Do You Make These 3 Common Mistakes and Get Lost in Procrastination?

“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never’.”
Martin Luther

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

Year after year, one of the most common question people email me about is this one:

“How can I stop procrastinating?”

I am no stranger to procrastination either. I used to do it a ton when I was in college and my results, stress levels, self-esteem and happiness suffered for it.

So today I would like to share three common mistakes that I did every week back then and what to do about them.

1. You overload your to-do list.

One very common reason why you may procrastinate that that the to-do list for your day is endless. You take one look at it and feel an itch inside of you to just run away. To escape. And so you procrastinate because you can't even see an end to all the things you have to do.

What to do instead:

To overcome this issue you have to limit your list.

Make it really short – 2-3 of the most important tasks –- and just focus on doing them and you'll reduce those urges to procrastinate a whole lot.

So how do you reduce and unclutter the to-do list to just the most important tasks?

I usually ask myself this question:

What would I work on if I only had 2 hours for work today?

Or this one:

If I was just told that I had to go away for a vacation tomorrow and it would last for a whole week then what would I spend today doing?

Try them both and see which one works the best for you.

2. You don’t break projects or tasks down into smaller steps.

When you look at a big essay or report you have to write or a 3-month long project you need to get done then it is easy to feel overwhelmed and to give into the urge to escape onto Reddit or Facebook.

What to do instead:

Break it down. Break down your essay or project into small steps. Then just focus on taking action on one small step. When you are done with that step move on to the next one and focus on only doing that small step until it is done. The small steps will add up quickly.

If you still wind up in procrastination while trying to get started with that one small step then set a small time limit.

Focus on writing for just 5 minutes on your essay. Or spend 5 minutes on creating the plan for how the project will work.

If the 5 minute commitment still makes you procrastinate don’t beat yourself up. Take an even smaller step instead and just work for one or two minutes.

Do what you need to do to get started.

Because getting started is – in my experience – the hardest part. After that it is usually pretty easy to keep working and to find some enthusiasm in the task. Or at least in the fact that you are moving forward and will pretty soon be done with the small step you are on right now.

3. You don’t put up limits for the obvious sources of distraction.

If you make it too easy to escape onto Facebook, your favorite forum or into your inbox to see if something new is going on there then you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time procrastinating in those places.

What to do instead:

Set limits and create a small ritual.

I bunch all of my checking of email, Facebook, Twitter etc. to one small session at the end of my workday. I do all the checking and replying in those places once a day.

Am I able to do this every day? Nope. But I do it maybe during 90% of my workdays. And that prevents a whole lot of procrastinating.

Also, if possible, try working early in your day with no internet connection at all. I usually try to get an hour or two of writing done in the morning before I even connect my computer to the internet.

If you procrastinate quite a bit via your cell phone then put it in your bottom drawer while working. Or if possible, put it in silent mode and then place it in another room and just check it a couple of times a day while you work.

You can also remove your favorite places from your bookmarks and favorite apps for procrastinating from your smart phone. By doing this you won’t have your favorite procrastinating places staring back at you whenever you use your browser or phone.

And it becomes a little harder to reach favorite websites – you have to punch in the address in your browser – than it used to be. It might not sound like much but I have found that these small obstacles have also helped me to reduce procrastination online in the past few years.

Image by anieto2k (license).

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I think the reason I’m so good at beating procrastination is that I know how to limit my distractions. I consciously allow myself X amount of free time to goof off and do whatever I want before I tackle the work.

    A lot of people struggle with the self-discipline aspect of this even though they know it’s an issue. There’s no simple cure for this, but being conscious of the fact is better than not.

    • Glad to hear you have found a strategy that works for you, Vincent! Thank you for sharing it.

  • Mike

    Excellent ideas. Another thing I found was to have a space where you JUST work, so that you develop the trait of just working there and the space reenforces the decision to not procrastinate. A lot of Universities tell incoming students not to work while on their beds, as that space is traditionally not associated with work ( as well, often student housing is not the quietest place to try to work either.) Many University libraries have either 24 hour or close to it access.

  • Mark

    Procrastination eminates from a weak “will”. Learn to exercise your “will” everyday just as you exercise your body and your mind. Challenging your “will” with simple projects each day will provide the inner strength to pick a project and focus yourself upon it through its completion. The more often you succeed in using and controling your will, the stronger it and you will become. The most important person upon which you can apply your “will” is yourself, do it everyday! I’m too busy to procratinate!

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective and what has worked for you, Mark!

  • This is a great article for someone like me. I’ve always been such a horrible procrastinator. I literally had the shirt. I will definitely try implementing some of your suggestions to help me work with it instead of against it. Thank you.

    • Hope you’ll find them as helpful as I have. And thank you for the kind words!

  • Hi Henrik,

    Thanks for the great article! What I like to do as an additional point is make myself accountable for the results I am getting :)

  • Awesome list ! I’ve been trying to really cut down my to do list to the most important everyday and I do feel it helping.

  • Great article that gets to the heart of the problem – overwhelm from attempting to do too much (long to-do lists) and distraction from things that feel easier, like social media and email.

    Bite size chunks in to-do lists really do work. I work with 3-5 things o a post-it-note list each day. You feel you achieve more each day because you’ve completed your list rather than have an incomplete longer list. You can always do more when it is complete if you have hours left in the day and are motivated to do so (have a master “not urgent” list to draw from when you want to do more). This gives you a sense of over-delivery each day rather than feeling guilty in not having achieved what you set out to do from your long list of 20 or 30 things you’ll never get done.

    One way to remove the distraction of social media is to schedule short 15 minute slots in your diary and treat them as an appointment with yourself.

    Email “rules” help to remove the urge to be distracted by incoming email and above all turn off your “notification of a new email” function so those little pop-ups don’t tempt you!

    • Thank you very much for your support and for sharing how you work, Simon! Sounds like you have good system for getting the most important things done and for feeling good about what you achieve.

  • “You overdo your to-do list” – boy that made sense. It is something I get caught up in most days, and to a large degree, its caused by other people putting demands on my time. -work, family, friends, community etc. But I’m working on it, working on reducing the ‘to-do’ list slowly, and it feels awesome. Just saying ‘not right now’ can really help give me space to do what I want to do for a while. Sure, the demands of everyday, don’t disappear – but if I get a little more time for me, that’s a great thing, and something I am grateful for.

  • prabhjot

    the point about challenging our will daily by MARK is a really good point !!

  • Great article! This is a simple and effective approach to tackle procrastination. I get easily stressed out because I tend to put too many things on my to do list. Thanks for giving some tips to manage this.

  • One of the worst things I do is to underestimate the amount of time a project is going to take or over-estimate how much I can do. This often leads to disappointment, frustration and inevitable delays on my part, then frequently to procrastination when I realize I’m not going to be able to get everything done that I wanted, when I wanted.

    I’m gradually learning to take a more realistic view of how much work can be done within a certain time-frame and I’ve started building in “cheat time” to my project schedules. This has started making the whole process a lot less stressful and more enjoyable again.

  • I defiantly have a problem with #1 on your list. Sometimes I will simply have so much on my list that it is hard to want to get started with anything. When I focus on just the few things I want to do it is a lot easier to get started.

  • This are great tips. But it isnt always easy to break down tasks into more manageable chunks or est aside the correct time for your to do list and while trying to do that you might end up getting stuck in yet another procrastination cycle. However these are things that should be done and once you have a technique you need to take it and run with it..

  • Ash

    I have been watching your blog for about a year now; and I must say when I am stressed, procrastinationg, or need motivation i come here. Thank you

  • Procrastination – the word still rings in my ears after more than 50 years – because it was one of my father’s favorite ‘prods’ when we looked like we were doing nothing. ‘Procrastination is the thief of Time’ he would regularly chide.

    Not sure how effective it was then but I do appreciate your comments on doing things better now. Personally I think that there are way too many distractions clamoring for our attention in this modern world. Many of which have little or no value but unless you have an effective filtering mechanism they all take a small but finite time to process – and then the day is gone.

    For a more humorous but very relevant dissertation on procrastination I recommend reading A.A. Milne’s poem ‘The Old Sailor’ from the Christopher Robin/Winnie The Pooh book ‘Now We Are Six’ – and incidentally my copy is dated 1948 so the problem has always been around.

    It starts with
    ‘There once was an old sailor my grandfather knew
    Who had so many things which he wanted to do…’

    And ends with

    ‘And so in the end he did nothing at all,
    But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl…’

    The intervening lines are worth your time to read.