“Why can’t you get that work done?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Just apply yourself.”
I used to hear that all the time, and then I’d look around at my messy house, my endless list of to-dos and wonder how people manage to get it all accomplished.
I’m good at Angry Birds, Candy Crush and the assortment of distractions that live in my computer and phone.
Why can’t I get it done? Why can’t I keep up with our lists and tasks?
If you feel like me, I’d like to offer you a list of tactics to get not only more done but shows you ways to tackle procrastination.
Procrastination will always be there because our brains will always want to put something off. Our brains always want to do something more comfortable every time.
But when you have more tools in your tool belt, you can finally draw a line through that item on your list.
Some of these tactics will work for you, and some won’t. But make sure you give them a solid try before dismissing them.
To Do Lists That Are Actually Manageable
My brain hates big projects. It likes small things. Tiny little successes. When I make a list that is twenty items long (at least!), my brain shuts down. It’s like asking a four-year-old to clean out the garage.
This is what works for me. I make a list of all the things you have to get done and then make a separate list of 3–5 things you need to do. These are your top things, your highest priorities. That’s where you start and when you are done with that list, grab other items off the main list and do those.
Your brain will appreciate it more and you’ll find you’ll burn through the list much faster.
Themes are Better Than Lists
Humans are complicated; we aren’t just one thing. If we spend our time in the classroom, we are not merely a teacher. We are many different things.
When I find myself frustrated by doing things that don’t mean anything or have no intrinsic value to me, I make sure I look at the themes of my life and write them down: friend, writer, son, traveler, uncle, etc.
I put my to-do list in those categories. I’ll then see if any theme is being neglected or if items don’t belong in a theme.
Some of my tasks do not easily fit into themes, such as “Clean bathroom.” or “Pay electric bill”.
I notice that none of my items are in the theme of “friend.” That’s a problem. I try very hard to be a good friend; it’s a value of mine.
So I’ll go through my list of friends in my phone and start calling them to see how they are doing, catch up on their lives, etc. While I’m on the phone, I’ll start doing those non-theme things and multitask — I can pay the bills while I’m on the phone with Jason. I can clean the bathroom while I’m talking with Alfred.
I can get two things done at once and feel like I’m connecting with the real part of who I am.
Prep at Night. Execute in the Morning.
I’m not able to plan and then execute in the same breath much less the same day. It’s hard for me to go shopping and then cook a meal. My willpower is sapped by preparing so when I want to execute, get stuff actually done, I can’t sit around and make a list and then execute.
After I make a list, I just want to watch TV or read a book, something that doesn’t have five, ten or two steps.
If your willpower is empty after you do all the preparation, how can you possibly get stuff done?
Just prepare and execute at different times.
Mornings is the best time to execute and at night is prime time to plan for the next day. In the morning you’ve had some rest, you haven’t made many decisions and you are not burdened by any mistakes, shortcomings or
For example, when I want to write, night time is the worst time for me to get that done. I’ve already been creative in my 9–5 job and I don’t have the energy to come up with anything. I just look at a blank page and wind up watching the newest thing on Hulu.
So I outline at night. I make a simple outline with only two or three words to describe what I want to write and I keep going down the page. That’s all. When I’m done, I’m done.
Then the next morning I’m ready and stoked to get going on this miraculous outline so I can just start.
Here are other examples of how you can plan and execute. Cleaning the garage the next day? Set out your grubby clothes, the bags, boxes and cleaning stuff you’ll need.
- Cleaning the kitchen? Set out all the stuff to get that done and put all the dishes in the dishwasher. Maybe run the dishwasher. If not, it’s cool.
- Getting rid of all your excess clothes? Just put some bags around the closet door and find the address to the thrift store you’ll drop them off at. Throughout the week, put two items in there a day. You’ll fill it in no time.
- Wanting to hit the gym in the morning? Set out your clothes tonight before you even think of turning out the light. Put some water in the fridge. Create your playlist on your iPod already.
- Need to take out the trash? Put the trashcan by the door and the next time you leave, well, grab that bag, my friend.
It’s much easier to do the prep and then initiate later. If you can do both, well, I clap my hands in your general directions and with a couple of fist-bumps.
Journal about Your Doneness
Did you have a major win? Write it down. Finally get that project done? Make sure you write that you finished it. It’s much more satisfying than crossing it off your list. You’ll be able to see your progress because our minds tend to wash away our successes in the deluge of the chaos we have going on.
Call Someone and Tell Them
Really struggling with a task? Call a friend and say, “I don’t want to get this done, but if I don’t, I’m going to send you $5.”
If you want to really increase the pain, increase the money. If you really want to increase the pain, when you send the money to your friend, your friend will ship that money to an organization or ex that you can’t stand.
Get up 1 hour Earlier (Or Stay Up Later).
A friend of mine gets up at 4 AM to workout. That’s extreme for me, but he also has 4 little girls with a 5th on the way. It’s the only time he has the house to himself and can have his “me time.” I respect that and if you can (silently) get up, you will have a magical hour of no distractions. Just don’t run the vacuum.
Don’t Waste Your Lunch Hour — Use It.
One day I had 4 phone calls to make: the dentist, my insurance agent, my cable company and my credit card company. I had put off these phone calls forever and now I had no choice but to make them.
So I did them on my lunch hour while eating a kale and broccoli salad (insult, I’d like you to meet injury).
Every time I called I said, “I’m on my lunch hour, and I’m afraid I’m low on time.” Every single person knew what I meant. The credit card company said, “Yeah, I get that. Let’s make this fast.” I got the phone calls done and had time to spare getting a candy bar out of the vending machine.
I usually bust out unpleasant tasks during my lunch hour or try to type 300 words just to see if I can do it. But just sitting there watching TV? No way, good sir.
Carry a Book With You
A lot of folks I know will say, “Ryan, how do you find the time to read? It’s impossible.” Nope. It’s not. My English professor in my undergrad heard me complain about all the books I had to read and he said, “Ryan, you have to carry a book with you wherever you go.”
And that’s what I do. it’s easier now that our books can be digital and we can read them from our phone, but still to this day I keep books in my car so if I’m going to wait somewhere, I bring a book. Getting my oil changed, dentist office, etc, I bring a book. If I can get 6–10 pages done a day just by running errands, I can tackle a book a week.
Reduce Your Choices
I think a lot of what fuels procrastination is that we have too many choices in front of us. Read this. Wear that. Try this. Answer that.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeowntalks about reducing our choices to what is important and vital to what we love and who we are. I’m for this but it takes some pruning to get there:
It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.
So far I’ve been able to:
- clean out my closet and pitch any clothes I’m not really crazy about.
- end all of my subscriptions to magazines.
- unsubscribe from emails that I never open
- throw away clutter (for some reason I keep empty boxes. . . I might send someone something someday and what if the world was out of boxes?!)
Because I reduce my choices (wear things I really like, have more empty space) I don’t have as many distractions and it helps. There is less stuff shouting for my attention. And I buy less stuff because I remember the pain of throwing out stuff.
Cull Out the Negative People
This is a hard one and it doesn’t sound like it would enhance your productivity, but just trust me on this. We’ve come this far.
There are people in your life who are a bit toxic, a bit negative and I hate to say it, but they have to go (unless it’s your two year old). Now you might not be able to show them the door, but having boundaries up to lessen their toxicity is important. They tear down your ideas. They make you feel like garbage when you are around them. They say little snippy things that drain your reserves. They might “mean well”, but as it turns out they are carelessly bruising us.
But what do negative people have to do with productivity and getting things done?
As it turns out-everything.
Negative people drain our willpower to move in the right direction. They are the quicksand of our souls-they dampen our creativity, drive and hope.
There are certain people in my life I don’t share my dreams with. I don’t tell them about the conference I went to or the new connection i made. I simply nod and smile as they tell me how horrible their barista was at Starbucks. Eventually I slink away.
Delegate Your Weaknesses
Most of us love a challenge most of the time. When we see a glaring weakness, we either completely avoid it or we tackle it. And our culture, especially our work culture would say, “TACKLE THAT WEAKNESS! YOU NEED TO DEVELOP! WAY TO GO.”
I’m terrible at cleaning my house. I’m not at a Hoarders level, but I treat dusting my apartment like I just won an Ironman triathlon. So what do I do? I get a housecleaner once a month. It costs about $80 and people would turn up their nose and say, “Well, aren’t we just the fanciest?”
No. I’m not fancy. We go to restaurants because we don’t want to cook. We pay to get our car washed instead of grabbing a bucket and some soap. We exchange money for time, especially in the areas we don’t want to be bothered with or what we can’t do ourselves.
Find your weaknesses and then see where you can pay someone else to do it. Whether it’s editing something (which I pay for), getting a housecleaner or a dog walker.
But where does this magical money come from? Try eating out a little bit less or find a service you can offer that will pay for it. For example, I help people make better presentations in my spare time and earn a little coin. Once I earn enough side money, I give my housekeeper a ring. Maybe you can sell some stuff. Maybe you have a mad skill you can use to tutor. Whatever it is, delegate your weaknesses and focus on your strengths. You will have more time for productive, life-giving work.
Small Steps. Long Direction.
Something inside of you flips out when you don’t finish something. Whether it is cleaning the house, developing a skill, losing weight, developing a workout regiment, etc. During your first workout, your mind will say, “That’s it? You walked for an hour? What about some pushups? I hear everyone is planking! We should plank.”
Here’s what happens. You give in, you do more than you are capable and your brain will flip on your the next day, “Dude, you’re too sore to work out. In fact, let’s not do that again. Ever. Cool? Who wants ice cream?!”
You exhaust yourself with a big project and then you give it up.
This is your mind spiraling in a nutshell.
1. Start a big project! Right now!
2. Find out you can’t get it done in the time you thought it would take.
3. Feel disappointed and see how everyone on Facebook is getting stuff done. And they are really happy.
4. Give up on the project. Feel sad.
5. Eventually get back to step 1. Some day.
But here’s the method around that. Commit to the smallest move and celebrate that. Need to rearrange and clean out a bookshelf that is a nightmare? Just do the smallest part and move on. Whittle it down. Make small changes that add up.
Need to stop drinking soda? Don’t go cold turkey. Go from 5 sodas to 4 sodas per day for a week. Next week alternate 3 sodas and 4 sodas the next week. Then slowly reduce it. When you hear that ADHD voice pipe up ( oh, and it will) stick to the plan.
Focus on small changes, better habits and take it slow.
Forgive Yourself Often
Every morning our intentions are great. We want to have friends and family love us. We want our careers to be great and meaningful. We want our houses to be clean and we want to be productive, getting things done.
And we have all been awake at 10 PM and our to do list isn’t checked off and we don’t even know where we put it. We feel guilty and terrible. Nothing got done. People are disappointed in us, but not more than we are in ourselves.
But condemnation never motivates towards something great. Sure, we can do things out of guilt, but there is no joy in that.
The best thing I found is to forgive myself. Remind myself that what I do is not who I am. Because I don’t have the bathroom exactly how it should be doesn’t make a bad person.
Sometimes our fears and mistakes and even our life get ahold of us. Start again. Conduct an autopsy on how everything went awry.
Forgive yourself, start over. Start small and just remove a couple of obstacles. Try again.
Figure out which strategy you want to use and jump on it. It’s time to get more done. No more excuses. It’s time for more action.
Do you have a strategy for tackling procrastination? Drop some wisdom below.