5 Proven Steps for Beating Procrastination as a Filmmaker

Reprogramming your brain through the power of habit.

“The frustration isn’t that you’re not able to achieve your dreams – it’s that you weren’t able to start chasing them in the first place.”

Do you sometimes feel like a spectator in your own life?

You want to be a filmmaker. You want to make professional movies and share them with the world. Intellectually, you know that you could take the first step toward realizing your dreams today. For example, if you want to write and direct, then you could begin working on a screenplay you can afford to shoot.

But you don’t.

Despite your rational assessment of what it would take to get where you want to go and become what you want to become, you do nothing.

Why?

Here at Lights Film School, we’ve shared a lot about procrastination over the years, across our blog, social channels, and online film school. It’s a problem that hounds artists, entrepreneurs, and really, anyone who’s serious about realizing their full potential in life.

Thankfully, deadlines can help contain the fallout of procrastination, since failing to meet a deadline tends to bring unpleasant consequences you’d rather avoid. Got a paper due in three days? You better get writing if you want to pass the class! Need to finish a project for work by the end of the week? Make it happen so that you can keep your job!

A job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become – tomorrow today!

Unfortunately, procrastination is harder to tame when the task at hand has no deadline. You know the one. That first writer-director project you hope will get the ball rolling on your career in the film industry. The screenplay you’ve been dreaming about for years. Basically, any self-started endeavor you’re doing for the sake of passion and big-picture purpose. ‘

“None of us are born as passive generic blobs waiting for the world to stamp its imprint on us,” Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art. “We show up possessing already a highly refined and individuated soul”:

Another way of thinking of it is: We’re not born with unlimited choices. We can’t be anything we want to be. We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

This journey-of-becoming is hard, in part because non-deadline situations do not incentivize us to avoid the consequences of procrastination. Instead, “they just extend outward forever,” Tim Urban, writer of Wait But Why, summarizes in his TED Talk. “And it’s this long-term kind of procrastination… [that] can be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness and regrets.”

In other words, long-term procrastination can make you feel like a spectator in your own life. The frustration isn’t that you’re not able to achieve your dreams – it’s that you weren’t able to start chasing them in the first place.

It doesn’t help that, according to a professor of informatics at The University of California, Irvine, we’re interrupted nearly every three minutes! Our constantly-connected world invites frequent distractions, from device notifications to social media alerts to quite simply the daily logistics of life.

So what can we do? How can you overcome procrastination consistently, defeat distractions, and build the momentum you need to get where you want to go?

Cue, routine, reward.

“This is not an issue of time management,” claims Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University. “You can’t manage time. You manage yourself.”

I’ve learned that self-management means defining your priorities and fostering habits that will cause you to act in accordance with them.

For example, this year, I want to write at least three times a week – one of my priorities. According to Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, habits are a three-step loop: there’s a cue, a routine, and a reward. In the case of my 2018 screenwriting aspirations, the cue could be, say, making a cup of coffee in the morning. The routine could be sitting down to write with that cup of coffee. And the reward could be a caffeine high the sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing that I’ve taken a step in my journey-of-becoming.

Sounds easy, right?

Of course not. Currently, my mornings look something like this: Wake up, worry about what messages I might have received over night, check emails and texts and social media on my phone, realize how much has to get done that day, shower and eat breakfast hurriedly, then start work so as to stave off a rising sense of panic.

In this case, the cue is checking my phone. The routine is making progress on my to-do list. The reward is a feeling of relief. In other words, I’ve conditioned my brain – I’ve fostered a habit – of addressing urgent, work-related tasks to reduce my stress.

The problem is that I’m prioritizing urgent work that’s not necessarily important over work that I know to be truly important. This is procrastination in disguise. Since I’m making progress, I can trick my brain into feeling like I’m doing the right thing, but when I check this against my priorities – “write at least three times a week” – it’s clear that I’ve missed the mark.

Granted, deadline work needs to happen, but not at the expense of my screenwriting – my “calling to enact”, in Pressfield’s words. “The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first,” he advises.

But how? How do you train yourself to be an active instead of a reactive agent and so heed The Principle of Priority?

The role of community.

Well, reprogramming the brain begins with belief.

“For habits to permanently change,” Duhigg argues, “[you] must believe that change is feasible.”

It’s been scientifically proven that it’s easier to believe in your ability to change when you’re with others who are fighting the good fight right there with you. That’s why, as a filmmaker, it’s wise to surround yourself with fellow creatives. It’s also why the Lights Film School team went to great lengths last year to develop an entirely new online learning experience for our students that’s deeply rooted in community:

As Jim Rohn quipped, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with!

Starting small.

When you believe in yourself and have found your allies, the road to success is marked by “small wins” – what one Cornell professor called “a steady application of a small advantage”, as Duhigg reports:

“Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win… Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”

So for me, a small win could be actually writing three times a week. This is within my control and thus a healthy goal. Eventually, these small wins will produce a finished screenplay – a “bigger achievement” – assuming, of course, that I have the willpower to keep accumulating them. If so, then momentum will build, and I’ll be able to reach greater heights next time.

Which begs the question, how do you develop the prerequisite willpower?

Studies suggest that the key to willpower is choosing a certain behavior ahead of time and following that routine when you’re tempted not to.

For example, let’s imagine that one morning I wake up in anticipation of a work email. Do I check my phone, rush through the morning’s mundanities to get to work on that urgent task, and experience a sense of relief? Or do I make my coffee, start writing since it’s important, and experience a sense of accomplishment?

Armed with a belief in myself that’s emboldened by my creative community, I’ll have chosen the latter behavior in advance. Thus I’ll make my coffee (cue), start writing (routine), and feel awesome (reward).

You’ve got one life to live, friend!

Do you see it?

The behavior will become automatic. My procrastinating habit will have given way to a screenwriting one. I’ll be acting, not spectating, the aggregate of win after win, a snowball rolling downhill.

At least, that’s the idea. Undoubtedly, true progress will not map to a perfectly straight line! I’ll fail some days – some weeks, even.

But I know I can do it. And I know you can, too! All we have to do is the work. Specifically, to summarize, here’s how to overcome procrastination in five steps:

  1. Identify your procrastinating habit – the behavioral loop that’s keeping you from doing what you know is truly important.
  2. Replace that habit with a new habit that serves your priorities. Clearly identify its cue, routine, and reward.
  3. Next, believe in your ability to change and surround yourself with a supportive creative community.
  4. Start racking up “small wins”!
  5. Stick to your healthy new habit. This will become easier – one day, automatic! – as you accumulate more wins.

Embark on your journey-of-becoming, friend, day in and day out. You’ve got one life to live – own it. Don’t let procrastination cripple you. Instead, follow your bliss and make it count! 

Tim Urban brings startling clarity to the urgency and importance of self-management. This Life Calendar visualizes every week of your life – a simple scroll down your screen spans 90 years:

“We tend to feel locked into whatever life we’re living,” Tim Urban writes, “but this pallet of empty boxes can be absolutely whatever we want it to be. Everyone you know, everyone you admire, every hero in history – they did it all with that same grid of empty boxes. The boxes can also be a reminder that life is forgiving. No matter what happens each week, you get a new fresh box to work with the next week.”

For more actionable steps you can take to beat procrastination, check out Tim’s fantastic blog entry over on Wait But Why. It’s one of our favorite destinations for stimulating, long-form reads.

If, constant reader, your dreams involve filmmaking but you aren’t sure where to start – or perhaps you’ve already started, but you feel distracted, weirdly unmotivated, or alone – then we invite you to enroll in our online film school! You’ll discover a comprehensive course and welcoming community committed to supporting you throughout your filmmaking journey. At Lights Film School, we’re all in it together! 💪

Michael, with

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