How to Overcome Procrastination

Thinking about tasks as intimidating and time-consuming is what slows you down. Try Get-It-Done Guy’s new approach and watch your resistance melt away.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #209

I just love cleaning. No, I’m lying. I hate cleaning. Just like I hate scrubbing the grout between the tiles in my shower. I managed to procrastinate cleaning my bathroom for an entire decade. It turns out if you wait long enough, the grout turns black, forming a pleasing checkerboard pattern. But when the grout started demanding that I feed it, I knew it was time to take measures.

Your personal nemesis may not be grout. For you, it may be preparing next year's budget, or doing the laundry, or reading the new procedures manual. These things are all so much fun, it makes you want to squeal with glee. And no, I'm not talking about the TV show.

The problem is that these tasks are large enough that your brain knows they might expand to fill the rest of your foreseeable life. It doesn't want to let you get started, because then you might never finish. If you're going to die in the middle of a project, your brain would rather it be writing your magnum opus, an operetta in 12-part harmony about a chicken farmer's quest for true love.

Dying in the middle of cleaning your grout would just be embarrassing. And yet, both the grout and the operetta must be done. Here are 6 tips on how to stop procrastinating onerous tasks. These are based on the "Stop Procrastinating" chapter of my book, Get-it-Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.

We're taught that the secret to finishing a big task is to break it into baby steps. There's only one problem: this rarely works, at least for me. Don't divide the task into baby steps, instead, divide your time into baby chunks.

Tip #1: Schedule 15 Minutes a Day

Your brain is scared that cleaning the grout will devour all the time you have left in the world. So put a strict time limit on your task. Make the time limit small enough that your brain will be willing to give it a "go," even when you're tired. For me, that's 15 minutes. It's very, very hard to convince myself that I can't spare a measly little 15 minutes to make some progress on an important task. And grout doesn't filibuster, so 15 minutes will just be 15 minutes.

By scheduling 15 minute chunks each day, you make steady progress. Each chunk is small enough that you can overcome your resistance to doing it, but large enough to make strides towards your goal.

Use a timer that has a loud, external beep. When you hear the beep, your time is up. If you need to do cleanup, for example, putting away your Grout-Be-Gone foam and abrasive toothpaste, do it as part of the 15 minutes. You want to fit all parts of the chore into the brief time chunk, so your brain trusts that you won't go over.

Tip #2: Stop When the Time is Up, Even If It's Mid-Task

Once you're off and running, it's tempting to hear the buzzer and think, "I'm doing so well I can just keep going." Don't! Your brain let you start this project because you promised you would limit yourself to 15 minutes. If you cheat, your brain won't be able to trust you next time. So no matter how strongly you want to keep scraping your black grout fuzz, stop, clean up, and finish your 15 minutes.

It's actually better if you stop in the middle of the task. If you reach a breaking point, your brain can procrastinate more easily in the future. After all, that's what a breaking point is. But if you stop mid-task, your brain will want to jump back in tomorrow to continue the process.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.