How To Defeat Procrastination


“I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do – the day after.” ― Oscar Wilde

Procrastination is a silent killer of hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  It’s one of those quiet energy vampires that people don’t always notice, sucking the life force out.

Procrastination is a sense of urgency’s polar opposite.  And we all know “a sense of urgency” is a key ingredient for change.

On the personal level, procrastination can slowly burn you out, or lead to a feeling of overwhelm as things pile up, or, perhaps worst, it can leave you behind.

For me, the biggest thing that helped me avoid procrastination is I hung around more productive people, and I learned to see myself as a more productive person.  We tend to rise to the level of our self-image. 

But I also learned a variety of insights and actions to help defeat procrastination, as part of surviving and thriving at Microsoft.  I needed to build high-performing teams every six months for new projects.  These were tough projects with a wide variety of people from around the world with different productivity patterns.  I need to give them quick and effective ways to overcome their procrastination so that the entire team could operate at a higher level.

Here are some of the key techniques I learned for dealing with procrastination …


“Just a Few Minutes” (the Zeigarnik Effect)

Use the “Just a Few Minutes Rule” to defeat procrastination.  This may just be the closest we have to a silver bullet for procrastination.  We like to finish what we start.   The way to defeat procrastination is simple:   Work on things for “just a few minutes.”
We’re more inclined to finish what we start.  
This is a good reason to “just start.”  Start with something small, because we also don’t like to start what we can’t finish.  If we don’t finish what we start, it tends to hang around in our minds.

Action Precedes Motivation

One of the most surprising insights that changed my entire outlook on procrastination is the idea that "action precedes motivation."  In other words, you may not feel like doing something, but if you just start, your motivation to continue follows.

The Power of Regret

Reflect on your worst, to bring out your best.  In 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman says, “research conducted by Charles Abraham and Paschal Sheeran has shown that just a few moments’ thinking about how much you will regret not going to the gym will help motivate you to climb off the couch and onto an exercise bike.”

Feel Productive

Imagine what it feels like to be a productive person.  If you can feel productive, then you’ll find it’s easier to both get started, and to keep going.

Gamify It

Make a game out of the task.  How quickly can you do it? How many can you do?  How much can you do in 1-minute?   Turn the task into a game to add the fun factor.

Connect To Your Values

Just doing a task can be lame.  But if you connect it to your values, you can make it meaningful.  For example, don’t "call back a customer."  Instead, "win a raving fan."  Whether you value adventure, or learning, or excellence, you can connect your task to your values.  If you have a lust for learning, then combine doing your task with deep learning.

Pair Up

Find somebody who would actually enjoy working on it with you.  Maybe you can find somebody who loves to do the task you hate, and they have some tips or tricks they can show you, including how they make it more fun.

Reward Yourself Along the Way

Sometimes the best thing you can do is chunk up a task and reward yourself along the way.  Tony Robbins shared a trick for how he wrote his book faster.  He didn’t enjoy writing, but liked his hot tub, so each time he wrote 10 pages, he would reward himself by jumping in the hot tub.

Link It To Good Feelings

I tried to talk myself into running on the elliptical.  Logically, I had some good arguments, but I didn’t enjoy it.  I decided to combine it with learning so that I would enjoy it.  But then I didn’t enjoy either.  Finally, I just played my favorite music, and that did the trick.  I linked running on the elliptical to good feelings, and no longer had to fight procrastination.

10-Minute Dash

A friend of mine recommended this to me.  He said, before you start your day, do a quick 10-minute dash to cleanup and get ready for the day.  It was surprisingly simple, but surprisingly effective.  You can use the idea of a "dash" beyond a 10-minute cleanup routine.  A dash helps take the dread out, because the pain will be short-lived.

Merlin Mann describes dashes like this …

"My favorite tonic for procrastination—which I have mentioned in passing previously—is what I call a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute. By breaking a few tiny pebbles off of your perceived monolith, you end up psyching yourself out of your stupor, as well as making much-needed progress on your overdue project. Neat, huh?

"Small Wins"

Tim Pychyl, author of The Procrastinator’s Digest, says that any trivial progress can help us find our motivation and build momentum.  Trival progress can boost our positive emotions, which in turn, boosts our productivity.  So the key here is to just do the smallest, quickest thing to nip your procrastination in the bud.

"Temptation Bundling"

Katherine Milkman, professor at The Wharton School University of Pennsylvania, wrote about "Temptation Bundling."  She liked to listen to audiobooks of THe Hunger Games.  She needed to work out.  So she made a rule that she would only listen to the audiobooks at the gym.  It worked.

"Commitment Devices"

Make it painful to fail.  For example, give a friend $50, and if you get the task done on time, you get it back.  If you don’t, they keep it.  For this to work, you have to make it matter, so if $50 is not enough, then find an amount that is.  Also, it’s important to give the money first, rather than say if you fail, then you’ll give them the money.  They get the money first, and, if you want it back, then complete the task on time.  Also note, it doesn’t need to be money, it can be public humiliation or whatever punishment or penalty you want to avoid.

Forgive Yourself

If you forgive yourself, it reduces future procrastination, increases your creativity, and increases your self-control.  Self-criticism drains your "I will" power and "I want" power, while self-compassion helps with motivation and better self-control.

Focus on What’s Before You or What’s Behind You

If you are highly committed to a task, then focus on what’s before you.  Remind yourself of the work to be done.
If you are not highly committed to the task, then focus on what’s behind you.  Remind yourself of the work you’ve already done and the progress you’ve made.

Wear a Hat to Switch Gears

I found a favorite hat that when I would put it on, I would get into a serious productivity mode.  I associated extreme productivity with my hat.  When I put my hat on, people knew to get out of my way and let me hack away at what I was working on.  It wasn’t long before just the act of putting on the hat would inspire me to do deep work and to dive in, fully engaged.  If I ever felt the slightest bit of procrastination, putting my hat on would quickly defeat it, and inspire me forward.

Maybe you have a favorite hat, or shoes, or shirt, or knick-knack, or poster that can help you get your game face on.

Make a Little Progress

Even just a little bit of progress can build momentum.  The Progress Principle puts it simply in that it’s more effective to focus on progress, than on results.  Progress is the key to happiness.  It’s easier to defeat procrastination when you are in a good mood.

Change How You Feel

Optimism and happiness are keys to productivity.  But what if you don’t feel happy, or positive, or optimistic?  Then change your physiology.  Change your breathing.  Change your posture.  Changing your physiology is a fast way to change how you feel, which is why movement can quickly change your emotions.

I’m a fan of having multiple tools in the toolbox so that it’s easier to use the right tool for the job (if you just have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.)

One very special tool, that I left off the list, but will now mention is Priming.  It’s a psychology term, but the gist is this:  You can increase sensitivity to particular stimuli as a result of previous experience.

So you can Prime your mind for extreme motivation and productivity by feeding it the kinds of TED Talks, visuals, stories, experiences, metaphors, quotes, examples, etc. that inspire your mind and set your productivity on fire.

Have you primed your mind today?

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