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How to stop procrastinating and start even the most difficult projects

In her new book ‘Make Possibilities Happen,’ Grace Hawthorne explores how to turn ideas into reality.

How to stop procrastinating and start even the most difficult projects
[Source photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels]

Picture yourself in line at the grocery store at the end of the day, when everyone is stopping in to pick up something for dinner. The line is moving slowly. A dad and his little kid are two feet in front of you. The child is pleading with the dad for the candy bar near the register. “Can I please get it? Why not? But I want it!” The whining voice escalates to an unbearable shriek. “It’s not fair! I want it!”

This is what wanting looks like. At face value, it’s frustrating to watch. The kid is so attached to the idea of getting the candy, they are oblivious to the spectacle they’re creating. Wanting is the antithesis of making possibilities happen. What if the kid in the grocery store instead came up with something to do about it, a way to talk the dad into buying the candy bar—perhaps do more chores for it, offer to forfeit dessert at dinner, remind him about the good report card, or offer to pay for it with their allowance. To make possibilities happen, you need to replace wanting with working.

Instead of wistfully thinking of something you wish you could have or achieve, get up and do something about it—or forget about it. Thoughts don’t become real without action. Yes, get up and get moving. I cannot emphasize this enough. A goal without work is just a wish. Turn your wishbone into a backbone.


Buddha said, “You only lose what you cling to.” Although creating a detailed vision is crucial to realizing an idea, and visualizing what it will feel like to have accomplished something is great, it is very different from being attached to a certain outcome.

When you become inseparable from your desired happy ending, you can turn your guiding vision into a burdensome expectation. That fixation can keep you from starting. Becoming attached  may lead you to be inflexible toward other ways your vision can materialize. Or it can keep you from starting because you’re so infatuated with the endpoint that you can become fearful that it will not materialize. And even if you do get started, attachment can keep you so married to a certain result that you miss a greater opportunity or solution to an even better outcome that may evolve while you are making things happen.


Another kind of attachment is living in fear of what you don’t want to happen. The remedy? Remember, it’s not the outcome that matters–it’s the goals, the experience, and the process. The fruition of a goal could be an outcome, but there are many possible outcomes to that goal achieved. We’ve all had thoughts like, I’ll be happy once I have this job, once I’ve solved that problem, once this goes to market. This typy of thinking is all too common. You attach to certain outcomes because of what you imagine these desired situations will bring you. You may be confounding what you really need by projecting what a certain outcome will provide. Again, it’s the experience and process, not the outcome, that matters. You will never walk away empty handed if you have this mindset.

The backstory of the invention of Post- it Notes illustrates this concept. In 1969 a scientist at 3M accidentally created a low-tack adhesive in his pursuit of a super-strong adhesive. He promoted it within the company for several years without any supporters, until his colleague Art Fry used it as a bookmark for his 1974 hymn book and resurfaced the project at the company. Even then, market test results were poor. It wasn’t until its second market introduction in 1980, more than a decade after its creation, that the product caught on. This string of events shows that even if the outcome is not what you wanted, you can expand your possibilities. Pursue everything for passion, enrichment, or experience. Don’t hang on to fixed outcomes; possibilities will emerge along the way. You are not your outcomes.


Every moment is a use it or lose it situation. The only real moment is the present. Neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar explored this in great detail and came to this conclusion:

“Time is basically an illusion created by the mind to aid in our sense of temporal presence in the vast ocean of space. Without the neurons to create a virtual perception of the past and the future based on all our experiences, there is no actual existence of the past and the future. All that there is, is the present.”

Tine as we thinking of it (ticks on a dial), was created by humans more than 3,500 years ago to track the Earth’s rotations on its axis and measure the day’s passage. The science behind how time actually works is a rabbit hole worth diving into, time is not as clear-cut as we humans make it out to be . Physicists since Albert Einstein have theorized that time may not work in the sequential ways it seems to us. Once you understand that our perception of time is varied, you can stop letting it drive you, and instead shape your perception to drive it.

According to Einstein, time is relative to perspective. A good way to visualize this is in terms of light and shadow. If you put a small can of soda on a table and shine a flashlight directly at the can, it casts a very long shadow. If you shine the flashlight down on top of the can, it casts no shadow at all. Regardless of the shadow size, the can is still the same size. Time attaches itself to tasks like the shadow: the size of the task can grow or shrink depending on your perspective. Take your tasks out in the high noon sun and get them done.


We take so many things in our lives for granted, and among them time is a biggie. Here are some time-related obstacles you may be facing and ways to handle them. The key here is that waiting (and wanting) slows you down, while action speeds thing up. Possibilities live in momentum. Turn waiting into doing with these Xs, Ys, and Zs.

Waiting “to get to X”? Try one of these:

  • Do the things you’d do as if you already had X.
  • Do an activity in the arena adjacent or related to X.
  • Try doing something completely different–it may jar your thinking.

Waiting “to hear from Y”? Here are some ideas:

  • Widen or deepen your field of vision by talking to other Ys.
  • Go knock on other doors and start another ball rolling. Like fishing at the pier with multiple rods–why use only one to catch a fish?
  • Sketch out other ways the outcome can happen and break down each of those ways into actionable steps. (Y isn’t the only path to your desired outcome.)

Waiting “until Z is in place”? Some helpful tips:

  • Know that the only “right” moment is the one in which you take action.
  • Know that having an exhaustive, complete set of circumstances is impossible, so make the most informed decision you can in that moment and move forward.

One more thing to keep in mind: Rome was not built in a day. In fact, it took 1,229 years. Moreover, it took 6,432 hours for you to physically come into existence, and that’s pretty darn quick, given the complexity of the human body! Fact is, things take time. Moreover, things take longer than you think. Now is not only the right time to begin; now is the only time.

Grace Hawthorne is the founder and CEO of Paper Punk and Foldmade, and an adjunct professor at Stanford University’s d.school. Previously, she founded ReadyMade, the culturally groundbreaking design magazine and coauthored the critically acclaimed book on reuse design, ReadyMade: How to Make Almost Everything (Random House/Potter). Grace holds an MBA from the Anderson School at UCLA, MFA from UCLA’s School of Film and Television, and a BA in Visual Communication from UC Berkeley. 

Excerpted with permission from Make Possibilities Happen: How to Transform Ideas into Reality by Grace Hawthorne and Stanford d.school, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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AJ Hess is a staff editor for Fast Company’s Work Life section. AJ previously covered work and education for CNBC. More

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