Five Proven Methods to Help You Crush Procrastination

DarrylBrooks by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

In Frank Dune’s classic science fiction series, ‘Dune’, there was a litany often used by the Bene Gesserit priests, “Fear is the Mind Killer.” But for the rest of us mortals, I would put forth this version:

Procrastination is the Mind Killer.

We get our heads so full of the things we should do and are not doing that we end up doing nothing.

I’ll quote one more fantasy novel, then we’ll get into reality. In Richard Adams’s novel ‘Watership Down,’ fear would overcome the rabbits, so they would, “go tharn.” They became so frozen by indecision about the car about to run them down, fear would paralyze them and they would do nothing.

Needless to say, that didn’t end well.

And while we won’t get run over by our indecision, sometimes it feels that way. Life mows us over while we sit there with the deer in the headlights look, motionless.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This article will give you five easy ideas to crush procrastination.

Set up for morning the night before

An important step in making your morning routine work is set up for it the night before. A good morning routine is critical for a productive day. It will help you ease into the morning and set the mood for the rest of the day. And if you do it right, it can stop the first procrastination of the day, which is picking up your phone and scrolling through emails and social media. In my article, On How To Start Your Day I described a morning routine, and one of the key elements in that plan was leaving your phone and tablet in another room.

Jumping into emails first thing in the morning might seem like the opposite of procrastination, but it just enables you to put off doing what you should be doing. It will also invariably lead to surfing the internet and wasting time on Facebook. Leave your devices in another room and start your day right.

For this to work, you need to get through your morning routine with a clear mind. So, setting up the night before requires making expectations for the next day. Get your inbox to zero, deleting the wasteful, filing the useful, and scheduling the needful. Make sure that your list for the next day is in order and there is nothing on it before your morning routine. Better yet, make your morning routine the first thing on your list. That way, once you get to your devices, the first thing you get to do is check off a task. And that will empower you and give you momentum for the rest of the day.

The last thing you do the night before is the next thing on this list, which is…

Clear the decks

One major contributing factor to procrastination is clutter. Clutter in your house, clutter on your desk, and clutter on your computer. So the way to fight this is to clear the decks. Every time you finish a task, clear everything and get ready for the next thing.

When you finish your workday, before you leave your desk, tidy it up. Some people appear to work well in chaos, but I believe that appearances are deceiving. If you can’t find what you need to be working on, you will put it off until it magically appears. At the end of every day, put everything where it belongs. File papers in their proper folders and file them away. Transfer your hastily scribbled notes into your note-taking app, task management software, and calendar. In short, put everything in its place. Close all your browser tabs. Shut down all software.

Clear the decks.

Your tomorrow self will thank you, and it will crush another procrastination enabler.

Know what’s next

Okay, I lied. One more quote and then I’m done. At the end of the first episode of West Wing, the last line of the show was President Bartlett saying, “Mrs. Landingham, what’s next?”

Most of us don’t have a Mrs. Landingham, so we don’t know what’s next. And not knowing the next thing will lead to procrastination. But in today’s digital society, there is no reason not knowing the next thing you need to be doing. There are many great methodologies out there for keeping track of, and knowing what’s next, including:

David Allen’s Getting Things Done

Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain

These and other systems all follow the same basic principles.

Get it out of your head.

Store it someplace you can quickly access it.

Prioritize it so you will always know what’s next.

Of course, you can use paper to achieve this and there are paper tools out there that do a great job, going all the way back to 1947 when Day-Timer began producing their excellent products. In fact, Day-Timer was my first organization tool in the 1980s.

But the ability to store, sort, and retrieve data digitally is so great that it makes more sense. I will not go into all the products available as there are so many, and everyone has a favorite. But basically, you need three applications. They can be all-in-one, or, as I do it, stand-alone products.

A note-taking and file storage app such as Evernote, OneNote, NimbusNote, Google Keep or Dropbox.

A project and task management app such as Todoist, Outlook or TickTick.

A calendar app, such as Google Calendar, Apple Calendar, or Outlook Calendar.

Some of these can do more than one thing, or all three. There are also apps such as Notion that claims to do it all. But, for me, finding an app that does one thing and does it well works best. Everyone’s style is different, so find the app that thinks as you do. In case you are wondering, (and actually even if you are not), I use Evernote, TickTick, and Google Calendar.

The websites linked above and others like them can explain the process in much greater detail than I’m going to here, but the basic process is:

Get every thought, idea, email, and directive out of your head immediately. This is best achieved by having one dumping ground for everything; a sort of digital inbox.

At the very least, daily, empty that inbox. If it’s trash, delete it. If it’s something you might want to do or review in the future, file it away. If you can do if it in less than two minutes, do it and forget about it. If it’s a task, add it to the appropriate place in your task list or calendar, along with the proper due date and priority.

And that task list is the key to this whole anti-procrastination kingdom. If done properly, at any point in your day, you will immediately know what’s next.

This isn’t just about efficiency and productivity, however. Knowing what’s next, and more importantly, knowing that you know what’s next will free your mind. Instead of worrying about the hundred things you need to do, you only have to worry about what’s next. And that, friends, is the ultimate procrastination crusher.

What makes using digital tools so great is, it is easy to access this information. Any good app will have a widget so that with a glance at your phone, you can see a tiny piece of your task list and calendar. As soon as you finish a task, clear the decks, put that thought out of your mind and get on to, you guessed it, what’s next.

Another great tool I have been using lately is a new tab extension for my browser. There are several good ones including, Organiseme, Homely, and iChrome, but what they all do is change the behavior of a new tab in your browser. Instead of a blank screen or a search engine, it presents you with, yep, what’s next. These extensions can have built-in task lists, display the one you are already using, or have links to your productivity apps. So, even if you do try to slip away in the middle of the day for a little web surfing, it immediately shows you what you should be doing.

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Big rocks into little rocks

Back when chain gangs were a thing, a new prisoner would be told that their job for the foreseeable future was turning big rocks into little rocks.

And that’s a major aspect of crushing procrastination. Having some huge project looming over your head can be paralyzing. You don’t know where to start or how to accomplish it, so you do nothing.

But the project doesn’t go away.

The key to fighting that paralysis is breaking the big rocks into little rocks.

Let’s say, Mr. Slate, your boss at Slate Rock and Gravel Company, calls you into the office and says, “Fred, build me a house.” (Sorry, I can’t help myself).

Unless you have built houses before, this could seem like an enormous undertaking with no clear way to begin.

So you procrastinate.

But if you break the big project up into little tasks, not only does it become manageable, but at any time, you know the answer to our favorite question.

Here’s a trick I used when I first started doing project management. After a while, it became second nature, so I don’t have to go through it, but it’s a handy tip. This method uses Microsoft products, but I’m sure other office suites have similar functionalities.

Open up a blank Word document and go to the View tab and select Outline. Now you are using the old outline forms you probably remember from high school, with headers starting with Roman numerals, then Capital letters, then normal numbers, etc. Break the project up into the largest chunks you can come up with. Don’t spend too much time thinking about it, just get started. For Mr. Slate’s house, it might begin with something like:

I Clear lot

II Build foundation

III Frame house

IV Construct roof

Then, with each heading, you drop a level and create at least two sub-headings under each one. Repeat the process until you can’t break a task down any further. So now, instead of building a house, you need to buy a shovel. Not only is it an easy task, but it’s also not something you’re likely to procrastinate on. Buy a shovel. Yeah, I can do that.

If you want to get fancy, (but don’t let it turn into a form of procrastination), you can copy the whole thing into an Excel spreadsheet. Then, in the second column, you enter the time it would take. Buy a Shovel: 30 minutes. If you do that and document the dependencies and the resources (you in this case), you will end up with a Gantt chart similar to what you could get out of Microsoft Project. Dependencies are tasks that can’t be done before another is complete. For instance, you can’t frame the house until the foundation is complete. But you could paint the exterior and install plumbing in any order.

That example is taking it to an extreme, but it will work with any project. Clean out the garage may seem like a daunting effort. But buying plastic bins is not.

Turn big rocks into little rocks.

Build in downtime

Okay, you’ve carved all those big ugly projects into little tasks. You cleared the decks yesterday and started your day off right.

You know what’s next.

So you dive in, get started, and have the most productive day ever.

Then the next day, you’re so worn out, you don’t even have the energy to buy a shovel.

What went wrong?

You didn’t have any downtime.

Having time for yourself and doing things you enjoy doing is just as important as staying focused. If you cannot do so, this whole productivity house of cards will come tumbling down.

So plan for it.

There are two ways to approach this:

Plan downtime.

Don’t fill up your day.

I actually do both. First, I’ll cover the don’t fill up your day method. I break my day into chunks of time. Since I’m an early riser, these chunks start early, but you do you. My time blocks are 5–8 am, 8–11 am 1–4 pm and Evening. You will notice, there’s already one big gap in the schedule. Unless there’s something on the calendar, I leave 11–1 free every day. That’s when I have lunch, run errands and take a walk. For people used to taking a thirty-minute lunch break, this may seem huge. But I guarantee you, if you follow all the methods outlined here, your day will be much more productive than your current grind.

And it will be more fun.

In each of the three-hour blocks, I schedule only 2 hours’ worth of tasks. These three-time windows, along with what I get done in the evening, usually exceed an 8-hour workday, but it’s 8 hours of work. Once I finish the tasks in each block, the rest of that period is playtime. I can surf, play a game, take another walk, whatever. When it’s time to work, work.

The other part is planning downtime. In my article Do This Once an Hour, I outlined a process I use. When I start the day at 5 am, I also start by Pomodoro timer. I do not set mine traditionally, although the Pomodoro Method, is another tried-and-true productivity tool. Mine is simpler. Twenty minutes of work, followed by twenty seconds of rest. Because of the limit of my timer, the break is actually a minute, but I make sure I spend half of that time staring out the window. This is to rest my eyes.

The timer spans both my work and play times as I am usually looking at a screen, regardless. The primary purpose of the break, and where the 20 seconds comes from, is to follow the 20–20–20 rule. This makes sure you rest your eyes throughout the day. Since my timer is squandering the other 40 seconds, I use that for stretching, walking around the office, or a quick bathroom break.

Procrastination is stressful. And stress leads to procrastination. It’s a vicious cycle, but one you can easily break. If you put off what you need to do, paralyzed by indecision, or, if you are a rabbit, going tharn, follow these five easy ideas to help you crush procrastination.

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I am a writer with over 16 years of experience and hundreds of articles. I write about photography, productivity, life skills, money management and much more.

Alpharetta, GA

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