How to Overcome Procrastination: 4 Classic and Essential Tips

by Henrik Edberg


Image by abnelphoto.com (license).



“A year from now you may wish you had started today.”
Karen Lamb

One of the most common problems people tell me that they want help with is procrastination.

So in this short article I will take some inspiration from wise people throughout history and add a few of my own thoughts on how to minimize this energy draining and stress inducing dilemma. These are four of the most effective tips that I have found so far for making procrastination a much smaller problem in your life.

1. Break it down and just take the first step.

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

When you start to look too far into the future any task or project can seem close to impossible. And so you shut down because you become overwhelmed and start surfing the internet aimlessly instead. That is one of the reasons why it is good to plan for the future but then to shift your focus back to today and the present moment.

Then you just break down your project/task into smaller and practical steps and focus on taking the first step today. That is all you need to focus on, nothing else. By taking the first step you change your mental state from resistant to “hey, I’m doing this, cool”. You put yourself in state where you become more positive and open, a state where you may not be enthusiastic about taking the next step after this first one but you are at least accepting it. And so you can take the next step. And the next one after that.

The thing is, you can’t see the whole staircase anyway and it will shift and reveal itself along the way. That’s why the best of plans tend to fall apart at least a bit as you start to put it into action. You discover that your map of reality doesn’t look like reality.

2. Don’t blow a task out of proportion.

“If you want to make an easy job seem mighty hard, just keep putting off doing it.”
Olin Miller

”Putting off an easy thing makes it hard. Putting off a hard thing makes it impossible.”
George Claude Lorimer

By over thinking and putting things off you may not only be trying to protect yourself from the pain that can come if you take action and have to do hard work or if you fail. You also make mountains out of molehills. The quotes above are so true it isn’t even funny. The more hours and days you put something off the worse it grows in your mind.

Because you are dwelling on it. And so it expands in your mind. And since you are putting it off you are probably thinking about it in a negative way. This makes a little thing a big Godzilla, a horrible beast that is threatening to ruin your life.

So plan a little and then take action.

Often you don’t even have to plan, you have been there before and you know what needs to be done. So stop thinking and just do it no matter how you feel and what you think. How you feel right now changes as quickly as the weather so it’s not the perfect guidance system or anything. And you don’t have to obey what it says (it’s not chains made of iron). You can just do what you know is right anyway.

3. Start with the hardest task of your day.

“Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.”
Dale Carnegie

Maybe you have an important call to make that you also fear might be uncomfortable. Maybe you know you have gotten behind on answering your emails and have big pile to dig into. Maybe you have the last five pages of your paper to finish.

Whatever it may be, get it out of your way the first thing you do.

If you start your day this way you will feel relieved. You feel relaxed and good about yourself. And the rest of the day – and your to-do list – tends to feel a lot lighter and easier to move through. It’s amazing what difference this one action makes.

4. Finish it.

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task”
William James

“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they started.”
David Allen

Not taking the first step to start accomplishing something can make you feel bad. But not finishing what you have started can also leave you in a sort of negative funk. You feel fatigued or stressed and sometimes you don’t even know why. It’s like someone zapped your inner power.

If that is the case, go over tasks and projects that you are currently involved in. Is there something there you know you want to finish but haven’t yet? Try to get that finished as soon as you can and you will start to feel a whole lot better.

Just be careful. Don’t think you have to finish everything you started. If a book sucks, read something else. Using this as an excuse to quit something that feels hard or unfamiliar is not a good idea. But there is no law that says that everything has to be completed.

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{ 28 comments }

Ahmed November 3, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Nice job today. Carnegie’s quotes never fail to motivate me!

Eduard - People Skills Decoded November 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Well, you now what they say Henrik: there is nothing new under the sun. So the classic is always good to remember.

For me, breaking a task down in small, digestible parts helps the most. It makes it seem easier to handle and it gets me focused on the first steps, the task at hand. Works great!

Sandra Lee November 3, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Hi Henrik, I loved the image of the staircase and taking the first step. I have a project I would like to begin, but it sometimes seems too big. I appreciate the encouragement to simply start with the first step. Thanks so much.

Heidi Bennett November 3, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Alternately, starting with the easiest stuff on your to do list sometimes helps you get your ball rolling then you can just rolllll into the harder stuff thinking “well, I did all that other stuff, why not do this too!”

Kathleen Krucoff November 3, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Great insights and help….reminds me of when I was told “The way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time”. I’ve experienced that feeling you discussed of shutting down because the task at hand seems overwhelming, BUT if you break it down into smaller components, you can accomplish it.

Thanks!
Kathleen

Franco Martinez November 3, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Hi Henrik, your website its absolutely great ! I´ve been studying English for almost 10 years so I can be able to read great articles like this one !
I definitely will pot these advices in practice right now, and thank you a lot !

Franco, from Argentina ! ;D

Randy McLean November 4, 2010 at 1:31 am

Hi Henrik,

Really insightful article, thanks for sharing it. Here is one of my favorite quotes regarding procrastination:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

I do agree that everything begins with the first step. Once you see results it then builds momentum. I find that so true in my own experience.

Sometimes even if I don’t feel like doing something I still keep on trucking if I know it is in my best interest. Again, great post!

Randy

Jessica November 4, 2010 at 1:42 am

Excellent article, thank you. I LOVE your blog!

Ryan Biddulph November 4, 2010 at 3:01 am

Hi Henrik,

Awesome tips that we’d all be wise to follow.

Putting something off creates anxiety and anxiety feeds procrastination. A vicious cycle builds until you put your foot down and make a decision to move into constructive action on a daily basis.

Thanks for sharing!

Ryan

Jarrod - Cultivating Heroes November 4, 2010 at 9:45 am

I have found an interesting technique recently as often I start to procrastinate it is due to a fear around an action.

I feel it in my chest as I think about it, then noticing this I close my eyes and focus on what visions and voices come up around. Then I adjust those sensations until the fear encoding for the action has dissapeared and I feel much better. With the blocker gone action becomes so much easier.

Andy - Three Coaching November 4, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I find that, as humans, we innately like to problem solve and that once we start on a project that we’ve been putting off, it’s hard to drag us away from it!

Ever notice this? So my advice is to just start. The horrible foreboding feeling is only present prior to starting. During the task it tends to go away because we’re in ‘problem solving’ mode.

In fact, I think we start to enjoy it once the ball is rolling.

Rich Proctor November 4, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I have found that doing the hardest task first is key for me. When I dive right in and knock out that task that I am dreading immediately it invigorates me to do even more, and procrastination doesn’t get it’s hold on me. It sets a powerful tone for my day.

On the other hand, when I put off getting started and dilly-dally around, thinking I’ll get started in a while – quite often I never get started at all. Sets a tone for the day also, but not the powerful tone I am looking for.

Jeff@Day-Timer November 4, 2010 at 7:35 pm

I always believe in breaking projects down… I liken it to how my daughter eats a big apple. Instead of getting discouraged because her mouth is tiny, she bites a little piece off. Takes another bite, then takes another.

I recently posted on this topic…

Andrzej November 4, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Hi Henrik!
Few weeks ago I saw a great quote on a citylight: “It was a day like this Marco Polo left for China. What are your plans for today?”

… with Karen Lambs “A year from now you may wish you had started today” it makes a nice bridge between beginning and the end of the road. :)

HappinessandWisdom November 5, 2010 at 3:55 am

Taking the first step is key, as you’ve mentioned. We’ve found that if we tell ourselves “I just going to spend 20 minutes…..” that we take action. Setting a short time limit for perceived unpleasant tasks (exercise is chief amongst them!!) helps make it more palatable. Once you get going, it’s often easy to invest more than the original 20 minutes. Thanks for the post!

Darren @ Lean Body Fitness Articles Blog November 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm

This sounds just like me. Not finishing jobs and then moving on to the next. I have so many unfinished projects. It does get stressfull. It feels so good to actually finish something though.

sachin November 6, 2010 at 1:23 pm

its great !!!!!!!!

Shawn Brittain November 6, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Henrik,

I think that your first point is the best about breaking things down into small components and, then, just have faith and get started. Taking baby steps gives us little victories that propel our self confidence. Then, just starting helps us to get over the initial doubt in our minds.
Thanks, very helpful post!

Brennan Smith November 8, 2010 at 8:54 am

I agree with Heidi that for myself and many of my procrastination hypnosis clients it’s really useful to make the first step of the day a really easy one, to get momentum generated.

It’s also really important to have everything written down so that you even know what to focus on when the time comes to take that first step (because so many of the projects and/or tasks in our heads are simply unnecessary, low-priority items that we might fall into if we don’t stay focused on the really great stuff!)

Love the Karen Lamb quote the most, myself. Thanks for a great post!

David Webb November 8, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Thanks for the tips.

Nice quotes from some very important people.

David.

http://www.pdessentials.co.uk

David Webb November 8, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Nice quotes from some very important people.

David.

Henrik Edberg November 8, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Thanks for all the comments and for adding your own favorite tips for overcoming procrastination! :)

Create My Mind Movie November 9, 2010 at 7:25 am

This is a great post and I believe overcoming procrastination and having a productive day is really found in being able to accomplish the little things. I know how rewarding it can be to tick a couple of things off your to do list. Thanks for all the wonderful quotes!

Kim November 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm

True everything you start need not be completed unless you feel guilty of not completing it . In case you don’t feel guilty of anything you will be always carefree and happy . Like for example you said if one is reading a boring book and have left reading it midway then it’s not important to finish it if you don’t want to read it . Putting off things out of laziness is bad and that needs to be completed or else you will always feel stressed and burdened. Your article is helpful ! Your article reminded me of something which I’d forgotten – Fears should be faced .
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maryawrites November 12, 2010 at 5:01 am

I find it extremely hard to start. Once I do, I find it even harder to stop! A friend of mine told me something worth thinking about… People always wait for motivation before starting anything. Start and then motivation will come. I love this philosophy. Works great.

Ryan Yokome - Tune A Vision November 12, 2010 at 8:40 am

Hey Henrik,

For sure number 3 for me! That`s how I approach my morning everyday. In fact, I love taking on the challenge, it`s like solving a puzzle. Then the rest of the day flows much more natural for more.

Great article bro!

Amanda@Choosing Life My Way November 15, 2010 at 6:34 am

Starting is definitely the hardest part, and things really do seem more and more daunting the more we put them off. I love the Nike slogan- ‘Just Do It!’ Thanks for a great read :)

Gabriel November 27, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Excited advice! I feel that same way when I don’t do something to keep me busy and moving towards that little more progress and feel I wasted my day, I start to get a little depress and panicking.

But after I get it over it, I can finally relax and enjoy myself or do other things in a state-of-mind knowing I’ve gotten the main job out of the way and what I’m doing feels optional for that day.

I always have to at least accomplish one thing for each day.

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