Stop Putting Things Off: 7 Practical Ideas to Get Unstuck, Get Started, and Stay on Track
“If we take that small step, there’s always another we can take, and eventually a goal thought to be too far to reach becomes achievable.” – Ellen Langer (2009)
Many of us struggle with putting things off – procrastination. There is something we want or need to do, and we deliberately don’t do it, even though we know this choice isn’t in our best interest.
Psychologist Timothy Pychl, PhD (2010) explains that procrastination occurs when we delay performing an action even though we know our delay may negatively impact ourselves or others.
For some of us, an occasional tendency to avoid a task is not much of a problem. For others, putting things off is a habitual behavior. Where do you fall on the procrastination continuum? According to Dr. Pychyl, the first step is looking at your patterns. He suggests making a list of tasks you typically delay including the related thoughts and feelings you experience.
7 Practical Ideas to Get Unstuck, Get Started, and Stay on Track
Although there are no magic answers to solve procrastination, here are a few ideas:
1 – Any progress is progress. Wrap your brain around the idea that making even minimal progress toward a goal can help you begin to move toward achieving it. Then pick one small piece of the puzzle and get started. Even small bits of progress toward a goal lets us feel more positive about the objective and ourselves (Sheldon, 2004). And then these small steps – one by one – begin to add momentum toward your objective.
2 – Just Start. Typically, once we begin the task we discover it’s not as “bad” as we’d anticipated or feared. Sometimes, once we begin, we wish we’d started sooner creating more time to work. Taking one small step gets the ball rolling down the hill toward completion.
For example, Mark has a project with a three-week deadline. He feels stuck and has been avoiding it. Finally, he gets started with just the first step.
Day 1: He creates a file and simply types a working title, his name and the date. He congratulates himself for getting started.
Day 2: He jots down a few simple ideas – just basic notes to get started. The momentum stimulates his interests. He searches for resources and information on the Web.
Day 3: He begins a rough draft of the outline and scope of the project.
Day 4: He researches a few more ideas and resources.
Day 5: He writes a rough draft for much of the project and that evening he stops to pick up a treat for dinner.
Day 6: He edits the draft and emails it to a supportive friend/colleague to take a look and cheer him on.
Day 7: He finishes the project – and treats himself to a one-hour run/walk at the beautiful park near his home.
3 – Remember You Don’t Have to Like It to Do It. To achieve a goal, our current level of motivation does not have to be high to get it done – “We can do something even if we don’t feel like it” (Pychyl, 2010). Just beginning the task can positively shift our motivation and attitude.
4 – Plan Realistically – Break Tasks into Right-Sized Chunks. Get a reasonable understanding of requirements to complete the task effectively and on time.
Break the task into small, manageable, reasonable steps – be honest about with yourself what you can do in a particular time frame. Allow yourself relaxation and rewards as you complete steps. Keep track of your progress and adjust tasks and your commitments as needed.
5 – Don’t get stuck in fear or perfectionism. Remind yourself to be reasonable about expectations from yourself, others, and the situation (Brown University, 2008). Offer yourself kindness and self-compassion – remember you are human as we all are (Neff, 2011).
6 – Be Prepared – Create an If-Then Plan. Think ahead to create plans you’ll perform when the going gets tough (Legrand, Bieleke, Gollwitzer & Mignon (2017). An if-then plan can stimulate your resolve to overcome and shift “I can’t” and “I don’t want to” toward “I can” and “I am.”
These automatic contingencies can help in many situations. For example:
“If I feel bored when I’m doing this task, then I’ll take a breath, focus my attention, and keep working.”
“If I want to check my email during the hour, then I will leave my phone off (or turn it off if it’s on), and continue doing my homework.”
“If I feel like I need to eat a sugary snack, then I’ll walk for 10 minutes instead.”
7 – Invest in Your Well-Being as You Progress. Remember that your most valuable asset is yourself, so create some time and energy for self-care to refresh and renew. Renowned leadership expert Stephen Covey (2003) had a wonderful term for this that he called “sharpening the saw.” Taking some time to invest in your well-being can pay off big time to help yourself get unstuck, get started, and stay on track. For example, pay attention to getting adequate sleep and exercise, eating healthfully, and pausing for a bit of mindfulness/meditation (Walker, 2017; Greene, 2002).
- Brown University (2018). Overcome Procrastination. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/campus-
life/support/counseling-and- psychological-services/index. php?q=overcoming- procrastination
- Covey, S.R. (2003). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Personal workbook. New, York, NY: Fireside.
- Greene, B. (2002). Get with the program: Getting real about your weight, health, and emotional well-being. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Langer, E. (2009). Counter clockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility. New York, NY: Ballantine.
- Legrand, E., Bieleke, M., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Mignon, A. (2017, April 10). Nothing Will Stop Me? Flexibly Tenacious Goal Striving With Implementation Intentions. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/
publication/315912581_Nothing_ Will_Stop_Me_Flexibly_ Tenacious_Goal_Striving_With_ Implementation_Intentions [accessed Sep 21 2018].
- Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow.
- Pychyl, T. (2010). Solving the procrastination puzzle: A concise guide to strategies for change. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
- Sheldon, K. (2004). Optimal human being: An integrated multi-level perspective. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
- Walker, M. (2017). Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. New York, NY: Scribner.
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