done right now.
 
Take the example of writing a book: So many people give up because they think in 2 dimensions. It's like they are about to go out for a mile run and they look five miles out and think, "There's no way I can run the full distance." So, before they even start, they give up.
 
The alternative is to think in “3D.” A 3D thinker thinks of the length, the height, the breadth and the width of a project. They don't ask themselves, "How can I finish this? How can I finish if this is all I can do?" 3D thinkers know that great authors start every book with just one word, and they keep pushing forward.
 
2.     Create a “reverse calendar.”
 
When procrastinators start a big project, the energy they create in the form of stress and anxiety doesn’t allow them to focus on each smaller project or task. So, the stress builds up, which only leads to more procrastination.
 
For the big projects that you have, focus on one thing—the one right place to start—and make yourself easy deadlines that you are able to meet. This creates what Neil Forte calls “the reverse calendar.” Divide your project up into manageable tasks. Diffuse the effort needed to accomplish so many big tasks by making your big tasks into smaller tasks and assigning short deadlines to each.
 
You'll want to create a reverse calendar if you feel overwhelmed with a project or other life goals, such as a weight loss program. Think about how easy it would be to walk around the block. A procrastinator might say, "Well, if that's all I can do, why get started?" You have to get started somewhere. Every Olympic athlete starts by taking just one step, and you can do that, too.
 
After practicing this strategy for a while, you will see that it takes as much energy for you to procrastinate as it does to actually take action. This occurs because procrastination is a result of the stress and anxiety caused by ignoring the project, which amounts to spent energy.
 
By taking a small step in the right direction, you'll create a greater sense of accomplishment as you achieve these smaller goals. Your reverse calendar can lead to a pleasantly addictive habit of always wanting to accomplish your next goal because you get rewards that you have created for yourself.
 
3.     Make it fun.
 
So many people take the fun out of doing work. Give yourself rewards each day for completing certain tasks. It seems like the idea of giving ourselves a pat on the back for a job well done was beaten out of most of us during our early education. Don't let perfectionism tell you that your work isn't worth it.
 
When you accomplish something, give yourself a treat. Buy a smoothie. Buy a new rug. Reward yourself with whatever will help to give you the motivation to finish whatever it is that you need to get done. For example, a client of mine rewards herself with $1 for her makeup fund every time she accomplishes something major.
 
4.     Curb worrying.
 
We all still have our caveman brains that tell us that when we have to worry about something, we should be fearful because life or death hangs in the balance. Well, civilized society came around, so we don't have to worry about life and death. However, we still have that fear, anxiety and worry, which causes stress and leads to procrastination.
 
Worrying about something is like screaming, "Danger!" to everyone around you without having a plan for what to do about it. Imagine if someone came into your pharmacy and just screamed, "Danger!" and ran away. You wouldn’t know what to do. Is someone about to rob the pharmacy? Is there a fire somewhere? Should I run outside? You would have no idea.
 
How much time out of your day to you spend worrying? A famous guy by the name of Jesus once said that you don't add anything to your life when you worry. Continuously worrying about failure is insanity, because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
 
5.     Imagine the worst-case scenario … and make a plan.
 
According to Tim Ferriss, a New York Times bestselling author who talks a lot about the fear of failure, the way to tackle the fear of failure is to ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?" However, don't stop with that, because just thinking about the worst thing that could happen will keep you in a state of worry.
 
The next step is to ask yourself, "What would I do if the worst happens?" If the worst possible scenario is still a possible scenario, then you have to think through exactly what you would do to overcome it.
 
Anybody who doesn't have a plan for a worst-case scenario is a fool. Think about it: If you have kids and you don't have a will, your worst-case scenario is that after you die, all of your assets will go to the government or some non-profit or someone else will take it instead of your kids. How could you do that to your children? Your children deserve your property, and yet so few people actually create a will.
 
It's not just asking yourself one time, "What would you do?" Ask yourself, "And then what? What would I do after that?" You have to keep asking yourself “if, then” questions because eventually, you'll know and understand that life will go on—even if the worst happens.
 
More questions to ask yourself include, "How could I lessen the pain of failure? What can I do right now to decrease the probability of failure?"
 
6.     Find a way to finish your projects.
 
Tackle the fear of not finishing. Many people think that they are not procrastinators because they're always starting up new projects. The truth is that if you're constantly starting new things—especially if you're an entrepreneur like me—it's a form of procrastination because you don't follow through on all of your projects.
 
It takes just as much work to not finish a project as it does to keep starting new projects. In fact, I would argue that it actually takes more energy to start new projects because you lose momentum.
 
Think about how you can take one small step (that's fun and easy) to move forward. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—and hundreds of steps after that.
 
7.     Challenge negative thoughts.
 
If you fear completing projects due to fear of criticism or fear of failure, it's important that you identify counterproductive statements that you tell yourself when you procrastinate. You must create challenging statements to tell yourself when you have these negative thoughts. Here are some of the most common negative statements people tell themselves:
 
·      “I need to do more preparation.”
 
More preparation is just another word for procrastination. I find that as a writer and an entrepreneur, my doubt can be my biggest obstacle because I doubt my next steps. I fear making a mistake, and this fear of making a mistake makes me want to check more places for more ideas from more gurus so that I make the best next steps possible.
 
But what this ultimately does is prolongs the date when I actually launch something or when I release a new blog post. Refrain from checking for more information. Rather, ask for feedback on what you've already completed. Ask others for their honest opinion on what you're doing so that you can accomplish what you need to do faster.
 
·      “At this rate, I'll never finish.”
 
Starting any project is a slow process, and it takes a long time to figure out how to do things quickly when you're starting a new task or a new objective. At first, pedaling a bike is always slow, but you build up momentum as time goes on. The challenging statement for this bit of negativity is, “You can't estimate your rate of progress in the beginning.”
 
·      “I should have started earlier.”
 
Having a “glass-half-empty” perspective keeps you from taking credit for starting. I work with someone who never gives herself credit for the work that she does. According to her, she can never do enough and she can never be enough.
 
Training from our childhood teaches us that we are failures if we don't accomplish our goals. "What do you mean you're not on first string? How could you have gotten a ‘B’?” When you are constantly being told that your work isn’t good enough, you will begin to believe that you aren't good enough.
 
I'm working with a client who struggles with procrastination because she believes deep down that her work is not worth it. She feels as though everything that she does is worthless because from a very early age she was taught that if she wasn't perfect, she wasn't worth her parents’ time.
 
By never giving yourself any credit for the work that you accomplish, you create this identity that's wrapped around the work that you do—or the lack thereof. To battle the feeling of overwhelm, break up each step in your project into easy, manageable (and hopefully fun) tasks that you can do over time. When you can't meet your deadlines, figure out a plan to get back on track and make it as fun as possible.
 
·      “There's more work after this.”
 
As a government employee, I hear this a lot. The more that you accomplish, the more is expected of you. When you have victories in one area, people want to see even more victories. This creates a lot of pressure for people. They would much rather not have accomplished those things so that they aren't asked to do more.
 
Be willing to say “no.” Don't worry that people will want you to do more work if you do something positive. You have every ability to say “no” to someone based on your current workload, especially if you're able to justify that you can't handle more work.
 
·      “I'm trying, but it's not working.”
 
Rather than worrying about a perfect path, you can move forward and accept obstacles. Obstacles happen to every person who has any sort of goal—it’s just the way of the world.
 
Don't be so focused on making your desired path the perfect path. Rather, learn to go with the path. If there is an obstacle in your way (which you should expect at one time or another), figure out an easy way to overcome it. Say to yourself, “If obstacle X comes, then I will do ...” Having a simple plan to follow when the obstacle comes makes it so much easier for you to follow through with it.
 
I create plans for distractions all the time. When I get distracted for more than 30 minutes with YouTube, I have to have plans and accountability in place. Without those plans, I would beat myself up for failing.
 
·      “I just need a little more time.”
 
Often, I find that people say that they only need more time to check more resources or gurus because they ultimately fear what people are going to say about their work. There is no level of perfectionism that you can obtain that will place you above criticism. There is no way in this world that you can please everyone and make everyone happy.
 
Accept the fact that you will receive criticism. Rather than getting criticism at the last minute, try to seek feedback beforehand so that you have time to address any issues that come up.
 
The greatest advice I can give to anyone who has large projects ahead of them that they need to accomplish—whether you're a resident working on a research project or a manager who has deadlines to meet—is to keep starting. The best way to do this is to not let anything overwhelm you, break things down into a reverse calendar, challenge negative thoughts and overcome obstacles one step at a time.
 


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