by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

Is it ironic that I put off writing this article to the last minute?  It’s now the last article in my series on reclaiming two hours of your life every day.  And I really should’ve finished this yesterday. Yet, I don’t want to be accused of abusing the term like Alanis Morissette.

In my efforts to not write this article I actually found some pretty great insight on dealing with procrastination. So there’s indeed merit to putting things off to the last minute and there’s inspiration to be found in eleventh hour pressure. Nevertheless, I’m not writing this and you’re not reading this because we enjoy muddling through by the seat of our pants.

Cooperate with the Lizard Brain

There are lots of ways to force ourselves to get things done. Especially big projects. The problem is that we cannot fool our lizard brains who tell us:  we have plenty of time to get this thing done; this distraction will only take a second; the consequences of procrastinating aren’t dire.  Deep in our core we believe that some if not all of this is true –  lizard brain don’t care.

Lizard BrainBut we still have to get stuff done.  Instead of trying to trick it, why not embrace our lizard brain. We know we can’t conquer it and whatever doesn’t kill it makes it stronger (yikes). So I suggest we cooperate with it and set ourselves up for knocking things out of the park when we absolutely have to.  I have found two ways to ease the pain:

  1. Face the truths
  2. Choose chunks

Face the Truthsss

The first truth is that I’m going to have to do this thing eventually. I find that fully recognizing that this thing is not going away is often enough to start my engine. I could procrastinate away all the time I just saved by scrambling to do it last minute. Or, I can take some smart, painless steps now to get things moving.

The second truth is that starting a project can require a big change in momentum.  Lizard brain’s got that right:  a body at rest and all that.  So, give yourself permission to quit after five minutes and really mean it. If you can’t tolerate spending more than five minutes you’re probably not in the right mindset anyway. I find that the five minute mark is often where I have some traction and that I don’t want to stop and lose the momentum I just struggled to gain.

The third truth is that your lizard brain wants you to take the path of least resistance.  So give it.  If Facebook, and texts, and email (you did turn off email right?!) are easy distractions then shut them off.  Off off.  Make it easier for you to do your work than to check your snippets of stimulants.

The fourth truth is that shame motivates.  Commit to someone that you’ll get the job done in the next four hours.  I’ll admit that this is a bit of trickery but frankly lizard brain does not like to be embarrassed any more than you do.

Once you’ve taken away all the choices but to get to work, take the terror out of starting a new project by breaking the work into bite size chunks.

Choose Chunks

The final truth is that it’s impossible to carry two loads of laundry, a glass of water, your laptop, and a small child upstairs all at once.  You have to chunk things out. Unload all the pieces that you have swirling around from your brain and into your work space. I use Evernote to capture everything I’m thinking about a project – and I mean everything – because there’s no point in editing now.   Then start sorting through and organizing what you’ve got. You may not have everything you need, but sometimes just turning over the engine is all it takes.

These next few steps may seem laborious but they actually take very little time and can pay off in spades.

Talk it over with someone who may or may not know much about the project.  If they do, they can give you direction. If they don’t, just explaining what you need to do and how you might do it helps stir the juices. Lizard brain likes to be the smartest one in the room.

Organize your thoughts into an outline or plan of action. Then try to come up with the themes that will ultimately guide the outcome of the job. Even if it’s a physical project, coming up with the themes helps determine what the outcomes ultimately should be.  For example, “these ten ideas / tasks point to these three results.”

If we have an outline or a plan of action we can now focus on one small chunk.  This fits right into our model for stretches of uninterrupted, focused work. Two to three hours is often all we need (and all we have) to get a chunk done.  We’ve built some momentum so let’s git ‘er done.

Still missing parts to your outline or plan?  Now that we have structure with some themes we can spend some productive time filling in those blanks.  The outline or plan imposes some constraints upon us so we’re forced to come up with some inventive solutions. This is often where the real magic of creativity happens.

If we decide to quit now, we’re left with a solid foundation for pulling it all together.  If we have to leave the project to the eleventh hour then we’re no longer starting from scratch. We gave lizard brain what it wants and in turn we got things moving (if not done). Honey badger’s got nothing on a happy lizard brain.

Smackdown on Procrastination

As I said, I put off writing this article to the last minute.  But I followed these steps and knocked this out in two hours.  I started while sitting on the metro and puttting down all my ideas on my iPhone in Evernote.  I gave myself permission to quit after five minutes.  I turned off all my distractions and acknowledged that if I did not publish this tonight that I’d look rather lame as an aspiring know-it-all.  Once I got all my thoughts down and started organizing, I got excited about what I was writing and things started to fall in place.  I wrote the rest while waiting at the dentist’s office.

I don’t mean to trivialize my efforts or the time you invested reading this.  Only that these few simple steps took me from “ugh” to “cool.”

I touched on the idea that when creating something it’s often best to do a brain dump first then organize.  I find this true when writing music or when writing articles.  Creating and editing at the same time is not always the most efficient use of brain power and I proved this to myself once again while writing this article.  I’ll walk us through the process I use more in-depth in another article.

Clearly I don’t have all the answers.  But beyond tricking ourselves into getting things done by using (gag) efficiency techniques, what other suggestions do you have?  How do you play nice with your lizard brain?


Stuart Ridgway composes original music for film and television.  You can find out more about his music and the Emmy Award winning television shows he works on at Pyramid Digital Productions, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Get Things Done by Making Peace With Your Lizard Brain

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