How to Beat Procrastination: This Is The #1 Habit You Need to Cultivate
The moment I woke up today, I knew exactly what was awaiting me. First, twenty minutes of meditation; then several hours of writing on this very article.
I did not feel like doing either of them. In fact, I was dreading it. My mind was producing all kinds of negative thoughts, listing one excuse after another and flushing my body with uncomfortable feelings of dismay, anxiety, overwhelm, etc.
It was tempting to walk away. I didn’t want to face the painful tasks of meditation and writing. I felt a strong urge to procrastinate. I had my rationalizations lined up already: “I’ll feel more like doing this later. Besides that, meditating for twenty minutes isn’t worth it and the article will suck anyway.”
Two hours later, I have completed my morning meditation and find myself writing sentence after sentence. I feel good about myself. I’m glad I followed through with my plan. I am proud and a sweet sense of accomplishment is running through my veins.
This, my friend, is the power of getting started. Once we overcome that initial resistance, good things start happening.
Getting started lies at the very heart of procrastination. If we can’t get ourselves to begin a task, if we can’t overcome that motivational surface tension, we’ll end up procrastinating. If we are able to just get started on a task, procrastination gets stopped short instantly.
Getting started is both the problem and the solution of procrastination. In today’s article, I want to show you exactly why getting started is so important in order to beat procrastination. And even more importantly, I want to show you seven specific strategies that will help you overcome resistance and make that all-important switch from non-action to action.
(Just to clarify… I am NOT talking about “just doing the task” – that’s the very problem we’re facing as procrastinators and that advice would not be helpful at all. I am talking about getting started on the task. Big difference.)
Procrastination – It All Boils Down to Getting Started
Getting started, over and over again, is the #1 habit to overcome procrastination. Here’s why…
As I alluded to in the intro, we procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. In fact, that’s one of the key reasons we procrastinate – we don’t enjoy doing the thing. We dread it. We hate it. And we literally feel pain thinking about the task.
But here’s the kicker: The pain we experience thinking about a dreaded task almost instantaneously evaporates once we’ve started engaging in the task. Barbara Oakley, a learning expert, explains in her book A Mind For Numbers:
“We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. Medical imaging studies have shown that mathphobes, for example, appear to avoid math because even just thinking about it seems to hurt. The pain centers of their brains light up when they contemplate working on math.
But there’s something important to note. It was the anticipation that was painful. When the mathphobes actually did math, the pain disappeared… Avoiding something painful seems sensible. But sadly, the long-term effects of habitual avoidance can be nasty. You put off studying math, and it becomes even more painful to think about studying it.”
The pain is in the anticipation. As long as you’re procrastinating, you’re going to feel pain.
If you want relief, you must overcome the resistance and just get started. Once you’re in it, you’ll realize it’s not nearly as bad as you thought it was. And once you’re making progress, it will actually start feeling pretty good. Mood follows action. Just do the thing and the feelings of motivation, excitement, pride, and accomplishment will come.
Other research has shown that our perceptions of the task literally change once we start. Timothy A. Pychyl, a procrastination researcher, explains in his book Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“Surprisingly, we found a change in the participants’ perceptions of their tasks. On Monday, the dreaded, avoided task was perceived as very stressful, difficult, and unpleasant. On Thursday (or the wee hours of Friday morning), once they had actually engaged in the task they had avoided all week, their perceptions changed. The ratings of task stressfulness, difficulty, and unpleasantness decreased significantly… In fact, many participants made comments when we paged them during their last-minute efforts that they wished they had started earlier – the task was actually interesting, and they thought they could do a better job with a little more time.”
Once we get started, pain goes away, perceptions change, and good things start happening.
An Object in Motion Stays in Motion
Another aspect of getting started is perfectly described by Newton's first law of motion - sometimes called the law of inertia: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion.”
If we’re at rest – we can’t get ourselves to begin a task – we tend to stay at rest. If we don’t overcome the initial resistance, we remain at rest. That’s the hallmark of procrastination. We just can’t get moving and we literally get stuck.
The opposite is also true. If we can get in motion – we get started – we tend to stay in motion. If you can get started on a task, chances are you’ll be working on it for a while. Oftentimes you’ll find that you just keep going, making great progress towards completing the task.
It’s true: “A job begun is a job half done.”
You don’t need to worry about getting a task done. All you need to worry about is getting started. Because once you get started, you’re already halfway to the finish line.
Once the Ball Gets Rolling…
And now for the best part: The mere act of getting started can put in motion a whole machinery of self-perpetuating upward spirals.
You see, getting started will inevitably lead to some progress or accomplishment – no matter how little. You might finish an important project, follow through with your exercise plans, or finally clean your room. Whatever it is, getting started is the gateway towards progress and accomplishment.
Progress and accomplishment then create further ripple effects.
Making progress on meaningful goals, for example, has been shown to make people happier and more satisfied with life, as explained here by Timothy Pychyl in his book Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“Research by Ken Sheldon (University of Missouri, Columbia) also demonstrates that progress on our goals makes an important difference. Progress on our goals makes us feel happier and more satisfied with life.”
Further research by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has shown that progress is likely the most motivating thing on the planet. It’s something she refers to as The Progress Principle:
“The progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. “
And there’s more. Once you have actually started and accomplished something, your perception of yourself starts changing (as discussed earlier), making you feel more in control and more optimistic. Timothy Pychyl explains in Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“Even if we do not finish the task, we have done something, and the next day our attributions about ourselves are not nearly as negative. We feel more in control and more optimistic.”
So we got more happiness, more positive emotions, more motivation, and more optimism so far – all from just getting started and making some progress.
The last thing I want to mention is that making progress also helps build up some much-needed confidence. Dr. Piers Steel explains in his book The Procrastination Equation:
“Personal stories of triumph can bolster people’s spirits for years to come. ‘I did it!’ translates into ‘I can do it’.”
Adding all of this together, getting started can help you make progress and reach small accomplishments, which in turn make you happier, increase life satisfaction, skyrocket motivation, boost feelings of control and optimism, and make you more confident.
Not bad, huh?
But we’re just getting started. All these beneficial outcomes create further ripple effects, having a positive impact on your future procrastination. For example, more confidence will result in putting in more effort. Which will result in more accomplishment. Which will result in even more confidence. And so on. That’s what is known as a success spiral. Dr. Piers Steel explains in The Procrastination Equation:
“This is the essence of a success spiral: accomplishment creates confidence, which creates effort resulting in more accomplishment.”
And that’s not the only upward spiral you’re setting in motion. The positive emotions created from making initial progress will also fuel future action. Timothy Pychyl explains in Solving The Procrastination Puzzle:
“Interestingly, positive emotions have the potential to motivate goal-directed behaviors and volitional processes (e.g., self-regulation to stay on task) that are necessary for further goal progress or attainment.”
It goes on. By getting started and making some progress on your goals, the resulting increase in motivation enhances further action and progress. And so do the feelings of optimism and being in control. And so on.
Putting it altogether, we could formulate it something like this: Getting started leads to making progress leads to increased happiness, motivation, optimism, confidence leads to putting in more effort leads to making more progress leads to even more happiness, motivation, optimism, confidence leads to even more effort and so on…
Success breeds success. The rich get richer.
Once you set these forces in motion, they will become like a snowball running downhills. They are self-perpetuating, literally fueling themselves, creating a powerful upward spiral. It’s like a tornado sucking up everything along the way and getting bigger and bigger.
And it all starts with getting started. That’s the beginning point. Unless you can get yourself to overcome the motivational surface tension, you will never create those ripple effects and you’ll never experience the magic power of success spirals.
And keep in mind, you’ll have to start over and over and over again in the beginning. These spirals take some time to get going. They need constant fueling in the beginning, otherwise they’ll lose momentum and stop moving.
The point is: you need to get started. That’s what gets everything going. Keep this constantly in mind: Once you get started, good things start happening.
Once we get started, pain goes away, perceptions change, and good things start happening.
Summing up, getting started results in lots of positive effects that can make all the difference in overcoming procrastination. Getting started immediately relieves the pain and negative emotions associated with the task. Perceptions of yourself and the task change. You realize you can actually do this, you can make it happen. The task isn’t nearly as bad as you thought it was – and oftentimes it’s actually quite enjoyable.
Getting started also creates that all-important switch from non-doing to doing. Once you’re in motion, you tend to stay in motion. You’ll find yourself making great progress, moving closer and closer to actually finishing the task. A job begun really is a job half done.
Most importantly, getting started ultimately leads to powerful, self-perpetuating upward spirals of happiness, well-being, motivation, optimism, and self-confidence. These positive effects – all the result of getting started – further fuel each other, leading to more effort and less procrastination in the future.
Find ways to get started and you’re well on your way to kick your procrastination habit. Here are seven tips to help you with that…
7 Tips to Help You Just Get Started
Alright, you get it: getting started can make all the difference.
The next question is, how do we overcome the resistance to getting started? How do we actually get started on uncomfortable, boring, dreadful, or even anxiety-invoking tasks?
Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Here are seven of the best ways I’ve personally found to overcome inertia and just get going.
1. Break Big Projects Down Into Small, Actionable Steps
I believe that one of the major reasons many of us procrastinate is because we’re prone to think in ways that overwhelm us. We think about tasks as a whole, about “getting it done”, about finishing.
When I start reading a book, for example, I already get stressed out a little bit because my mind keeps nagging me, “When will we be finished here? How much longer is it going to take? Come on, hurry up. OMG! There are still so many pages. There’s no way you can finish this today. Blablabla.”
My mind can’t just sit down and read a bit. It wants to know how long we’ll be reading, how long it’ll take to finish, and so on. It keeps reminding me that there’s still a long, long way to go. In other words, it’s constantly creating overwhelm and stress.
My guess is that this is one of the major differences between procrastinators and producers. The producer, I imagine, can start a task without thinking about the whole task, about “getting it done”, or about finishing it all at once. His mind is much more calm and simply focuses on the next step. No wonder he doesn’t feel the urge to procrastinate…
Anyway, I am not here to whine about this issue. I am here to offer a solution.
So, if you struggle with procrastination, chances are it’s partly because tasks (unconsciously or consciously) overwhelm you. What we need to do, is to shift our focus from the whole task (which is paralyzing) to the next step. In other words, we need to break big projects down into small, actionable steps. This reduces overwhelm and stress, thus enabling us to get started.
It’s like Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
Instead of focusing on reading a whole book, let’s focus on reading the next page. Instead of focusing on losing 20lbs, let’s focus on eating a healthy meal. Instead of writing our dissertation, let’s focus on writing on the introduction for 20 minutes. Instead of getting a new job, let’s get started on our résumé.
It may sound simple, but that makes a huge difference. Think about it. We shit our pants when thinking about writing an entire book. But sitting down to write for 20 minutes is easy.
John Steinbeck, a Nobel Prize winning author, once said: “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. Then, gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”
The next step should be all you can permit yourself to contemplate. Get in the habit of asking yourself questions such as: “What’s the next thing I can get started on?” “Where can I get started?” “What’s the next small thing I can get started on?”
Focus on the next step, not the next thousand steps.
Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.
2. Lower Your Standards
If you’re anything like me, you have pretty high standards for yourself. If you want to do something, you want to do it right.
When I first learned about meditation, for example, I thought I had to meditate for 20 minutes every day from the very start. When I first learned about standing work stations, I thought I had to be standing all day long. All or nothing, right?
The problem is, our high standards and ambitions are just not realistic in the beginning. It’s almost impossible for a beginning meditator to go from zero to 20 minutes every single day without failing. It’s almost impossible to go from sitting all day long to standing all day long.
By setting ourselves too high standards, we’re setting ourselves up for failure and procrastination.
First of all, high standards create a huge hurdle to getting started. “Phew, now I have to meditate for 20 minutes? Damn, that’s hard! That’s uncomfortable. That scares me. I’m not sure I can do that.” The initial resistance to the task just becomes unnecessarily big, making it so much more likely that we’ll procrastinate.
And then, once we inevitably fail with our ambitious goals, we beat ourselves up. “Can’t even keep up a simple meditation habit. You know how beneficial it is! You should have just kept going. What a loser!” We get demoralized, drown ourselves in self-pity, and end up in a downward spiral of continuous failure, self-criticism, and ultimately procrastination. All because we set the threshold for success way too high, making failure pretty much inevitable.
The solution? We need to reverse the whole thing. We need to lower our standards to make the resistance to getting started as small as possible. This almost inevitably leads to success, small accomplishments, progress, and ultimately the upward spirals we’ve talked about earlier.
Our new standard is to meditate for one minute every day, not twenty minutes. Do 10 pushups every morning, not work out for 30 minutes. Write two crappy pages on our dissertation, not complete a whole chapter or the whole thing.
These low standards make getting started a breeze. Think about it. How easy is it to meditate for one minute? There’s almost no initial resistance keeping us from doing it or leading to procrastination. We need almost no willpower for that. And we certainly don’t need any motivation for that.
Furthermore, chances are that we’ll exceed our low standards. Once we’re in motion, we’ll meditate for longer than just a minute, we’ll do more than just 10 pushups, and we’ll probably produce more than just two crappy pages.
The point is: Lower your standards. This eliminates the resistance to getting started, leads to progress, and then leads to all the other good things we’ve discussed in the first part of this article.
3. Focus on the Process, Forget About the Outcome
Every outcome is the result of a certain process. If you follow the right process long enough, you will eventually achieve the outcome as a natural by-product.
- If you eat healthy day in day out, then you will sooner or later lose the weight
- If you write 500-1000 words every single day, then you will sooner or later finish your novel
- If you play chess every day, then you will get better at it over time and eventually win your school championship
- If you study math for an hour every day, then you will get good math grades
Whenever we’re trying to achieve a certain goal, we can either focus on the outcome (what we want to accomplish) or the process (how we’re spending our time).
The problem with procrastinators is that we’re too focused on the outcome. When we think about studying for a test, we think about all the articles we’ll have to read, all the exercises we’ll have to do, and all the long hours of work still ahead of us. That is ridiculously overwhelming. Plus, it creates lots of negative feelings such as stress, anxiety, dread, and so on.
The result of getting caught up in thinking and worrying about the outcome is procrastination.
A much better idea is to simply focus on the process of studying – the process of reading the articles and doing the exercises. What’s that process? It’s simply putting in the time for studying.
Don’t get caught up in thinking about doing the hard exercises and reading the boring textbooks – this makes it sound dreadful and uncomfortable. Instead, think about studying for an hour. Just. Studying. For. One. Hour. Tell yourself that you’ll study for one hour. Simple enough. No need to worry about the hard stuff that’s involved.
Look, having studied and prepared well for a test is the natural by-product of studying for X amount of hours. Depending on the test, you may have to put in 2 hours or 6 hours or 20 hours.
The trick is that you don’t worry about everything that’s left to do, the long journey before you, the many obstacles ahead, or whatever. Simply focus on putting in the time and trusting the process: “If I study for one hour every single day, then I will be well prepared for the exam.”
Focusing on the process makes getting started much easier. Nobody procrastinates when the goal is to:
- Read for 20 minutes
- Write for 20 minutes
- Clean the room for 20 minutes
- Work on my dissertation for 20 minutes
These sound easy and simple, they don’t invoke any negative emotions, and they allow you to make that all-important first step of getting started.
So, forget about the outcome. Don’t allow yourself to think about your huge and overwhelming goal. Don’t allow yourself to think about all the dreadful, boring, uncomfortable stuff that’s still ahead of you.
Instead, trust the process. Sit down and do the work. And let the results take care of themselves.
4. Use Implementation Intentions
I have written about implementation intentions before. In fact, I’ve written an entire article on how implementation intentions can help you overcome procrastination. If you ask me, they are the simplest, yet most effective strategy to add to your bag of tricks against procrastination.
So, what are they? Implementation intentions are super simple “if,then” plans that predetermine how you will act in a certain future situation. If I get home from work, then I exercise for twenty minutes. If I wake up in the morning, then I immediately get out of bed.
You pick a cue and link it to a behavior. When such and such happens, then I will do such and such. It’s almost like you’re programming yourself to behave in a certain way in the future.
In fact, that’s exactly what you’re doing. The reason implementation intentions work is because they program your unconscious mind. After forming an if,then plan, the situational cue becomes highly activated in the brain – it’s just dying to get noticed. Your brain, entirely out of your awareness, is now scanning the environment, looking for that cue. And it will easily detect the cue even if you are busy doing other things.
And now for the fun part. As soon as your brain detects the cue (the “if” part of your plan), it automatically executes the pre-programmed behavior (the “then” part of your plan). Because you already decided and told your brain what to do, it can follow through with the plan – without your conscious attention. Your unconscious mind just takes over and you’ll find yourself doing what you planned to do. Sometimes you’ll be aware of what’s happening and sometimes not. The beauty is you don’t have to be aware of it. It’s almost like you’re creating an “instant habit” for yourself.
So this is kind of the reason behind why implementation intentions work. If you want to see some actual studies that prove just how well they work, check out my previous articles. I want to keep it somewhat short here.
So, let’s tie it back to getting started. Implementation intentions can be of real help here. Simply pick a cue – this can be a specific time in the future, a thought, an emotion, or whatever – and link it with getting started on a task.
It’s really simple, no need to overcomplicate things. Here are some examples:
- If I find myself thinking something along the lines of “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow” or “I work better under pressure,” then I’ll just get started on some aspect of the task. (You can add your own favorite excuses here)
- If it’s Sunday and I’m finished with breakfast, then I’ll immediately get started on my homework.
- If I get home from work, then I immediately prepare a healthy dinner.
- If it’s 2pm later today, then I’ll get started with writing on my book.
5. Follow David Allen’s 2-Minute Rule
David Allen is a well-known productivity expert, author of Getting Things Done, and the inventor of the infamous 2-minute rule.
The rule states: If a task takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately.
This may not sound like a groundbreaking trick, but it makes a huge difference once you actually get in the habit of doing it. Instead of filling your mind or to-do list with a never-ending supply of small tasks, you knock them out the instant they appear.
Not only do you free up a lot of mental space and feel good for getting things done, but you simultaneously get in the habit of getting started and getting things out of the way. You’re literally retraining your mind to get started, complete tasks, and not procrastinate.
Here are some examples for when you could use the 2-minute rule:
- Instead of leaving your dishes in the sink for hours, wash them right after cooking or eating
- Instead of answering to a simple yes or no email “later”, do it immediately
- Instead of taking out the garbage “later”, do it right when the garbage bag is full
- Instead of paying your bills “at a more convenient time”, do it right after getting the invoice
Get in the habit of handling small tasks right when they pop up. This’ll give you a small, self-perpetuating sense of accomplishment, it’ll clear your mind, and it’ll get you in the habit of getting started and getting things done – a triple combo that can go a long way in reducing procrastination.
6. Use Mel Robbins’ 5-Second Rule
This rule is based on the premise that knowing what to do will never be enough. You know you should study more, exercise regularly, start a meditation practice, clean your house, etc. Despite knowing all of that, you still procrastinate.
What’s the problem here? According to Mel Robbins, a life coach and motivational speaker, it’s our feelings that get in the way. In other words, we just don’t feel like doing the things we know we should do. Sound familiar?
This problem is, of course, recognized by most people. And there exist already many solutions and tricks for overcoming it. Mel Robbins’ solution – the 5-second rule –, however, is particularly interesting and helpful for procrastinators.
Here’s what the rule states: “If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea.”
This has happened to me many times. I’d get the impulse to work on a project, feel great about it, and feel motivated. A couple of seconds or minutes later, after a quick bathroom break or whatever, the motivation already evaporated – the mind had already come up with a list of excuses as to why it’s not a good idea, and blablabla.
The solution? Take action faster. Do not let your mind come up with excuses. Do net let your mind talk you out of it. Just get started immediately. Out-trick your mind. Give yourself a countdown: 5-4-3-2-1-GET STARTED!
This helps you get started. And once you get started, good things start happening as discussed earlier.
7. Think Concrete
How you think about a task has an influence on whether you’re more or less likely to get started. There are two main ways of thinking that we need to investigate here: concrete versus abstract.
Abstract thinking is about the ‘why’ or the bigger context of an action or goal. When we’re in this mode of thinking, exercise, for example, is about improving health, having more energy, or feeling better about oneself.
Concrete thinking is about the ‘how’, the nitty-gritty, the specifics of an action or goal. When we’re in this mode of thinking, exercise is about lacing the running shoes, heading out the door, running in a park.
Research has found that thinking concretely can help us get started with a task and overcome procrastination. You can check out my complete article on thinking abstractly versus concretly for a breakdown of the studies and more details on the two modes of thinking.
For now, just know that thinking concretely helps you get started.
- If you want to vacuum the floor, you could think like this: “OK, I need to walk over to the closet, get the vacuum cleaner out, plug it in, turn it one, and start vacuuming.”
- If you want to start on a writing project, you could think like this: “All I need to do is sit down, turn on the laptop, load a word doc, and start typing.”
- If you want to meditate but don’t feel like it, you could think like this: “Alright, I just sit down, play the guided meditation, and follow the instructions. Simple enough.”
Thinking concretely helps you get focused on the specific steps, on exactly what you need to do. This pushes any thoughts and emotions of overwhelm, dread, anxiety, etc. out of your consciousness.
I use this strategy quite often and it works surprisingly well, so give it a try!
Getting started is one of the major reasons we procrastinate and paradoxically also an essential step to overcoming procrastination.
When we can’t get ourselves to begin, when we can’t overcome the initial resistance to a task, then we procrastinate. When we actually do get started on a task, we literally stop procrastination in its tracks.
Getting started, as I’ve argued in this article, is the #1 habit we need to cultivate if we want any chance of overcoming this dreadful habit.
When we get started, good things start happening. Pain almost instantly evaporates. The perception of the task changes – it’s not nearly as bad as we thought it would be. The perception of our self changes – we can do this. We start making progress, feel good about ourselves, are more optimistic, feel motivated, and ultimately end up in a powerful and self-perpetuating upward spiral, leading to more action, more progress, more optimism, more confidence, and more positive feelings down the road. Success breeds success. We’re well on our way to overcome procrastination and get big things done.
It all begins with getting started, with moving from non-doing to doing.
To make that happen, we’ve discussed seven practical strategies. Here they are again, with short explanations behind why they work…
- Breaking big projects down into small, actionable steps helps you fight overwhelm. Instead of worrying about the hundred things you might have to do, focus on the one thing you can get started on immediately. Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.
- Lowering your standards drastically reduces the resistance to getting started and helps you build consistency. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting a goal of meditating twenty minutes daily. Set a goal of meditating one minute daily.
- Focusing on the process reduces overwhelm and simplifies everything. Don’t allow yourself to worry about cleaning the whole house or studying for the next big exam. Focus on cleaning or studying for a certain amount of time instead. Trust the process, let the outcome take care of itself.
- Forming implementation intentions is about recruiting your unconscious mind as a potent ally. Simply define when, where, and how you want to get started and your unconscious mind will take care of the rest, detecting cues and directing your behavior even in your absence.
- The 2-minute rule helps you get started on small tasks, making it much more likely you’ll be able to get started on bigger tasks as well.
- The 5-second rule out-tricks your excuse-making mind and takes the guesswork out of getting started. Want to exercise, meditate, or write on your book project? Give yourself a 5-second countdown and get started. 5-4-3-2-1-GO!
- Thinking concretely helps you focus on the specifics – the exact steps of what you need to do. This simplifies things and pushes uncomfortable and overwhelming thoughts or emotions out of your consciousness, making it easier to get started.
Please give these tricks a try. I use them in my own life all the time and they work really, really well.
If you found this article useful, please let me know in the comments below. Also, feel free to ask any remaining questions or tell us about your best strategies to overcome procrastination. Thanks!
P.S. Want more tips to beat procrastination?
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