Ever known you should do something right now, but you can't muster the will to get started? You know the longer you put off a task, the more likely it'll be done hastily (sloppy work, #sorryboutit) or not get done at all (oops, another skipped workout!). Many of us have been there. Having a task looming over us can make us feel anxious, nervous, or agitated, and in the interest of gaining immediate rewards, we procrastinate in order to feel good in the present.
When we put off today what we can do tomorrow, we’re setting an intention based on the idea that a task will be more appealing or feel more do-able at some time in the future than it is right now. But it turns out that tomorrow is actually a lot more like today than we think. Research shows that we are, in fact, very bad at affective forecasting—predicting how we will feel in the future.
It's a combination of “It just feels better not to do this right now” and the often misguided “I’m going to (want to) do it tomorrow” that can lead many of us to put off tasks again and again.
So, how do you get yourself to stop procrastinating?
You just get started.
The Power of Getting Started
OK I know what you’re thinking. “Well, obviously the first step is to just get started... that’s the same thing as just doing the task! This isn’t helpful at all.” Actually, getting started is not the same as doing the task. Thinking of getting started as its own (more do-able) task is a powerful strategy, if used correctly.
Once we get started on a task, our perceptions of it change dramatically, in the best way possible. We perceive the task as less stressful, difficult, and unpleasant than we had originally. Think of the last time you put something off for weeks and weeks. When you finally sat down to do it, and you finished sooner than you expected, were you a little surprised that something you dreaded for so long was done so quickly? And, in retrospect, did the task suddenly feel less daunting than it had during the weeks you put it off?
Once you begin a task, you also shift your perceptions of yourself. Why? When you get started on something, even if you don’t finish it, you’ve made some progress and possibly even established a bit of momentum. You’ve gained confidence, exercised control, and in doing so maybe even effected lasting change in the way you approach tasks, projects, and deadlines.
Just Getting Started: As Easy as 1-2-3-4
Let’s take a look at the steps you can take to actually get started on a task you’ve been putting off, or one that seems overwhelming. Think of a specific task that you want to get started and keep it in mind as you read the steps below.
Step 1: Reframe the way you think of yourself.
It’s easy to think of yourself as a procrastinator, especially in a moment when you’re deciding to put things off. But that sort of thinking is self-fulfilling. You're more likely to accept your tendencies to procrastinate, and continue to follow that pattern. Instead, use cognitive reframing to rethink or "reframe" negative assumptions, shifting your perception of yourself to someone who gets things done.
Start right now: Think of a few times in the recent past when you didn’t procrastinate, and remember how great it felt to be productive and complete those tasks with minimal anxiety! The frame in your mind: “I’m the sort of person who gets things done. I get started, and I don’t wait around for things to happen in my life.” Say it aloud if it helps (but, you know, maybe wait till you’re alone).
Step 2: Trick your mind into making the task tiny.
That huge task in front of you? Think of it and then tell yourself, “I’m not really going to do this task; I’m just going to do this tiny part of it.” And make the tiny part so small and trivial that it seems ridiculous. For example, you can say, “I’m not actually going to the gym; I’m just going to put on my gym clothes.” Then put on your gym clothes. By doing this, you trick yourself into taking tiny steps that help you build up to your bigger goal. Before you know it, you’ll have started that thing you’ve been dreading.
Start right now: Write down the larger task that you are NOT doing right now. Then write down one small step you will take right now to help you get started. For example: “I am not going to write this paper. But I will write a single conclusion sentence right now.” Or, “I am not going to compile my expense report. But I will spend two minutes right now brainstorming my big expenses and writing down what they add up to.” Give yourself permission to do the bigger task later—all you need to do right now is commit to the smaller task.
Step 3: Set up a reward for yourself.
It’s important to recognize that you have legitimate needs and desires that are actually met when you procrastinate: Maybe you’re in need of freedom, relaxation, entertainment, or free time to invest in meaningful relationships. None of these needs should be trivialized. If you can identify the needs you’re meeting when you procrastinate, you can find alternative ways to fulfill them later, which allows you to prioritize the more important task in the present moment. Use these other needs and desires to create rewards for yourself as incentives for completing the tasks that are less immediately enticing.
Start right now: Create a small reward for yourself, and tie the reward back to the thing you want to be doing instead. Decide, “If I get X done, I’ll do Y later.” This could sound something like, “If I submit my completed project tonight, I’ll go out with my friends tomorrow.” You’ll want to finish that project tonight, otherwise you’ll have to do it tomorrow and won’t get to spend time with your friends.
Step 4: Commit publicly to your task.
Making a public commitment to complete your task is an effective way to create accountability for yourself. Your desire to avoid letting others see that you have failed to follow through on your goals will make it much more likely that you will, in fact, follow through. Studies show that once we make a public commitment, we are more likely to honor it.
Start right now: Make a public commitment to get started on your task. Text a friend to tell them what you’re working on, and ask them to check in on you to make sure you're plugging away at it so that you finish by a certain time. Or better yet, post to Facebook or tweet that you’re going to get started.
Once you’ve followed these steps, you’ll be well on your way to turning that big, menacing task into a something so do-able it'll be crossed off your to-do list in no time, and you can kiss that procrastination goodbye.
Ben is the Co-Founder and CEO of Change Collective, which offers courses led by world-class experts, designed to help you make lifestyle changes. He previously co-founded Zeo, a pioneer in the quantified self that helped people sleep. When Ben's kicking back, you’ll find him skiing or hiking with his Berner, Lyra.