“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone,” said Pablo Picasso. And yet, this is exactly what we do. We procrastinate every day. We delay doing what we know we should. We fill our time with mindless busyness over what will make a real impact.
I delay paying bills. I put off inspecting the car or updating the registration. My lawn is in a perpetual state of neglect.
There’s no mystery here. I don’t like doing these things, so I don’t do them. I put things off because I’d prefer to do something else. Given the option of instant gratification versus long-term rewards, I’ll take the immediate almost every time.
All of which is annoying, but hardly catastrophic. If the price of procrastination were a few late fees and some overzealous weeds, it wouldn’t be that big of a problem.
Except it rarely stops there. Procrastination habits don’t limit themselves to the inconsequential. I also put off keeping in contact with friends, hurting my relationships. I delay long-term career development to focus on today’s urgency. I fail to focus on innovation in the face of daily operations.
The insidious nature of procrastination masks these long-term effects. While I will eventually inspect my car and pay my bills, there’s no due date for investing in relationships. There’s no looming deadline for launching that new business or pursuing that innovation.
In these areas, the effects of procrastination simply extend on forever. There’s no forcing function to break the cycle. And unfortunately, we tend not to recognize this until it’s too late. As Tim Urban described in one of my favorite TED talks,
“Long-term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator at times in their own lives. The frustration is not that they couldn’t achieve their dreams, it’s that they weren’t even able to start chasing them.”
Overcoming procrastination isn’t about simply getting more done or seeing how many frogs you can eat. It’s about focusing on the things that matter each day. It’s about being able to reflect on how you spent your day and nod to yourself in satisfaction. And while different things work for different people, and I wouldn’t presume to have a one-size-fits-all solution, I can share five tactics that helped me stop procrastinating (or at least do it less).
Don’t Rely on Short-term Thinking.
“Procrastination is like a credit card; it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.” — Christopher Parker
Would you rather have $100 today or $110 tomorrow? What if the choice was between $100 in 30 days or $110 in 31 days?
Both choices give you the same option. Wait an extra day and get an extra $10. Yet with changing timeframes we get changing answers. Most people choose to take $100 today. But in the second choice, they’re happy to wait a day for the larger amount.
We’re driven by immediate consequences. Our ability to make rational long-term choices goes out the window when the costs of that decision are right in front of us.
It’s in our nature. After 200,000 years of prioritizing each day’s survival, it’s not a surprise that we prefer near-term results. If your ancestors worried more about long-term career goals than finding food and fighting off threats, you likely wouldn’t be here.
Our brains are wired to procrastinate. Ignoring that, or trying to overcome it through willpower alone, is a Sisyphean task. You might make some progress, but sooner or later that boulder’s coming back down the hill.
Don’t fight these instincts. Figure out a way to work around them.
If you’re driven by short-term results — and we all are — then limit your ability to make instantaneous decisions.
Instead of leaving decisions to the moment, don’t give yourself this flexibility. Commit to a schedule in advance when you’ll prioritize your long-term goals over that moment’s gratification.
I can’t set my schedule each morning. If I decide Tuesday’s priorities on Tuesday morning, I’ll avoid my difficult work. I’ll make some excuse and rationalize the easy choice, only to regret it later. By setting my schedule the day before, I’m much more likely to commit to taking action on the difficult (and usually more important) work.
This is still a function of short-term gratification. It’s just that the gratification comes from committing to doing the right thing. The cost of actually doing it is now the long-term consequence.
Put Less on Your Daily To-Do List
“To attain knowledge add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” — Lao-tzu
My daily to-do list has 10+ items on it. Rarely, if ever, do I complete 10+ tasks in a day. All of those unfinished actions carry forward and spam the next day’s actions.
It’s a demoralizing way to both end and begin each day. It’s overwhelming to see an ever-expanding to-do list. Most people, myself included, respond by shutting down. Inaction becomes the default, exacerbating the problem and leading to more unfinished work.
It also reinforces the idea that it’s okay to not finish our work. By having more work than we could possibly accomplish, we gain the luxury of putting things off. We tell ourselves that it’s okay to not take on the difficult tasks because we’ll add it to our list for tomorrow. Even if we secretly know that tomorrow, we’ll do the exact same thing.
It doesn’t take a genius to spot the solution. We need to shorten our daily to-do lists.
Try looking at your daily to-do list as a series of promises. Each action is a promise for that day. With each kept promise, you build momentum and confidence in yourself. Each broken promise delivers the opposite. And the best way to keep the promises you make is to only make the promises you’ll keep.
Personally speaking, I like to have a master to-do list and a daily to-do list.
Each night, I review my master to-do list and pick five items for focus the next day. It’s short enough to be manageable throughout the day, but not too long that I can avoid the important work.
Fewer options bring less opportunity to procrastinate.
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — John Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You
Of all the actions on your to-do list, there are a handful that will have a lasting impact. Most tasks seem important in the moment, but never end up moving the needle in a meaningful way. Without clear priorities, we struggle to differentiate between the two.
Vague priorities are an invitation to procrastinate. If everything’s important, then we can choose the easy, inconsequential task and defer action on those more important, and more difficult, responsibilities.
We postpone having difficult conversations in order to attend a meeting. We put off developing a new strategy to respond to emails. We delay investing in our relationships to spend time on social media.
We procrastinate on big things by focusing on small things. We may tell ourselves that we’re getting a lot done, but none of it has a lasting impact.
The solution is to be ruthless in prioritizing your work. It’s easy to look at your work and say that everything’s important, but is it really? If you didn’t do half of those items, would anyone care? Will they have any impact on your life in a week, a month, or a year?
Whatever the method — numbers, letters, colors, etc. — it doesn’t matter. Find an app or use a sheet of paper, whatever works. The point is to get into the habit of prioritizing your work. Recognize what actions will make a difference and which work is only superficially important.
Think of Warren Buffet, who owes 90% of his wealth to just ten investments. In The Tao of Warren Buffet, Mary Buffet and David Clark describe his principles, “Warren decided early in his career it would be impossible for him to make hundreds of investment decisions, so he decided that he would invest only in the businesses that he was absolutely sure of, and then bet heavily on them.” Buffet recognizes the critical priorities and then focuses himself heavily in those areas.
Priorities are a force-multiplier. Be ruthless in determining yours.
Use Deadlines. But Have Others Set Them.
“Accountability breeds response-ability.” — Stephen Covey
Imagine you’re in a class and, over the course of a semester, need to submit three papers. You can set your own deadlines or have the professor assign a schedule. Which do you think would lead to better performance?
I’d rather set my own schedule. I can give myself more flexibility and better manage the work. It seems clear that this would lead to timelier and higher quality work.
Which, like most of my social psychology instincts, tends to be wrong. When Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch conducted the above experiments, they found that people who set their own deadlines were more likely to turn their work in late. They also found that it was of poorer quality, presumably because students found themselves rushing to finish.
We’re notoriously bad at estimating how long things take. We think we’ll finish tasks faster and easier than we do. Having someone else set deadlines tends to result in much more realistic schedules.
But the main driver is one of consequences. If I set a self-imposed deadline, there’s no impact to missing it. There’s nothing to drive the right behaviors. Procrastination gets to keep on keepin’ on.
Having someone else set these deadlines creates accountability. One of the core principles of human behavior is that we want people to think highly of us. If someone sees us fail, it bothers us much more than if we had that same failure in private. Even if we don’t know those people and will never see them again, we still don’t like the idea of looking bad in front of anyone else.
Use this to your advantage. The simple act of involving someone else in your deadlines serves as a driver to perform. If you fail to deliver, you have someone ready to call you out on it.
If your boss expects you to work to self-imposed timeframes, schedule some periodic checkpoints to drive more near-term accountability. Ask her when she’d like to see it, or when she’d be free to review and give you the benefit of her thoughts. Barring that, let her know that you tend to procrastinate and if she helps set some deadlines, you’ll be better able to meet her expectations. In the vast majority of situations, your manager will be happy to help.
“Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.” — Doug Firebaugh
Let me know if this sounds familiar. You have too much to do and not enough time to do it. The clock keeps ticking away and with every minute, you’re close to the deadline and no closer to finishing. It’s overwhelming. It’s stressful. There’s so much to do that you have no idea where to even start.
As a result, you procrastinate. You spend time checking email and reading Wikipedia pages rather than taking on the challenge in front of you.
If this sounds familiar, first, know that you’re not alone. Noelle Hancock describes procrastination as the “lazy cousin of fear.” When we’re anxious about something, our default response is to postpone taking action. When we’re overwhelmed or uncertain, we choose the easy path of avoiding it all.
Second, know that in these instances, the best thing you can do is just start. Pick one action, shut out everything else, and get started.
Tasks that seem overwhelming suddenly become manageable once we start them.
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer gathered journal entries across hundreds of people and thousands of workdays. After reviewing these thousands of reflections, they concluded that progress, even small wins, are the differentiator in how people see their performance. In their words, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
The toughest task is always the one we haven’t started. Yet the moment we begin, everything becomes more manageable. We stop feeling guilty for procrastinating and we’re less overwhelmed at the unknown. We start building momentum that will motivate us to keep moving forward.
Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop and ask yourself, “What’s the simplest way that I can start?” Then do that.
Don’t wait for motivation to strike. Create your own. Just start.
Bringing it All Together
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future.” — Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Procrastination is a choice. By choosing to procrastinate, we choose to avoid taking on the challenges in front of us. We choose to delay taking action on the things that will make a difference in our lives. And in turn, we choose to avoid fully living our lives.
This is the real danger of procrastination. It’s not that we’ll get a little less done each day or accomplish a few less tasks. It’s that we miss our opportunities to do something truly meaningful. The danger of procrastination is that we fill our days with busyness and delays, while ignoring the actions that make life great.
If any of this sounds familiar, know that you’re not alone. We all face this struggle. We continue to face it every day.
Yet the more we can take action, the easier it is to keep moving forward. The more we can focus on doing work that matters, the easier it is to leverage that momentum and avoid distractions.
1. Don’t rely on short-term thinking. How can you limit your tendency for instant gratification?
2. Shorten your daily to-do list. What select tasks will make today a success?
3. Ruthlessly prioritize. What are the critical few that will act as force multipliers?
4. Use deadlines and have others hold you accountable. Who’s involvement can help you stay on task?
5. Just start. What’s the simplest way to take action right now?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. So use what works for you. Or ignore it all and come up with your own system. Just don’t let procrastination make you a spectator in your own life. In the wise words of Steven Pressfield,
“Never forget: This very moment we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny.”