That Advice Saved My Life

A Procrastination Tip

Six years ago he walked into my dorm room on the verge of tears.

“I can’t take it anymore!” he groaned.  “I’m just running in place!  I aim. I sprint. I leap.  I fall.  I get nowhere.  Nowhere!”

His desperate eyes stared into mine, hoping… searching for an answer.

His Story

He has dreamed of pursuing a career in software engineering since he was a kid.  “Businesses worldwide will rely on my code someday,” he used to tell his computer programming teacher in high school.  Now, as a junior enrolled in computer science at a reputable university, he finally has a clear shot at making his dream a reality.

He wakes up every morning filled with excitement and positive intentions.  Studying is actually the first thing that crosses his mind.  “I’ve got to get that chapter read,” he tells himself.  But first he needs to grab some Starbucks and a muffin.  “Okay, now I’m ready.”

He sits down at his desk and cracks open the book Agile Software Development.  The phone rings.  It’s Jen, a good friend he met in his sophomore English class.  “Lunch today?  Yeah, I could do that.  How’s noon sound?  Perfect.  See you then.”  Before he sits back down to read, he remembers that he skipped his workout yesterday.  “A quick workout will only take forty-five minutes and it will energize my mind for a few hours of diligent studying,” he thinks to himself.  He puts his sneakers on, grabs his iPod and heads over to the campus gym.

When he returns from the gym, he takes a shower and is once again ready to read.  “Chapter 1:  Welcome to the power of agile software development.  This book is divided into…”  “Ah, crap!  I forgot to email my mother those photos I promised her.  Heck, it will only take a second.”  He quickly fires-up his laptop and logs into Gmail.  Before he has time to send the email, he gets an IM from an old high school buddy, Danny, whom he hasn’t spoken to in six months.  After a forty minute chat session, he sends the email to his mother and returns to the book.

He glances up at the wall clock and realizes he has to leave in thirty minutes to meet Jen for lunch.  “Gosh, it’s pointless to get into the groove of a focused study session for just thirty measly minutes,” he says aloud.  He convinces himself that it’s in his best interest to save the reading for after lunch.  So he logs into Facebook, replies to a few messages from his friends and then heads off to meet Jen.  Once he returns from lunch an hour and a half later, he feels exhausted.  The post-meal grogginess is kicking in hard.  “All I need is another round of Starbucks and I’ll be ready.”  He hustles out to grab it.

As he sits down at his desk with a fresh cup of coffee he repeats the word “focus” over and over as a mantra in his mind.  He cracks the book back open.  “Chapter 1:  Welcome to the power of agile software development.  This book is divided into…”  But then his neighbor knocks on his door.  “Turn on the Local 6 news channel!  The college apartment complex down the street is on fire!” his neighbor chants.  He thinks about it for a second, puts the book down and clicks on the television.  “This should only take a second…”

And another day comes closer to an end.

Her Story

She gets up early every morning, grabs her soccer ball, and heads outside before she even washes her face, or eats, or pees.  She juggles the ball between her feet nonstop until she achieves a continuous count of fifty.  An old high school coach once told her that Mia Hamm (the greatest female soccer player ever) used to do this.  When she’s done, she gears-up for the day, grabs a glass of milk and a protein bar, and heads off to soccer practice.

Sometimes she catches up with me after practice, just before our 9 A.M. Economics class.  I love it when she does, because her positive attitude is contagious.   Her eyes always radiate with contentment and verve.  In the few minutes before class we usually philosophize about our lives, our ambitions, and our relationships.  For instance, today she said, “It’s all about balance.  We’ve got to somehow mesh our long-term goals with our momentary pleasures.”  She always explains herself clearly until she’s confident that I understand her point of view.

Once class starts, she’s silent, entirely focused on the professor’s lecture.  Her notes are more diligent than most.  And although she rarely raises her hand, when she does, her question or comment usually brings a respectful smile to the professor’s face.

Outside of class, I seldom see her during the day.  She locks herself away in her dorm room, or in the library, or on the soccer field.  She reads, writes, learns, and practices.  She conditions her mind and her body with perpetual vigor.

Once or twice a week, when she actually takes a break, she’ll call me at lunchtime.  She usually goes off on a short tangent about something she’s recently learned or experienced that excites her.  And she always finishes by saying, “I’ll fill you in on the details later.”  Because she knows I’m interested in hearing them.  Because she mindfully extracts interesting details from data sources… details that most of us miss.

After a little nourishment, she gets back to work.  Pages turn.  Notes are taken.  Keys on her laptop click repeatedly.  And she carries forth until her vision blurs.  When it does, she gets up, juggles her soccer ball to a count of twenty, and refocuses herself on her work.  Again she forges ahead for another couple of hours until her brain has trouble focusing and her belly aches with hunger.  Then she swings by my dorm room.

It’s pretty late now, and both of us are done with whatever we’ve been working on.  So we head out for a bite to eat.  She fills me in on her day and speaks enthusiastically about the things that move her.  Sometimes it’s something new she learned.  Sometimes it’s an entrepreneurial idea.  Sometimes it’s soccer.  Or someone she met on campus.  Or a song she heard on the radio that inspires her.

When we finish eating, she walks back to her dorm room.  She thinks, or reads poetry, or listens to music, or works on the novel she’s been leisurely writing for the last few months.  When her eyes finally get heavy, she snuggles into her bed and falls blissfully asleep in an instant.

Satisfied with today.  Eager for tomorrow.

The Advice

When he walked into my dorm room that day, I told him about her, and how she lives her life.

And although we don’t talk as much as we used to, I received an email from him last night.  It was a cheerful email about the software company he started last year.  As it turns out, he just landed his first six-figure contract.

In the P.S. section of the email, he wrote:  “Do you remember that story you told me in college about the girl who played soccer?  Thank you.  That advice saved my life.”

Photo by: Kuzeytac


  1. says

    Hi Marc,

    This is very inspiring! It also reminds us how we always manage to sabotage our own progress by allowing ourselves to be distracted by all the insignificant issues in our lives.

    Staying disciplined to be focused is key.

    And I like the fact that your girl friend and you would philosophise about your lives, ambitions and relationships just before class. That’s very empowering. I should also ask a friend to do that with me. :)

    Thanks for sharing the two stories!



  2. says

    “Satisfied with today. Eager for tomorrow.”

    I think we all want some of that. That ability to go to bed with not necessarily our to-do list filled out, but sleeping feeling fulfilled.

    This was a wonderful narrative, that brought home a fascinating revelation. Thank you.

  3. says

    How I wish I was her, and still, I’m him.
    I should print out this amazing post and start thinking about how I could become the person I want to be…

  4. says

    I can completely relate to both people you described. I’ve been BOTH people. For some reason I get in these ruts that bring me out of that natural rhythm that the girl seemed to master.

    Awesome job on this post. This one was a real inspiration and reminder to get in that rhythm and stay there! Eric

  5. anand says

    How is this procrastination? I could be missing something really big there. Isnt it all about doing one thing at a time with complete focus and no regrets…

    I have lead large software development projects and as an architect my time has always been limited. I can sense that my team is just waiting for me to either keep the phone down or finish the chat I am having with someone else. On occasions they have even barged in when I am in the middle of a conversation. Off late I have started clawing back and asked them to wait till I finish the call or finish my chat with the other team member. I felt that they respected that behaviour. Infact as I was leaving the project I could hear my phrase being repeated often on the floor “One problem at a time”.


  6. says

    great story and fantastic point about procrastination. It’s all about pushing yourself out of the way and doing what needs to be done. Excepting what is and doing it. Cheers!

  7. says

    I received a few emails and tweets from readers asking me to clarify the procrastination tip.

    The idea is:
    He procrastinates everyday. She goes after her goals everyday. When he asked me for advice, I told him about how she lives her life.

    And of course, thanks so much for the comments. We love reading them all. 😉

  8. says

    I love how you weave your story together Marc. Like Eric, I’ve been both people in my past. I do better when I schedule out exactly what I’m going to do the night before. Then I know what I expect of myself and I don’t let myself get bopped around right & left. :)

  9. Mel says

    I know I’m guilty of doing this all the time… feels like you’re doing a lot but you’re not really doing anything! Time to start living like that girl.

  10. says

    This is excellent! I think procrastination can come in at least two forms … one is because we’re not disciplined and/or just haven’t learned to focus. The other is maybe some form of self sabotage (also not good …).
    My best days are days when I can get up early, do a little planning, do some exercise and reading and quiet time, and then go off to work. If I wake up and go directly to work, I spend the day thinking about all the other things I’d like to be doing. The girl in your story has got it right. Nicely done!

  11. says

    I was going to get down to some serious work, then I saw your article and I thought, “ah this will only take a few minutes…” :-)

    But of course it was a productive few minutes. Good stories and very relevant to many of us.

    PS: back to work now!

  12. says

    I changed this title of this blog post from “That Procrastination Tip Saved My Life” to “That Advice Saved My Life.”

    This change was based on reader feedback primarily via email and Twitter. These comments simply said:

    “What exactly is the procrastination tip?” or “Isn’t this about more than just procrastination?”

    At first I disregarded these comments. But the more I thought about it, I realized that these readers were correct. This story holds many lessons. Procrastination is just one of them. 😉

  13. says

    I enjoyed your long form work Marc, thanks. I have to admit, your “His Story” portion made me look hard in the mirror.

    My question is, how do you stop procrastinating in the first place? Is it possible that a person is subconsciously OK with procrastination, namely that this person is too complacent?

    If you wrote an effective story like this about fighting complacency, then we’d know the real secret to how your programmer bud got over his procrastination. I’m sure I wouldn’t the only one to benefit!

  14. Ken Deemer says

    Honestly Great Stories.

    As an Adult with A.D.D. I have had to battle through much of the same distractions my whole life. I denied I had a Problem, until it affected both my Job & my Relationship with my Wife & Family.
    I sought help, I got what I needed. I stay focused and find myself with more time for things I’d like to get done.
    There are plenty of steps, tricks, helpful shortcuts I use almost daily to help me stay on track & focused. I still procrastinate from time to time, however it’s less important things.
    Please if you feel you might be an adult with A.D.D. please search your local area for CHADD an ADD/ADHA support group for childeren & adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD.
    They are a HUGE support to me & my Family! here is the National Link, search your local chapter.

    Ken Deemer

  15. Duck says

    Great article… one of your best so far.

    However, the playing of soccer prior to “peeing” is a little crazy… and a creepy image.

  16. says

    Very inspiring story. It is wonderful when we give advice and realize it has had an impact in someone’s life. Most importantly that the impact sets someone on the path of purpose.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  17. Homer says

    The insignificant issues are distract us from our lives.. maybe we are a bit too focused. Relax and enjoy what is around you.

  18. julie says

    The first individual is exactly how I act at the moment, and I have been incredibly frustrated with myself–hence I searched your archives for productivity articles.

    Thank you so very much, I hope to employ this advice as well as your friend did, I really need it.

    Also, thank you for managing this blog, I am addicted to it, and it has helped me keep greater track of myself; I only hit a recent slip.

  19. says

    Amazing article , but I have a problem.

    Today I said to myself , I’ll do that , I’ll be her.
    I’ve woken up early , did some exercises, then prepared myself and hit the books.

    And here’s the problem.

    I read , learn , write , type etc but from time to time I lose my focus , I go to eat something , or drink , or click on a youtube video , read some artciles.

    How can I separate myself from that, how can I study all day , with no intreruptions..

    I love what I study , that’s not the problem , I really enjoy.

    Hope you have some article about that , or some tips.


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