7 Tips for Avoiding Procrastination. Without Delay is the Easiest Way.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for avoiding procrastination.

Going to the gym. Practicing a new skill when you have no skill. Giving bad news. Dealing with tech support.

We all have to make ourselves do things that we just don’t want to do. Here are some tricks I’ve learned that help me power through the procrastination.

1. Do it first thing in the morning. If you’re dreading doing something, you’re going to be able to think of more creative excuses as the day goes along. One of my Twelve Personal Commandments is “Do it now.” Without delay is the easiest way.

2. If you find yourself putting off a task that you try to do several times a week, try doing it EVERY day, instead. When I was planning my blog, I envisioned posting two or three times a week. Then a blogger acquaintance convinced me that no, I needed to post every day. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I think it’s easier to do it every day (well, except Sundays) than fewer times each week. There’s no dithering, there’s no juggling. I know I have to post, so I do. If you’re finding it hard to go for a walk four times a week, try going every day.

3. Have someone keep you company. Studies show that we enjoy practically every activity more when we’re with other people. Having a friend along can be a distraction, a source of reassurance, or just moral support.

4. Make preparations, assemble the proper tools. I often find that when I’m dreading a task, it helps me to feel prepared. I’ll tell myself, “I don’t have to do X today, but I’ll get everything ready.” I gather up phone numbers, print-outs, read background information, etc. Dividing a tough task into preparation and execution makes it easier to tackle.

5. Commit. We’ve all heard the advice to write down your goals. This really works, so force yourself to do it. Usually this advice relates to long-term goals, but it works with short-term goals, too. On the top of a piece of paper, write, “By the end of today, I will have _____.” This also gives you the thrill of crossing a task off your list. (See below.)

6. First things first. That is, make sure you don’t use little tasks to push off big tasks. I find myself answering email instead of writing, or reading Twitter instead of logging in my research notes. These smaller tasks are important and worthwhile, but I shouldn’t use them to delay more taxing work.

7. Reflect on the great feeling you’ll get when you’ve finished. Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure. If you’re feeling blue, although the last thing you feel like doing is something you don’t feel like doing, push yourself. You’ll get a big lift from it.

What have I forgotten? What strategies do you use to stop procrastinating?

* Speaking of Twitter, I was thrilled to be included on Babble’s list of 50 Best Twitter Moms. Follow me on Twitter, @gretchenrubin.

* If you read this blog, and are wondering, in a nice way, why anyone would bother to pay for the book The Happiness Project when there’s so much material on the internet for free, you can check out a few sample chapters here. Reading the book really is very different from reading the blog. Here’s why.

  • Kismet Kate

    Wouldn’t you know that I clicked on your blog this morning because I wanted to avoid an icky work task. Thanks for the obviously needed tips on procrastination!

  • These are great tips. But I don’t think #2 would work for me. For example, I run several days a week, but if I forced myself to run every single day of the week, I would surely burn out. As for blogging, I would probably run out of ideas for posting every day. (Moderation is the key for me.)

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, it definitely doesn’t cover every situation. But in some cases, though
      not all, it’s easier to do something MORE often than LESS often, which took
      me a long time to realize.

      • Openfan

        It definitely applies to my history reading! You ve no idea how much I hated it before!!

  • Steve

    “Eat the frog first.”

    Do the thing that you least want to do before anything else.

  • Bill the Galactic Hero

    A few years ago when I was about to procrastinate about some dread task, I think it was putting away laundry, I was thinking to myself “I’ll just do this later.” Then for some reason I caught myself and thought in reply, “In what ways will this be any better done later?” I realized unsurprisingly that it indeed would not be any better, or make me any happier to postpone the task; so, I just did it.

    This has become my antiprocrastination mantra: “Will this truly make me happier done later than now?”

    • jenny_o

      I like this! Putting off a task can not only “not make things better”, but even make things worse, and it certainly makes me feel uncomfortable all the while I am procrastinating. Good mantra.

  • Tabitha

    For going to the gym, which I aim to do 4x/week, there are two big things I do to make myself do it:
    1) I give myself a sticker on the calendar each day I do it. This way I can track my progress for the week as well as the whole month.
    2) Whenever I think “I don’t want to go to the gym”, I remind myself to think “I want to have gone to the gym”. While the task itself is not particularly enjoyable, I do want it to be completed.

    • #2 is a great idea. I really like that!

      • Pam

        Love Love Love #2!!!!

  • Wonderful tips! I think the key for me is doing it first thing…I always come up with excuses as the day goes on. I never thought of doing a task everyday…like posting on your blog. Hmmm…I usually only post twice a week but it does seem like a big deal when I do. Posting daily? I wonder if I sould try it…not sure yet.

    Love your blog and your book. Congrats on being on the 50 Best Twitter Moms! Awesome:)

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks!! I so appreciate that.

      As an experiment, try posting every week day. See if it’s easier or harder.

  • Ian

    This is a great list of tips. I especially agree with having someone keep you company — it really provides that extra positive reinforcement to get things done (especially going to the gym).

    One thing I would add to the list would be: put down the computer. There are so many distractions (blogs!, facebook, twitter, etc) that I think they sap our focus. They may help organize our lives and keep us connected to one another, but I think long-term use of technology is only going to increase procrastination by decreasing focus.

  • BerniceWood

    OMG, it seems every post I have come across in the past day or two are screaming at me, “why are you putting off starting this project? you have wanted it for months, and you took the first step, why are you hesitating?”

    I guess I need to get of my rear and get moving with it!

  • Kris

    Gretchen, great tips! I have started walking again every morning and it sure is easier to do it every day than a few times a week. The ritual of it makes it habit forming. I just finished reading your book last week and I really enjoyed it! I encourage everyone on this blog to read it! Your personal stories to reiterate your points made it so fun to read and so easy to relate to. It’s really great to have your blog now to reinforce and remind me of what you wrote about. I look forward to starting my own happiness project and taking a look at your toolbox to get started. Kris

  • jenny_o

    #4 separate the preparations from the execution

    This has been most helpful to me when I am procrastinating either because the job looks so huge or because I am dreading some aspect of it that I find especially unpleasant.

    If I have a large job to do, it helps to reduce the effort at any one time.

    If I have a nerve-wracking phone call to make, it helps to get my thoughts in order if I find the phone number, write it down, and list the points I need to raise, all on a large, fresh sheet of paper so there is room for notes during the call.

    Quite often, once the preparation is done, it is easy to start the actual job – right away.

  • Ellen Delap

    Break into baby steps. When I am overwhelmed by how big a project is and how to do it, I like to map out my plan. It helps get started!

  • Mhalton

    I think that these are all worthwhile tips. One of the other things that I think is very helpful is, as my mother would say, “the only way to eat the elephant is one bite at a time” I think this is similar to #4 but I usually find that if I make my really big tasks into lists of smaller tasks they get done quicker because i do get satisfaction out of crossing things off my list.

  • Ben A.

    Great advice. It’s always amazing how hard it is to get started with something that you are dreading even if you know it won’t be that bad once you get going. It’s amazing how little things like “I’ll just check the news or market before I start my work” add up to wasting significant amounts of productive time, even when there is a scintillating activity waiting once all the work is done. The only tip I disagree with at all is the having someone keep you company. I am very adept at co-opting company to my nefarious ends and using them as an excuse not to get work done. Frequently I can even imagine a benevolent or unselfish reason to use them as a sidetrack.

  • I would add to this list, “Ask for help.” The tasks I procrastinate are the ones where I feel that I don’t know what I’m doing and am scared of doing a bad job. So much advice on procrastination takes some form of “don’t be a perfectionist, just do it” but you know what, there are times when you really AREN’T equipped for the task alone, even if everyone around you seems to assume you are. (Most likely they are not making any judgment one way or another, they just haven’t given it much thought.)

    It has taken me 35 years to learn that, if I find myself dreading tackling something new and difficult, I need to get over my ego and ask for help – and keep asking until I get help, not take “you’re smart, figure it out” for an answer. Sometimes your “procrastination” is trying to tell you something.

  • CSE

    It was once recommended to me as a chronic procrastinator to try to “time block” — that is, tell yourself you will do this one task for 30 mins and then you can stop/break, even if the task is not complete. (Naturally, you must employ this technique prior to 30 mins before a firm deadline.) I’ve found procrastinating for me is generally about avoiding beginning something, so this personal bargain technique helps me to start — and if you start something a few times, you finish it! Also, once started, you often go for more than the allotted 30 minutes and occasionally finish in one sitting.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great technique. Many writers, especially, use this one.

  • actuary

    I read somewhere how you should do the first physical action required. As in: go to the computer, press the key, etc. Sometimes that one tiny physical action, followed by the next tiny physical action, really helps.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great suggestion. I’m going to start trying this.

    • MartyH

      You can also trick yourself. Tell yourself that you’re just going to do the first step, say look up the number you need to call. Often, you will then make the call. Another example is to just get out the folder for the project you need to work on so it will be handy. You’ll find yourself reviewing it and getting ideas and off you go working on the task.

  • ks

    My friends gush about how much I get done in a day, but I actually think of myself as being very lazy (hee, hee). I get it all done because I don’t want to be bothered by it again or have to keep thinking about it and feeling guilty!

    I think another challenge for procrastinators is that they often are perfectionists. I’m all about getting my tasks done in a way that is good enough for ME to feel satisfied with the result–and my standards obviously vary from task to task. My motto: Good enough is PERFECT!

    • gretchenrubin

      Or as Voltaire put it, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

  • Criss

    Thanks Gretchen for this post. It seems like my 26th birthday present! First thing in the morning, I asked God to help me deal with procrastination and look at what I find just minutes later.
    Another great strategy is meditation, it helps to find focus, concentrate and be present. Also, I love this words from a Canadian writer: “Wishin’ and wantin’ won’t cut the mustard”
    Thanks Gretchen!!!

  • Cruella

    Things that I put in my status line on Facebook usually get done!

  • I like #7 – it’s a great technique for motivation on demand that I use successfully with my clients.

    Another thing that I learned from Tony Robbins is to link more pain with not doing the thing I’m avoiding, then the pain I will feel if I do it.

    An extreme example of this would be if you needed to checkup on a relative , but you keep putting it off because it takes tiem and you’re ‘busy’ – think about the VERY realistic posibility that they may not be there tomorrow – when you get around to actually calling them… I know it’s extreme, but it hopefully illustrates the technique.

    Great points Gretchen – thank you 🙂

  • amourpropre

    I agree with first thing in the morning for exercise, laundry, housework or anything else that benefits from a little caffeine zing. Also, if I wait too long to run, it gets pretty darn warm 3/4 of the year (in Texas) and that’s just one more reason to balk. For swimming laps, I have to wait til lunchtime for the pool to open in the off-season, so to prevent any waffling about going, I pack my swim bag and leave it prominently by the front door. I also know from long experience that I will – always – feel better afterward. That’s a powerful push out the door.

    As for the e-distractions, yes, they are too many, and I actually work best when my Internet connection is down (which happens too often lately to be funny, but…). Revealing. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to it.

  • I do a couple of different things.
    1. Telling my husband that I’m going to do something helps, because then I want him to see me follow through.
    2. If I don’t want to do something, I’ll tell myself, “I don’t have to finish it. I’ll just start, maybe work on it for 5 minutes.” Then, once I get started, it’s easier to keep going and keep telling myself, 5 more minutes.
    3. I also try not to overload myself. If I have a two-page long to-to list, I can feel so overwhelmed that I don’t get anything done. I try not to have more than 3 or 4 items a day on my list, and I often get more than that done because I’ve relieved the pressure.

  • ace

    Tip #4, “make preparations,” really works. Prepwork is often the most time-consuming part of a job. One example is cooking dinner . If I just get over the hump by getting the prepwork started, often the task does not seem daunting anymore. Often I will do all the chopping and measuring early in the day, and then when dinnertime comes it’s just a quick 10 minutes to throw it all together.

  • Sarah Pasetto

    regarding studying habits, as a law student (and, currently, clerk).. well, i’m sure i don’t have to remind you of the never-ending reading. when i come across an especially tedious piece, i try to remind myself that nothing is actually boring itself; rather, it was probably not written in an engaging way. that gives me the motivation to go ahead and read the piece, and think of how it could have been made more interesting. i get the reading done, with the bonus of understanding it better the first time round.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, I remember the endless reading for law school very well! A happiness

  • Nice post! 🙂 I love your references to studies and I’d be interested in researching those further, although it makes complete sense that we prefer tasks with other people and hitting goals makes us feel better. 🙂

  • MartyH

    Mark Forster suggests finding things you want to do even less (or things that are harder or cause more internal resistance) and putting them on your list with the thing you are procrastinating about. This uses the tendency to procrastinate to your advantage. See more here: http://www.markforster.net/blog/2007/8/1/procrastination-buster.html

  • Thanks Gretchen – good stuff as usual. Something caught my eye “logging research notes”.. do you have a specific process for this? I’d be interested. Maybe in another post?

  • sugar_pumpkin

    One trick I use to avoid procrastination is to commit myself to working uninterrupted for 15 minutes. This means no phone calls, texts, emails, picking up clutter around the house etc. I read somewhere that after 15 minutes of the task-related activity you tend not to be in the same mental state. It works for me as I find I am inclinded to want to keep going on the task at hand.

  • Modupe Sanda

    Tip #3, Have someone keep you company, usually works well for me. I guess misery does love company. Lol

  • Clayton_Elliott

    I procrastinate too much when it comes to writing and blogging. I love your suggestion to blog everyday. No matter what, it’s gotta get done! And I also like the idea of doing things early in the morning. I’ve heard this a lot so I think it’s time I start implementing it. Great post Gretchen!

  • I procrastinate too much when it comes to writing and blogging. I love
    your suggestion to blog everyday. No matter what, it’s gotta get done!
    And I also like the idea of doing things early in the morning. I’ve
    heard this a lot so I think it’s time I start implementing it. Great
    post Gretchen!

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  • Sarah

    I am putting off what I should be doing NOW by reading these comments!

  • Mohd Mujahed
  • This has really added to my self-help therapy. I would also add that if a task can be done in less than 5 minutes, then just do it right away. (Unless doing so is a way of avoiding more important things.)