Procrastination is a legitimate psychological hurdle. Almost every human being, at some point in their lives, will experience the sense of temporary relaxation that comes with not doing something. That momentary sense of avoidance bliss is addictive, and a super sneaky part of why the cycle of procrastination can be so tricky to break free from. The good news: research also shows that we can just as easily trick our brains into a cycle of action and activity with even the smallest of first moves. Micro-steps can lead to major accomplishments when it comes to our most frequently pushed-back activities, and many of them are even smaller and simpler than you might expect.
The old saying “the journey of a thousand miles beings with a single step” is true, but who knew a single step could be so impactful? Here’s how to take small actions that will get big results.
Get a three-minute move on
We’re more likely to begin tackling any activity, physical or otherwise, if we’re moving instead of sitting. Whether it’s starting a tough work project or cleaning out the garage, making a move can immediately ensure you’re more likely to continue working.
Sitting can leave your mind in a state of inaction that makes it even harder to begin working. Getting up and walking for as little as three minutes can be enough to jumpstart your brain, regardless of how long you’ve been inactive beforehand.
Write a terrible first line
When it comes to complex writing projects like school projects and work presentations, procrastination is usually made even worse by a misplaced desire for perfection. When we put an expectation on ourselves to produce perfect work from the beginning, typing out that first line becomes an almost surmountable hurdle.
Just as with physical activity, we feed our procrastination by thinking what we do to begin must be a big, complex move. With writing, the most important step is actually to just start. Take your first thought and get to writing without judgment of its quality or where it fits into the overall structure of what you imagine the finished outcome will be.
At the middle, at the end, free-flow journaling, bullet points, a poem — no matter what the end goal of the project is, start writing anything. Whether you use what you get down for the first minute (or 30 minutes) is beside the point. The aim is to jump over that first hurdle and into the mental state of writing. Sometime soon you’ll realize that, since you’ve already started, you no longer need to worry about starting and your brain can more easily focus on the real work of whatever you need to get done.
Plan some time to be spontaneous
Ok, so this is a joke but the core of it is true: It’s just as important to schedule time to do nothing as it is to schedule time to do something. Whatever you want to call it — free time, a break, nothing time — make sure you have space set aside with no set agenda.
The boost you get from the break, both mentally and physically, take the pressure off of feeling that you need to be doing something all the time and sets you up to be better prepared to address procrastination head-on the next time you need to dive in and get something done.
Monotasking before multitasking
Multitasking is a terrible way of getting things done, and it’s one of the worst ways to approach any task. Getting a small part of multiple tasks done in a series makes us feel like we’re getting a lot done. In reality, the constant productivity-killing context-switching and need to readjust our focus makes it take longer for us to complete things and, worse of all, at a lower quality than if we’d just focused on one thing at one time.
That said, it’s harder that it might seem to do just one thing, particularly in a hyper-connected world of alerts, social media, and digital intrusion. (Not to mention if you’re a parent.)
● Schedule time for deep work.
Get specific. Saying “I’ll do this thing on Tuesday” isn’t good enough. Just as you would with any other activity, pick an amount of time — one hour is a good place to start, to ensure you don’t fall into a pit of procrastinating about how much time you should schedule to stop procrastinating — and put it in your calendar.
● Write down everything that distracts you.
The tricky thing about distractions is that it’s genuinely possible you aren’t fully aware of everything that’s pulling your focus. We all know, high-level, that our phone alerts take our minds off what we need to get done. But what else is there? Chores, a TV left on, being too available for too many hours of the day, a dog that needs to go outside?
Take one day and use it as an experiment to do a time audit. Jot down every single time you get pulled away from your core task and why. Once you know where your most common triggers lie, you can take steps to circumvent them, or, better yet, make sure they never happen at all.
● Find your peak time.
Once you’re on a roll with writing things down as you notice them and have found a bit of deep work flow, switch it around to quickly noting at the end of the day the time that you go the most done. We’re all unique — early birds and night owls will find their productivity peaks happen at different times of the day. The goal here is to notice when yours is and then do everything you can to protect it, add it to your schedule and have it booked for when you know you’re least likely to procrastinate and most likely to get started working. Each time you hit your peak and begin working you’ll be establishing new, positive habits and motivators that are just as powerful as procrastination and will begin to replace it.
● Pick one thing.
Mono means “one.” No matter how many things you’ve got on your list, at the beginning of the day pick the single thing that would mean the most for you to accomplish today. This doesn’t mean that you won’t get anything else done, but studies show that you’ll feel the most pride about taking one step toward whatever you’ve identified as being the most important. Equal to that, focusing on that one task puts you into a state of flow that makes you better prepared to tackle the other tasks on your list.
By focusing on one thing at a time, you ultimately get more things done.
Cut yourself some slack
Beating yourself up over your procrastination habit is one of the most common reactions people have, and also one of the worst things you can do to improve the situation. The feeling of shame and helplessness that makes procrastination so impactful to our sense of ability feed into a cycle of negative feedback: we put something off, we momentarily feel good that we put it off, we feel bad about it, feeling bad makes us think we’re incapable of not procrastinating, and so we put something off, and so on.
At its heart, procrastination is extremely understandable. We’re designed to tend to favour rewards in the short-term over the long-term. This was very helpful when our immediate primitive needs — eating, drinking, not getting eaten by that sabre-toothed tiger — kept us alive. In the modern world, we’ve flipped the script and it’s often our longer-term, more complex goals — saving money, protecting our mental health, keeping our bodies healthy — that fall prey to quick satisfaction. Long story short, we’re psychologically predisposed to sit and eat donuts rather than do our taxes.
So what could possibly be good about that? You can stop blaming yourself. Procrastination is normal, natural, and a shared experience of being human. You are not worth less or incapable of change because of it. In fact, the more you let it go, forgive yourself for a habit of putting things off, and focus on small things that you can do to make it easier to overcome, the closer you’ll be to mastering procrastination.
The desire and habits that enable procrastination will never go away completely (we are, after all, only human). By showing yourself as much self-compassion as possible while you learn new micro-habits, the closer you’ll begin to feel more naturally productive and able to tackle procrastination head-on no matter what life puts in your way.
Jeremy Elder is a Toronto-based content marketer and copywriter with over a decade’s experience telling stories for some of the world’s biggest brands. He’s an expert at finding WiFi wherever you least expect it.
Jeremy Elder is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.