Everyone battles procrastination.
It’s a uniquely human trait. We’ll always put off today the task that can be done tomorrow.
If there’s a big enough incentive to act now, we’ll do so. For example, if you develop acute pancreatitis, you’ll probably (hopefully!) jump to action and head to the hospital. Your incentive is to end the pain and avoid permanent damage to your body.
But if the incentive isn’t big enough, we wait until it is.
A perfect example is cleaning the house. It’s not a life and death situation. No one is going to die if you neglect to wash the kitchen floors. Nor is there a financial payoff. Nobody is going to write you a check for raking the leaves off your front lawn.
So we put it off. Finally, when we can’t take it anymore, we act. It might take “gentle nudging” from our spouses or realizing that our homes are beginning to look like the ones profiled on the show “Hoarders.”
Avoiding those things becomes our incentive to take action.
All of us have an inner procrastinator. And that guy or gal can literally ruin your life! Putting things off only increases your workload down the road. That, in turn, will increase your stress levels, limit your income and siphon away time you might otherwise spend with your family or on your favorite hobby.
Here’s the good news: you can beat your inner procrastinator into submission. All you have to do is develop new habits to take the place of current ones.
Think about the tasks you perform without thinking about them. For example, you brush your teeth before going to bed. You know intuitively that not brushing will lead to cavities and root canals. But that’s not why you drag yourself into your bathroom each night and squirt some toothpaste on your toothbrush.
You do it because it has become a habit. There’s no chance you’ll procrastinate (“Oh, I’ll just brush my teeth Friday.”). Brushing your teeth has become part of your routine.
That’s the remedy.
Let’s hit pause for a second. If you’re on my email list, I recently gave you one of the best strategies for beating procrastination. (If you’re not on my list, now’s the time to subscribe. Enter your name and email address in the box below and receive a ton of great stuff over the next few weeks.)
Today, I’m going to give you several more tips. These are my top 8 shortcuts for overcoming your procrastination habit and taking action on a more deliberate level each day.
Use these shortcuts to develop new habits and I guarantee you’ll become a powerhouse in the productivity department.
Enough specious claptrap. Let’s dig in…
Shortcut #1: Take The First Step
Sounds too simple, right? But don’t underestimate this shortcut. Taking the first step of any task can give you the momentum you need to complete the task.
Here’s a personal example:
I stumbled onto WordPress back in 2005. I wanted to use it to start a blog, but didn’t know how to do it. I’m not a technically-inclined guy.
A quick aside…
There are two types of people in the world. The first type are those who roll up their sleeves and dig in to learn how to do something they don’t know how to do. The second type are those who look at the unfamiliar task, shake their heads and put it off until some point in the future.
When it comes to learning technical stuff – for example, creating a WordPress blog in 2005 – I’m definitely in the second camp.
Back to the story…
So there I was, trying to figure out how to use WordPress. The job seemed gargantuan. There was no 1-click install feature like most web hosts offer today. You had to download files, unpack them, choose the right ones, ftp those to your host’s server, and then fiddle around with them once they were online.
It took me several months to do it. Not because it was difficult. Humans can learn to do anything, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I put the task off because, in its entirety, it seemed too difficult.
I wasted a ton of time.
Here’s what I should have done: focus only on doing the first step of the task. With WordPress, the first step was downloading the files. A monkey could have done that.
Once I downloaded the files, the next step would have been to unpack them. That’s just a matter of unzipping the package of files. Again, that’s not rocket science. You can literally do that in 5 seconds.
I could have then focused on the next step: choosing the files I would need to ftp up to my server. That’s a little harder than the previous steps, but not by much. Including the time needed to research which files to select, I could have completed that step in about 3 minutes.
You see my point.
I wasted several months by putting off a task I could have performed in 30 minutes.
Be smarter than I was. The next time you find yourself procrastinating, focus on doing the first step. Take care of that small task and get some momentum under your belt.
Shortcut #2: Limit Sensory Inputs
The more your brain engages with incoming stimuli, the less likely you are to take action on whatever task you need to get done.
Remember that TV series Lost, the one that followed the survivors from Oceanic Flight 815 – Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hugo, etc.? In season 3, the Others put Karl (the boyfriend of Ben’s daughter Alex) into Room 23.
Room 23 was part of the Hydra compound. It was used to brainwash people. Karl was positioned in front of a wall of television screens and forced to list to a cacophony of sounds in the dark.
The dude was practically drooling by the time he was finally rescued.
That’s how the brain works. Too much stimuli puts us into a state of inaction.
These days, the most common sensory inputs are social media, Youtube, music, smartphones and television. As long as your brain engages with them, they’ll hold you back from tackling the task at hand.
To beat your inner procrastinator, eliminate the incoming stimuli.
Shortcut #3: Consider The Consequences Of Inaction
Every action has a consequence. That much is obvious. If you slap somebody, expect to receive a slap (or worse) in return.
But consequences also accompany inaction. When you put something off until later, you start a chain reaction of events that will negatively affect your life at some point in the future.
Here’s an example…
Suppose your boss – let’s call him Larry – needs you to finish a profit-and-loss (P&L) report by the end of the day. It’s boring work, so naturally you procrastinate. You mingle on Facebook, text your friends and watch funny dog videos on Youtube.
Larry needs his report, but you have plenty of time. So you continue to goof off, letting your inner procrastinator run your day.
But let’s say it’s now 4:00 p.m. and you underestimated the time you need to finish the P&L report. You have two options. First, you can tell Larry he’ll get his report tomorrow. Second, you can stay late and work until it’s completed.
Option #1 may get you fired. You have bills to pay, so you choose option #2.
Because you’re staying late in the office, you have to forego hanging out with your friends after work. If you’re married, you might have to miss dinner with your spouse and kids.
Those are the consequences of your inaction during the day. You procrastinated and now it’s time to pay the piper.
When you feel the urge to put something off, take a moment to consider the consequences. That alone should motivate you to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Shortcut #4: Break Large Tasks Into Small Ones
This shortcut is related to the first one (“Take The First Step”).
Every task you perform can be broken down into smaller tasks. While the large task may seem daunting, the smaller ones will seem easy by comparison.
For example, suppose you’re writing a novel. That’s a huge project. Writing 300+ pages takes a lot of planning and effort. No wonder so many people who want to become authors fail to get started. It’s daunting!
But suppose you break down the job of writing a novel into smaller tasks. It becomes much easier to handle. Rather than “writing a novel,” you can focus on writing one chapter at a time. Or just one section of a chapter at a time.
You’re not spending time wringing your hands over the effort required to produce a complete novel. Instead, you’re hard at work, pounding out chapter after chapter, or section after section, one at a time. Eventually, you complete your novel and start on your next one.
This shortcut is powerful.
Breaking down large tasks into smaller ones allows your brain to concentrate. You won’t feel as overwhelmed by the project you’re trying to tackle. As a result, you’ll be more inclined to sit down and start working.
Shortcut #5: Enlist An Accountability Partner
If you’re the only one who knows your goals and intentions, it’s really easy to procrastinate. After all, if you don’t finish the task at hand, no one will berate you or look at you disapprovingly. It’s a private matter.
But let’s say a friend knows what you’re trying to accomplish. He (or she) will eventually ask you about your progress. At that point, the jig is up. You’ll have to come clean and admit that you’ve been procrastinating.
Or you can lie through your teeth, but we’ll assume that’s not an option since its terribly disrespectful.
That’s why accountability is such a powerful motivator for taking action. Admitting failure is never pleasant. We’d much rather report that we’ve been productive.
To beat procrastination, enlist a friend or family member to be your accountability partner. Ask that person to check in with you once a day and inquire about your progress on a specific project. You can even give that person a timeline that includes your meeting smaller goals along the way toward completing the project.
If you really want to add some accountability to your day, talk about your goals in public. Post them on your blog, on Facebook, or on an online forum you frequent.
You can even put a cash bond on your goals.
For example, agree to donate $100 to a charity or cause you hate (e.g. to the Democratic National Committee if you’re a Republican or to the Republican National Committee if you’re a Democrat) if you don’t complete the project you’re working on by a certain date.
That should light a fire under you!
An accountability partner who asks you for daily progress reports can help you break your procrastination habit. Just be sure to choose someone will actually hold you accountable.
Shortcut #6: Use Parkinson’s Law
Back in 1955, The Economist published an essay by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in which he noted that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
For us productivity enthusiasts, that changed everything.
It meant we controlled the amount of time a particular task required to complete.
That’s intuitive when you think about it. Remember back in high school when you had 4 weeks to complete that huge country report? Remember how you waited until a few days before the due date to start working on it?
You got it done, right? You didn’t need 4 weeks. You only needed a few days.
That’s Parkinson’s Law at work.
So how can you use it to overcome procrastination? One of the reasons we put things off is because we perceive the task at hand to be so huge that we don’t know where to begin. That’s what Shortcut #s 1 and 4 try to resolve.
Once you break the task down to smaller pieces, apply Parkinson’s Law to set mini deadlines for them.
In Shortcut #4, we used the example of writing a novel. We broke the job down to writing individual chapters or sections within chapters. That made the daunting task of writing the novel seem more doable.
With that done, set a deadline for each chapter or section. Rather than writing until you’ve completed the chapter or section, commit to completing it within a specific amount of time – for example, 2 hours.
It’s like magic. You’ll find that you’re able to complete the task within the amount of time you’ve given yourself to do so.
When I started using this shortcut, my productivity skyrocketed. Yours will too.
Shortcut #7: Eliminate Nonessential Tasks
Every process is comprised of two types of activities: essential tasks and nonessential tasks. Ideally, you want to completely eliminate the latter. That way, you can focus on the former and get them completed more quickly.
Nonessential tasks “bulk up” projects. They needlessly suck up time that could otherwise be used to get more important things done.
Let me give you a personal example…
I recently bought a Macbook Air. As is my tendency, I researched the heck out it before pulling the trigger.
Having been a Windows user my entire professional life, I was new to the Mac ecosystem. My lack of familiarity translated into a sense of discomfort. So, I started to do some research. Here are some of the items I looked up:
best ways to preserve the battery life
which word processor was rated the best for the Mac OS
how to keep the screen clean
how to use the Finder to organize files and folders
what types of activities slow down the Mac OS
which external hard drive is the best one for a Macbook
how to use Spotlight
how to use the Time Machine
how to use AirDrop
how to play music outside of iTunes
You may be thinking to yourself, “Damon, why on earth would you spend time looking that stuff up before you even buy a Macbook Air?”
Exactly. I got caught in a research loop and spent way too much time on nonessential items.
Here’s my recommendation…
Break down the project you need to finish into small pieces. Then, review the individual pieces and disregard any that aren’t essential.
It’s a great way to streamline your workflow and complete the project in less time.
Shortcut #8: Remind Yourself That You’re Making A Choice
This is one of the easiest shortcuts to use.
Too often, we feel as if we’re not in control of our workflow. That feeling sometimes springs from the deadlines other people impose on us. It can also stem from the stress that accompanies an overly-long to-do list.
It’s helpful to remind yourself that you’re the one in control. You make the decision regarding whether to take action or not. You decide whether to work on the task at hand.
You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. That means you’re the one holding the reins on the bit of your workflow.
You know I love examples, so here’s one that fits this shortcut…
Suppose you’re a web designer. For a number of reasons, you’re unmotivated to complete the framework for a client’s site.
You have a deadline hanging over your head. But that deadline doesn’t mean you have to deliver. It means your client expects you to deliver. The choice of whether to actually finish the framework is yours and yours alone. No one is forcing you to do anything.
Putting your project in that perspective should prompt you to roll up your sleeves and take action. It definitely works for me. The simple notion that I’m the one in control, and I’m the one choosing to work or not to work, is all I need to stop procrastinating.
Bonus Shortcut: Use The Pomodoro Technique
This is one of my favorite shortcuts. In fact, I like it so much that I wrote an entire book covering every detail of how to use it in your daily workflow. The book is titled “The Time Chunking Method: A 10-Step Action Plan For Increasing Your Productivity.”
Here’s how the Pomodoro Technique works at its most basic level…
work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break
work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break
work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break
work for 25 minutes, then take a 15-minute break
The idea is that anyone can devote themselves to a task for 25 minutes. It doesn’t matter if the task is easy or difficult, straightforward or complex. You can work for 25 minutes without dying.
The Pomodoro Technique is a remarkably effective system for overcoming procrastination. It eliminates distractions and allows you to focus on the task at hand.
Combined with the other shortcuts I’ve described above, there’s no reason you can’t tackle and complete any project you’ve been putting off!
What I Want You To Do Right Now
Review your to-do list.
Identify a project you’ve been delaying just because you don’t want to address it.
Take that project and apply the 8 shortcuts I’ve given you. Then, use the Pomodoro Technique to focus your effort and get the project finished.
You’ll be blown away by how much you can accomplish!
In an upcoming post, we’ll explore the reasons why you may be having difficulty taking action. It’s all about psychology. Make sure you’re on my email list so you’ll be notified when that post goes live. You’ll also gain immediate access to my free 40-page action guide “Catapult Your Productivity: The Top 10 Habits You Must Develop To Get More Things Done!”
Photo by David Urbanke