You want to get important stuff done. You intend to get important stuff done. But there’s all your stuff, still lying in a jumbled pile undone.
In Part 1, we covered why and how we procrastinate and ended up blaming our ancestors for the problem. I explained the two types of procrastination:
Type 1: “Can’t get started” procrastination
Type 2: “Decision Paralysis” procrastination
I also outlined the two key concepts involved in overcoming procrastination:
Key Concept 1: A Big Ugly Task staring you in the face will make you work on small tasks as a way to procrastinate
Key Concept 2: Finishing is MUCH easier than starting
Now it’s time to put all the pieces together and make it work for you.
Getting Started and Staying on Track: Overcoming Type 1 Procrastination
The process: you use procrastination against itself.
1. The Big Ugly Task (which you don’t want to do) drives you to work on Small But Important Tasks. You’d rather not do these little tasks either, but they are easier than working on the big task and better than watching Netflix.
2. So you knock off a few Small But Important Tasks until the Big Ugly Task is the only thing left on your list for the day.
3. Then you put off the big thing until tomorrow when you’ll work on it for sure.
No! No! Bad procrastinator!
That’s the old you. The new you understands that there is no free lunch and that willpower must be involved to get the ball rolling. 1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
Specifically, you have to nudge the ball up over this hill. Except the ball actually feels like a boulder:
Focusing on the big ugly task: Day 1
Let’s zoom in:
High effort (willpower) is required to get started, but it only has to be applied for a short period.
So here you are. You’ve gotten three or four Small But Important tasks done as you procrastinate on doing the Big Ugly Task. And now that big task is all that remains between you and a sense of accomplishment.
Ugh. You are not sure where to begin. You know what? It doesn’t matter.
You don’t need a perfect beginning. It doesn’t matter if you make a false start in the wrong direction. You can correct course later. The point is, even getting started on the wrong foot means you’ve gotten started.
First drafts are always ugly. First steps are always halting. Mistakes are part of the game of life, and every mistake teaches us a little bit about how to get on the right track.
Here’s a quote I have on my bulletin board at eye level:
“There is no such thing as failure. There is only feedback.” 3
So start something. Anything. (If you’re human, you are now thinking that I’ve given you permission to do the easiest possible thing. You’re right. I have.)
Day one of your Big Ugly Task is all about doing one single thing before you quit for the day:
- One phone call to a contractor to set up an estimate
- One Google search on “weather in June for (location of family reunion)”
- One document set up with a title for your resume or report
I will sometimes spend literally one minute on something, just to get it started. And that’s it for day one. Something started. And with that effort, you’ve got the ball up to here:
But you have to keep pushing yourself to get the ball all the way over the hump so it doesn’t roll back and crush you. On to day two!
Powering through resistance: Days 2 through completion
Getting going all comes down to a single moment in time. You know that moment:
- You’ve checked your email/social media accounts/game scores and there’s nothing new going on.
- You’ve tidied up your work space, maybe even cleaned a little.
- You’ve procrastinated by doing Small But Important Tasks.
At this moment, there is nothing left to do but work on the Big Ugly Task. It’s either do something or put it off for another day and experience the disappointment of once again failing to work on your goals. What to do, what to do…
A. Stop being so dramatic
You are aren’t storming a castle wall, you are just hopping over a short little picket fence.
Yes, it’s pointy so it’s not super easy and you can’t indecisively perch on the top, you have to commit. But come on – just hop over.
B. Do one single thing
Again, just like the first day, don’t think you have to eat the entire burrito in one sitting.
Commit to five minutes. If you do more, great. If not, you’re done and you’ve made progress.
C. Don’t do another thing until you’ve worked five minutes on your task
“But,” you whine, “That’s the problem! I can’t stop doing other things!” Remember when I said that you’d still need willpower to make this work? This is where it comes in.
The key is applying your willpower at one critical point in time for maximum impact.
This is your decision point, and you have to get in the habit of doing it every day. Whatever it takes:
“I will not do another thing, not a single one, until I …
“Create an online tax preparation account and put my proof of income in a folder labeled ‘Taxes.’”
“Add five bullet points to the work experience heading on my resume.”
“Organize my medical bills by provider and highlight the amount owed.”
“Rake up one bag of leaves.”
Whew! Done for the day. Not so hard, was it? Repeat as many days as necessary.
I can tell that you are still not convinced that this can work for you. Time for an example.
Conquering Procrastination: A day-by-day example
Let’s take an example all the way through so there is no doubt what I’m talking about.
Scenario: Kyla is not happy with her job. At all. It is filled with unreasonable deadlines and too much work for the pay. She needs a new job, and the sooner, the better.
The problem: Kyla has not been a job hunter for ten years. The job hunting landscape has changed dramatically and she hardly knows where to start.
The procrastination: Kyla has just read a life changing article on the OverExamined Life website. She’s ready to try again. Her motivation is so great that she decides that come hell or high water, she will devote at least one full minute per day to getting a new job.
The Big Ugly Task of “find a new job” motivates Kyla to do several Small But Important Tasks.
- She organizes her Dropbox folders
- She cleans out her purse (finding $23 she didn’t know she had – this is already paying off!)
- She feeds and waters five plants
- She makes an appointment to get her dog’s nails trimmed.
Finally, she has nothing left to do but find a new job and prepares to devote an entire minute to this task.
She searches her files and finds her old resume, which is only in hard copy. She does a quick edit with a red pen to update stuff that is obviously out of date, then starts a Google doc for her new resume. She gets no further than putting her name and contact information on it.
She then lists a few things she knows she needs to do on a sticky note:
- Finish the resume.
- Update her LinkedIn profile with information from her soon-to-be-updated resume. She also needs to upload a more professional profile picture.
- Register with a couple of online job hunting sites that focus on her industry and figure out how to use them.
- Contact three people she knows who have left her company and gone to similar jobs that are close to her areas of interest. She can pick their brains, and it also sounds easier than actual job hunting.
At the end of a minute… wait… ten minutes slipped by before she hit a wall. Hm. Funny how that works. Regardless, she’s done for the day.
Kyla stays home due to a blizzard. She cleans her entire house, including wiping the tops of the kitchen cabinets and vacuuming the old popcorn out of the heater vents. She finally decides she has no more legitimate or even semi-legitimate reasons to put off her search for a new job.
She looks at her sticky note and realizes that her Big Ugly Task has already broken down into several Small Ugly Tasks. She picks the easiest one and calls one of her ex-coworker friends.
Twenty minutes later, she’s motivated by what is available for people with her skills. She dives into her resume, transferring everything from the paper version into the Google doc, making a few more updates as she goes. Funny how things jump out at you after letting them settle in your subconscious overnight.
She emails the preliminary copy to her friend who offered to help, which leads to another phone conversation with valuable feedback. 4 Then she takes fifty selfies from multiple angles wearing different professional tops. She crops the best of the bunch into an updated headshot.
Wow… an hour and a half passed this time. She’s starting to feel like she’s on a roll. But for now, she needs to shovel ten inches of snow off the driveway.
Back at the office. In spite of her progress yesterday, Kyla has a real motivation problem today. She puts in her earbuds, cranks up her favorite “get stuff done” playlist, and tapes a piece of paper to her cubicle that says “privacy please.” She spends her procrastination time cleaning up work email and gets her calendar in order for the next three months.
After an hour and a cup of coffee, she finally forces herself to work on job hunting. She gives her resume another look. With her friend’s input and another day of thinking about it, she has to admit it’s pretty much done, except for tailoring it to fit a particular job opening.
With her updated resume and a new profile image, it only takes her a few minutes to update LinkedIn and register on two job hunting sites.
She emails her other two ex-coworker friends and arranges a time to have coffee with one of them.
Kyla gets her mortgage statement in the mail and remembers that her favorable rate is going to adjust for the worse next month. She could just let it ride… but it’s probably time to refinance. Ugh. Another Big Ugly Task without a hard deadline, but she decides she must attend to it.
To avoid working on the mortgage, she decides to finish up more job hunting stuff.
What?! Did you see what just happened?
Strange how the job hunt, which loomed forbiddingly large a few days ago, has now crumbled into tasks that are small enough that she’d rather work on them than do something else.
She sets up a few job searches on the hiring sites with automatic notifications if something pops up that is appropriate. She also checks the “available jobs” pages of three companies suggested by her third friend, who finally responded. Two jobs sound interesting. She tweaks her resume a bit to match them and – what the heck – applies.
Finally, she turns to the hated refinance issue.
In another fit of mortgage refinancing avoidance, Kyla submits her resume and application to five jobs that look interesting. During that process, she realizes she needs a cover letter and creates one by modifying something she finds online.
She looks up a list of interview questions that relate to her industry and mentally goes through several of them.
The job-hunting task has decomposed into small pebbles. She’s had a good solid week of getting stuff done. She feels… triumphant? She’s not sure; she’s never gotten this much done on an important task in a week and it’s a new feeling.
She didn’t intend to work on job hunting over the weekend, but she got one email from a recruiter who wants to talk, so she responds to him with available dates and times. Suddenly this all seems possible. Who’d have thought just six days ago that she could get to this point?
Having created a whole new (potential) life over the course of six days, Kyla takes a day of rest.
One week later: momentum achieved
Let’s recap. What has Kyla accomplished over the course of the week?
A Big Ugly Task rock has been repeatedly struck with the wedge of focused willpower. It has crumbled into Small But Important pebbles and then to grains of sand and is now well on its way to completion.
As a bonus, lots of Small But Important Tasks have been accomplished as part of the process.
Kyla is experiencing a new feeling called, “Holy crap, I got something important done!” rather than her usual feeling of, “Another week and no freakin’ progress.”
Let’s jump forward in time two weeks.
Two weeks later: momentum interrupted
In spite of her earlier progress, Kyla has stalled. After a few promising phone calls, she still has not taken the crucial step of agreeing to any interviews. Why?
Kyla’s Type 1 “can’t get started” procrastination has morphed into Type 2 “decision paralysis procrastination” due to a single, overriding factor: Fear (with a capital “F”).
Video: Procrastination and the “point of resistance”
4 minutes, 28 seconds | subtitles available
Let’s help her out, shall we? First, some background.
How to Make a Decision You can Live With: Overcomeing Type 2 Procrastination
Ah, youth! Willing to charge forward with all kinds of rash decisions.
“Who cares how things turn out? There’s always another opportunity around the corner!”
It doesn’t take long for that devil-may-care attitude to change, does it? Before we’ve even left middle school, we have experienced innumerable regrets over past decisions:
- Deciding to blow our allowance on cheap things… that break.
- Deciding to reveal our feelings to other kids… who mock them.
- Deciding to compete in academic or sporting events… and getting utterly crushed.
Consequences drive regrets
Our carefree tune soon changes:
“Holy cripes… there are actually consequences to choosing… I might choose wrong! And the consequences can be brutal. That’s totally unfair. And even uncool.”
We don’t learn the correct lesson, which is:
“Look at me! I made an awful decision and I’m still alive. I’m stronger and wiser and ready to make smarter decisions in the future.”
No, we learn this lesson:
“Look at me. I’m stupid, stupid, stupid. How in the world did I make such a bone-headed decision? Never again will I take a chance that’s even close to that scenario.”
Once bitten, twice shy and all that.
We consistently undervalue the learning experience of making and living with choices. We don’t see benefit in taking some hard knocks that make us smarter and more resilient. Rather, we bemoan that we ever got ourselves into a hard-knock situation to begin with.
Our ultimate goal: manageable regret
“I made the best decision I could with the information I had available.”
This is ALWAYS true. Always. How could it not be true? Still… the doubts linger:
“I should have foreseen something that I discovered later.”
“I should have been able to analyze the information I had and make a better decision.”
And on and on. We are so unforgiving of our past selves, aren’t we?
It’s not possible to eliminate regrets altogether. All we need to do is come to terms with them, be at peace with past decisions so we aren’t paralyzed when making future decisions.
How? A few things to remember as you work on trusting the intelligence and instincts of your past self:
Realize that unrecoverable errors are rare
Very, very rare. The dire consequences that you think you are experiencing can usually be overcome – or at least modified – with a little effort.
Remember that the past always looks better in hindsight
What you left behind when you moved ahead wasn’t as rosy as you remember it. I think our brains always edit out the bad stuff to protect our psyches:
“My life hasn’t been bad at all… I only remember great stuff.”
Trust your process
Breaking down Big Ugly Tasks into smaller tasks and crumbling them into dust will provide the best possible information on what to do next. As you progress through task completion, the end starts to come into focus.
Life lessons aren’t always free
When you live in a consumer society, decisions often come with price tags. That’s the “cost of doing business” (the business of life). Expect to “waste” a little money getting an education in the school of hard knocks.
It’s much worse to stew in place, making no changes, due to a fear of wasting money. And on a related note…
Don’t discount future regrets that you may feel
The regret from making a mistake is bad, but the regret from never trying something new can be just as debilitating.
These are all good things to be aware of, but I know that you still need action steps to help you through your decision paralysis. Lucky for you, “action steps” is my middle name.5
Test drives minimize future regrets
To a large extent, paralysis comes from a lack of good, actionable information:
“I don’t know enough to make the right choice!”
What you need is not more information, but better information. What you need is personal experience.
You can read a million online reviews about vacuum cleaners or cars or jobs. But because the reviewers aren’t just like you, they don’t help you make up your mind. You need to take things for a test drive, so to speak.
The problem is that outside of cars, most decisions are not set up to allow “test drives.” But just because test drives are not built into the system doesn’t mean you can’t arrange them.Test driving your life decisions overcomes procrastination based on fear of change. Click To Tweet
Arranging for test drives to make hard decisions easier
Today, people have all kinds of ways to test drive things that weren’t available before. Yes, some include spending money, but it’s never been cheaper or easier to spend your hard earned cash efficiently.
Have you ever ordered both options from Amazon so you could try them out before returning one? That’s a test drive.
Paying to rent an RV, power tool, or motorized wheelchair before making the final commitment is an easy way to test drive. Much cheaper than future regret over a big purchase gone wrong.
Borrowing is even better than renting… assuming you don’t break what you borrowed, of course. But it’s a viable test drive.
The key is that test drives must be built into the decision-making process, rather than being skipped in favor of more research.
“OK, fine. Thanks for the tips; I can get over buying the wrong vacuum cleaner now. But what if I’m not afraid of wasting money, but wasting my life? Or at least taking a serious wrong turn that is hard to recover from?”
You mean, sort of like Kyla?
“Yeah, exactly! A job change could be a huge mistake. It could be better just to live with daily discontent than to live with regret. How can you test drive that?”
Excellent question. Let’s pick up where we left off with Kyla. She had made serious progress on hunting for a new job, but was afraid to move forward due to a whole host of “what if’s.”
What Kyla needs are some test drives.
How can you test drive significant life decisions?
With a little creative thinking and planning.
The concept of test driving for buying stuff isn’t all that groundbreaking. It just makes sense, although many people still dither around about doing it.
But test driving a new job? No one does that, and it’s hard to figure out why. A job is like a relationship, and people test drive those all the time by dating. People even test drive new geographic locations before moving by taking vacations. But jobs?
It’s not done because it takes a little ingenuity. Of course, you can’t take on a different job for a week before deciding. But you can get close – at least close enough to keep moving forward and avoid being paralyzed by Type 2 procrastination.
Making it work: Kyla test-drives new jobs
To overcome her fear of negative consequences, Kyla decides she has to take more action. She’s motivated by the fact that the preceding week has been particularly nasty at work, reminding her why she started job hunting in the first place.
How can she know if she’s making the right choice about leaving? By knowing more about what might be available “on the other side.”
She spends two hours coming up with several things to try:
1. Taking (small) advantage of a friend
She arranges lunch with one of her friends at their company cafeteria. There are currently no job postings at this company, but she wants to experience the vibe of a different workplace, something she has not experienced in a decade. Her friend will show her around a bit, too, focusing on the departments that align with her skills.
It sounds kind of pointless, but it’s doing something. It’s guaranteed she’ll know more after she does it, if only because she can ask a lot of questions of a lot of different people. So it’s worth taking an extended lunch. Actually, it’s better than sitting at her desk eating leftovers, which is what she usually does. So, win-win.
You see, it’s like she’s back to day one of her project: Do something, anything, to move ahead. Don’t try to anticipate what you’ll get from it, just do it… and be pleasantly surprised when something unexpected develops.
2. Being an undercover agent
She discovers that one of the companies with job postings has a customer inquiry form. Why not act like a client? That will provide some insights on how they operate.
She fills out the form, making it clear that she is just looking, not ready to buy. She gets an email response and sets up a time to talk to a sales rep.
Sneaky, and she’s not 100% certain about doing it, but if the company doesn’t treat (potentially) paying customers right, it’s doubtful that they will treat their employees right. She needs to know this.
3. Expanding her circle of contacts
She’s known for years that her industry has a chapter of the national association that meets once a month two hours away. She’s never put out the effort to go. She recruits her sister to spend the night with her at this location to see what’s going on.
It’s almost certain that she’ll learn something about the job market that will guide her next steps. They’ll stay the night and do something fun, too, so another win-win. It’s better than sitting at home by herself binge watching videos.
4. Picking low-hanging social-media fruit
Finally, she joins a Facebook group that focuses on issues that concern her industry. This could be very low-yield. But she might pick up on big picture consumer opinions that indicate where things are headed in her field. Plus, she might learn some customer-centered answers to interview questions.
She’ll know within a week or two if it’s worth the time and effort, so no big deal.
Test driving – not that hard to do if you just apply some ingenuity. It’s not perfect, but then, it doesn’t have to be perfect to keep moving forward.Doing anything is better than nothing 99% of the time. You’re not in the 1%, so get moving. Click To Tweet
Kyla discovers she has a choice
She doesn’t have her choice of jobs (not yet, anyway). She has a choice of being paralyzed… or she can do something that will gather meaningful information and more her toward a decision.
There are no guarantees that any of these activities will generate critical information. But she is guaranteed to learn something – probably a lot of things – that will move her ahead.
Let’s wish Kyla the best of luck and leave her to her future. It’s time to focus on you.
Putting Your Plan in Place
As you know from my article on OCD, I like making lists. There is no way that I want you to pursue list making as an obsessive hobby as I have. Still, in some way, you have to understand both what you need to work on and what’s most important to work on.
Thus: a list.
What are your Big Ugly Tasks?
As explained earlier, these are things that you simply cannot get started on because they seem too difficult. They are significant drivers of Type 1 procrastination. They may be recurring items or they may be once-and-done things (if you could ever actually get them done).
Write them down. We’ll divide them into two categories.
Big Ugly Tasks in your personal life
- Planning for the long-term future (retirement, change of living location)
- Big home maintenance or improvement projects
- Education goals
Write down everything you can think of, even things that you hardly dare to think of getting done because they seem so impossible. My example of this would be “start an online business.” Yours might be “uproot my life and start a whole new one somewhere else” or “start a nonprofit foundation” or “reconcile with my parents.”
Now work on the second category…
Big Ugly Tasks in your work life
Assuming one of the items on your personal list isn’t “get a new job,” of course. Examples include:
- Project roles you have taken on
- Complex reports
- Learning new tasks or skills
- Things that fall outside your comfort zone
Seemingly impossible work goals may include “become a team leader” or “get certified for the next level of skills and pay” or “get a transfer to an exotic location.”
Note: both of these lists will grow over time as your subconscious works on them.
What are your Small But Important Tasks?
These could also be called “irritating but easy to do” tasks. They are items that might take you one minute or they might take you one hour, but they’re definitely not at the top of your list of fun things. Still, they must get done at some point; if they remain undone the accumulated mass of them will start to look like a Big Ugly Task.
In your personal life
- Trip planning
- Small home improvement tasks
- Organizing stuff
In your work life
- Regular but short reports
- Small process changes
- Cleaning / organizing files
Not many small tasks on your list? Again, let your subconscious work on it over time.
Choose one big task for tomorrow
“Just one until it’s done.” (I just made that up. I think it’s clever.)
Put an X by one big task. Just one, from either list. Whatever one you want, even if it’s not the most important one. The key here is to get something done to prove to yourself you can do it.
Don’t even list any steps for it. You don’t want to do any heavy lifting too soon or you’ll injure your back. Trust me: with your subconscious working on it, you’ll know something you can do with it by tomorrow, especially since you are only committing one minute to it.
Again, a caution: Don’t list tasks to accomplish on successive days. Just take it one day at a time and let one thing lead to another. Setting out a bunch of steps to do on certain days ends up with them just getting jumbled as things change or you miss a day.
Choose two minor tasks for tomorrow
Write them on paper, put them on a computer task list, whatever works best for you. Two is a good number to start with. We don’t want you procrastinating with the small tasks for too long before committing your one minute of effort to your large task.
Now what’s left?
Get out your willpower wedge and do it!
You can’t ever completely cure procrastination. It’s too thoroughly baked into human nature. Sometimes the runaway horse of distraction and avoidance will still get away from you. Then you’ll waste a few irretrievable hours on your favorite time-waster.
But you can cinch up the saddle, grab the reins firmly and turn procrastination into your ally most of the time. At least often enough to make substantial progress on the life goals that are important to you and your future.
Give this process a try. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to your old method of getting stuff done. Let me know how many seasons of Game of Thrones you were able to watch in one weekend.